“Say cheese!” I lift the camera to my eyes and snap a picture, capturing the moment forever. The dozen or so Caribbean kids and visiting volunteers relax their poses and give goodbye hugs to one another. A handful of Rotary Club members from St. Catharines, Ontario visits the island of Sint Maarten regularly, bringing donations of books and their time to the at-risk kids at the afterschool program where I spend most of my afternoons. The kids look forward to their visits — they receive needed school supplies and sports equipment, and they get a window to another part of the world when they sit one-on-one with the volunteers, reading or working on homework. 

The Canadian Rotarians are not the only ones who travel for the purpose of volunteering. “Voluntourism,” as it is often called, is a popular mode of travel for socially-conscious people who want to put their vacation dollars towards saving animals or building houses rather than on room service.

Voluntourism can be a benefit to communities, but if done improperly, it can actually be more harmful than helpful. And unfortunately, it can be hard for an outsider to know the difference. So what can socially-conscious travelers do to make sure their efforts make a positive, rather than a negative, impact? 

Photo: Breana Johnson
Photo: Breana Johnson

In Sint Maarten, you’re bound to see collection cans at the counters of restaurants, requesting not tips, but pop-top lids from empty soda cans. The kids from the afterschool program have placed them there, and they use the pop-tops to raise money for charity. This project was started by the visiting Rotarians, and it helps the youth organization’s mission to teach kids social responsibility. 

The pop-top project is a great example of a good voluntourism project. It’s sustainable, it allows for the locals to own responsibility, and it doesn’t damage the local economy. The same can’t be said of all voluntourism activities; for example, consider building projects in third-world countries that overstep the local needs and end up hurting business for local suppliers and builders. Or, ongoing developmental projects that create dependency on Western-based organizations rather than fostering better-equipped independence among the locals. This is not to say that most building or development projects are bad, but that it’s wise to do your research and be selective with which organization you choose to volunteer with. 

What should you look for in a program? First, find one that involves local leadership, or at least expats who live there long-term. Nobody knows the needs of a community like someone who is part of it. Secondly, find out if the organization sources supplies from local vendors. Third, do some digging. Is the organization primarily a tourist-focused organization, hoping to make you feel good about yourself, or is it first and foremost a humanitarian organization?

Medical student volunteering on a research project. Photo: Breana Johnson
Medical student volunteering on a research project. Photo: Breana Johnson

As the Rotarians fly back to Ontario, they aren’t checking off their good deed for the year and posting feel-good photos on social media. They’re off to plan their next trip, and in the meantime, write letters to the kids to hear news about the pop-top project. They understand something I didn’t truly learn until years after I went on my first voluntourism trip: it’s not about the volunteer. It’s about what you’re leaving behind. 

What sorts of projects accomplish this, and which fail? Let’s take a look at some popular voluntourism vacations. 

First, building projects. I have been on several of these, and have seen the pros and cons. The pros are mostly for the travelers. Personally, I am thankful that my parents drove me down to Mexico when I was a teen so I could see what life is like outside of my suburban bubble. The project had benefits for the recipient family, too. The house might not have been built without the outside labor — people are more inclined to spend a grand building a house instead of donating a grand to have one built.

However, I’ve also been part of building projects from the administrative end, and seen how little time and money it actually takes to build these houses with local labor. And let’s face it — tradesmen do a heck of a lot better job than high school students. If you want to really make a difference through building projects, my suggestion would be to either go to a region where disasters have created a need for emergency labor, or learn a specialized skill to bring with you. 

Visiting orphanages is another popular activity. I’m very uncomfortable with this, to be honest. Why would a local orphanage need a bunch of foreigners who speak another language to come teach Vacation Bible School or play with kids? Although I have never participated in this kind of voluntourism, to me it seems that there is a problem with introducing kids to a revolving door of foreigners. They need relationships and stability, not new faces each week. May I be so bold as to suggest that if you have a heart for orphans and want to make a difference — go adopt one. 

Conservational projects also seem to be climbing in popularity. I’ll admit that I am not as familiar with this type of voluntourism, but I am still aware of some of the risks and benefits. The major risk, in my opinion, is that you’re not really making a difference; you’re simply wearing a “volunteer” t-shirt while feeding an elephant. Although if it doesn’t hurt the animal and it’s fun for you, there’s no harm done! The best way to really make a difference, though, is to do your research and choose an organization that focuses on conservation and offers voluntourism on the side to help with efforts that need a few extra hands. 

Photo: Breana Johnson
Photo: Breana Johnson

If you are committed to making a lasting difference far from home, here are a couple of suggestions. First, get trained in something. Nurses, lawyers, and pilots are always in high demand. The second way is to make a long-term commitment. Rather than spending a week or a summer abroad, join a non-governmental association (NGO) such as Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, or International Justice Mission.  

While there are pitfalls, spending your time and money bettering communities is an excellent way to use your time off. What I hope to leave you with is an awareness of the fact that all voluntourism opportunities are not created equal. By all means, make this world a better place during your vacation! Just be careful that you’re not making yourself feel good, but actually doing good. 

Author volunteering with animals.
Author volunteering with animals.