To help you become a more responsible traveler in 2018 I’ve launched a monthly series of Responsible Travel Challenges. Each month will focus on an ethical change you can make to your travel style that will benefit the communities you visit and ultimately our precious planet. Each detailed guide will contain specific tips on how to be a more responsible traveler. Adhere to these suggestions to make an impact as you travel.
MAY RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL CHALLENGE: HOW TO BE AN ETHICAL VOLUNTEER
This month’s responsible travel challenge is dedicated ethical volunteering overseas. Let’s discuss the difference between skilled-based experteers and voluntourism. This topic is quite controversial and many don’t want to consider that their humanitarian attempts may do more harm than good. Short-term volunteer vacations typically incorporate more tourism than volunteering and don’t make a lasting impact on the host community. Conde Nast Traveler takes down ‘trips with benefits‘ with compelling arguments about the negative impact of voluntourism. Follow this responsible travel challenge and avoid becoming a do-gooder which is defined as a “well-meaning but unrealistic or interfering philanthropist.” Here’s what to consider before accepting a volunteer role overseas to ensure that you’re an ethical volunteer.
How can your unique experience benefit the organization?
Does the organization have a specific need for volunteers with your skill set? Consider whether you’re able to make a real contribution. To make the biggest impact through your pro bono identify a grassroots organization that can benefit from your expertise. Listen to what the charity tells you is needed, not just what you want to contribute. Ethical volunteers will prioritize the needs of the community before their own needs in order to make the most measurable impact. Only accept volunteer opportunities with organizations that seek highly-skilled volunteers. If there isn’t a strict criteria to meet or no experience necessary than it’s probably not an ethical volunteer opportunity. If you’re uncertain ask the charity if your work will continue to benefit the local community after you leave.
If you aren’t a trained teacher do you really have any business accepting a role as an English teacher? Consider how being under qualified can actually hinder instead of help marginalized youth. I’m always shocked how many non-native teenage English ‘teachers’ I meet while traveling. My friend Lena explains the danger of unqualified teachers on How Not To Travel Like a Basic Bitch.
Don’t volunteer with children unless you can commit to a long-term project and have been educated in social services and childcare. There are many fake orphanages scamming well-meaning volunteers and keeping children deliberately in awful conditions, many are involved in sex-trafficking and put the very children they ‘serve’ at-risk of becoming sex slaves. Sometimes the children aren’t actually family-less at all. If you’re trained to work with children make sure to do your due diligence to confirm that the orphanage is ethical.
You should also beware of exploitative animal sanctuaries. The same sentiments that apply to seeking out responsible wildlife experiences as a tourist apply for volunteer opportunities with animals. To learn more check out the January Responsible Travel Challenge: Ethical Animal Encounters.
If you’re a trained medical practitioner and are considering a medical mission don’t miss this earnest appraisal from Two Dusty Travelers. Professional photographers and videographers can contribute to organizations around the world by joining Photographers Without Borders. There are of course many other fields of volunteer work but those mentioned above seem to be the most common.
Is the role you’re offered one that could be completed by a local?
Are you taking away a job from a local? Some grassroots charities have a very small budget and can’t afford to expand their business development team. But if you’re considering an opportunity on Workaway, Worldpackers, or Help X that involves organizing parties, housekeeping, cleaning, etc., you’re likely taking away a job opportunity from a local person who could fill the role at a fair local wage. For instance, if you’re building a home, are you certain you aren’t taking jobs away from locals by offering to do this service for free?
How much time can you commit?
If you’re limited to less than a month consider if you can really make a lasting change during that period of time? Generally the more long-term a project, the better. If not you may want to find other ways to support local charities by making donations, purchasing their crafts, eating at their training cafes, or booking community-based impact travel experiences on i like local, Get Your Guide, Lokal Travel, Take Me Tour, Where Sidewalks End, Viator, or Klook. If you’re going on a short-term project do you feel that you’ll be able to benefit the community? If you only have a week (or less) to volunteer it’s better to take on a project that is behind the scenes such as administrative work, fundraising, or planning.
What is the impact of this project?
How has the charity measured their success? How do they evaluate the needs of the community they serve? Does the community actively participate in the project and support their efforts? Ask as many critical questions as possible to gauge the impact of the organization before accepting a volunteer role. What are their qualifications? The United Nations (UN) has vetted many organizations and operates a volunteer program which you can learn more about here. It isn’t a red flag if they aren’t associated with the UN though. Check to see if they’re supported by other humanitarian groups such as UNESCO, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or other partners that are highly respectable in the nonprofit field.
Has the organization been mentioned in the media in a positive light?
Google the organization and select the ‘News’ dropdown to easily see if they’ve been featured in the media in a positive or negative light. If they haven’t had good press don’t automatically take that as a bad sign, many grassroots orgs may not have a communication officer or the know-how about how to spread awareness about their projects. Also, check out the organization’s social media channels. Are they sensitive about what content they share on their feed? Do the images or stories they share help or hinder the issue they’re aiming to reduce? Are they exploiting their beneficiaries or respecting their privacy?
Can you speak with past volunteers to learn about their experiences?
See how they felt about the organization after actually being on the ground. Ask about how they contributed to the orgs projects and what they learned during their experience. Did they witness anything during their time that was upsetting about the way the organization was run? Take their feedback with a grain of salt though but keep your ears open for anything that seems like an abuse of funds, exploiting beneficiaries, or makes the org seem like a business, not a charity. You’ll get more honest insight from past volunteers than you will with reviews from various websites.
How does the charity utilize funding?
Any nonprofit should be very transparent in the distribution of their funds. Ask for a specific breakdown of where the money goes, especially overhead and the administration costs. Usually, admin costs should be under 20%, this is the funding that goes towards paying staff, bills, maintaining supplies, etc. Regarding finances, also ask who their donors are? Are they mainly individuals or large corporations? Do the donors have any sort of control over the way the projects are organized or do they leave this in the hands of locals who are experts in what their community needs are? If you’re paying a program fee ask exactly what the fee covers and where the money is going. Is it partially a contribution? Does the fee cover your room and board? Is the fee to cover administrative costs? For additional vetting do your own research to see if the organization has received any sort of awards, grants, or other recognitions.
What are the expectations of you as a volunteer?
Ask about the structure of the volunteer program, daily routine, how you can measure your success, how you can best prepare before arriving. Similarly, identify your own expectations of the project, and yourself. Know that you’ll probably change yourself more than you’ll change the word. Ask about your resources in-country, where you’ll be sleeping if accommodation is provided, and if your dietary needs can be met if meals are provided. Check in with yourself mentally to make sure you’re prepared to see a way of life you may not be used to, and if you’re able to separate your western standards from your perception of local life where you’re volunteering.
Are you overwhelmed by the rigorous vetting that needs to be done in order to ensure the volunteer role you accept overseas is ethical?
It can be easy to accidentally fall into a voluntourism trap. I’ve found a responsible travel startup that is transparent about their fees and committed to supporting grassroots organizations around the globe–Venture With Impact (VWI). I’ve been collaborating with them in Chiang Mai, Thailand in order to vet VWI personally before recommending them as a resource for those of you who don’t have the ability to research volunteer opportunities, sort out local housing, and crave to be around a community of like-minded individuals. The VWI program is an excellent option for remote professionals who already travel full-time and are looking to make a direct contribution in their next destination or those who are interested in trying out the digital nomad lifestyle but want to give back as they do so. Currently, VWI offers volunteers the opportunities to lend their expertise to grassroots organizations in Colombia, Thailand, or Portugal. If you’re interested in going on a trip with Venture With Impact please contact me directly and I’ll refer you: firstname.lastname@example.org.
VWI is a for-profit social enterprise that operates with a small fully-remote team so they don’t have any office rental fees or overhead beyond paying fair wages to the management team and local interns in each of their locations. The program fee for the month-long skills-based volunteering includes a variety of things such as rent in a modern apartment, high-speed internet, an in-destination coordinator, and any volunteering fees collected by the NGO. About 40% of the fee is used for turning a small profit, covering overhead costs, paying local coordinators, and salaries for less than 5 full-time staff members with fair wages.
All VWI volunteers support locally operated grassroots organizations over well-recognized development projects. These smaller nonprofits generally have a greater need for skills-based volunteers and make a direct impact on the communities they serve. Grassroots organizations tend to have sustainable and lasting effects due to their local knowledge of the community needs. VWI seeks projects that are run and managed by the local community–ethical programs should hire locals whenever possible, including leadership positions. By volunteering with grassroots-level nonprofits VWI ensures that contributions are a part of a community-driven effort that will have a lasting effect long after you’re gone.
VWI spends months in each location meeting with NGOs, nonprofits, and community-based organizations to determine their need for volunteers and personally vet each of their projects to ensure they’re making a lasting impact. Since VWI launched in 2016 they’ve helped connect experts in their relevant field to over 50 organizations. Each volunteer is individually placed with organizations where their skill set can be best utilized. The charity chooses the volunteer, not vice versa. Most attendees of the program are in their early thirties and already well established in their careers. Past volunteers have shared that they joined the program as they wanted to try something new and be able to make a difference with the skills they’ve developed through pro bono social impact work. The altruistic program allows volunteers to have flexible schedules with their volunteer hours but implores that the more time you’re able to offer, the more impactful contribution you can make.
Here in Thailand, the organizations vary from homeless service centers, foster care programs, and organic agriculture methods as a means of employment for rural villagers. I’m helping the nonprofit Life Development Center create an agrotourism program at their integrated farmland in Chiang Dao. The project isn’t live yet and I’ll update this post with links to book once it is. In the meantime you can stay at the farm by booking their bungalow on Airbnb, 100% of profits are channeled back into the charity. You can save US$40 off your first booking of US$75 (or €32 towards your first trip of €61) on Airbnb and by using my referral link at no charge to the charity.
LDC has been working with marginalized rural communities in northern Thailand since 1994 to develop sustainable projects that protect the environment and provide income generation. They’re a registered public interest group in Thailand and aim to improve tribal people’s living and environmental conditions. In addition to developing the tools to implement agrotourism at their farms, I’m providing the grassroots organization marketing direction, applying for donations/grants, and editing their proposals for donors and volunteers. The idea is to provide them with documents they can continue to use after my volunteer role to reach new advocates.
Additional resources to prepare for your volunteer role
Once you’ve selected a volunteer role you’ll need to make sure you have the finances to provide for yourself during the duration of your trip. There are many blog posts on how to prepare both financially and mentally so I’ll leave it to you to find that information elsewhere. Fly for Good offers discounted airfare for international volunteers but be sure to compare the rates with Skyscanner to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
Travel insurance is generally required when volunteering overseas, and for good reason. As always, it’s important to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I highly recommend World Nomads for personal insurance as they offer great coverage and have a user-friendly system for making claims.
If you’d like to further your understanding of the needs in underserved areas and overseas volunteering I’d recommend purchasing these Kindle books to read before you volunteer.
Your desire to use your time to serve others is admirable. I hope you’ll take into consideration everything detailed here to identify an international project that has a sustainable impact. This is easier said than done, especially considering that the volunteer tourism industry is now worth $2 billion annually. You can either do this yourself or leave it in the trusted hands of Venture With Impact.
Have you had an ethical volunteer experience? Or, have you volunteered and then realized that the organization wasn’t making a real impact? Tell us about your experiences in the comments so we can all learn from each other.
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