Photo: michael jung/Shutterstock

Feeling the Urge to Do Good Abroad? Here's How Volunteer Agencies Are Taking Advantage of You

United States Activism
by Eric Hartman Nov 24, 2015

1. They make you think your money is going towards community-based organizations, when in reality, it might not be.

Most short-term volunteers work through an intermediary organization. At best, these organizations serve as the ethically-grounded connective tissue between the people who wish to do good and the small, community-based organizations (CBOs) that don’t have the capacity to recruit volunteers.

Intermediary organizations may be for-profit or non-profit, but they’re all part of the $173 billion global travel and tourism sector. Within that sector, industry leaders have identified international volunteering as a high growth market.

Depending on the financial model, the CBO may receive a donation with each volunteer or room-and-board revenues, or they may experience no clear financial benefit. The CBO, like the intermediary, is part of the financial puzzle that is the rapidly growing $2.8 billion global voluntourism sector.

What to do: Organizations committed to investing in community development offer fair wages in volunteer-receiving communities. Demand full transparency in respect to your program fee, and compare financial models across organizations. The cheapest model is not necessarily the best.

2. They prey on your personal aspirations to offer work that isn’t actually needed.

Here’s one example: a student who wants to get into medical school is told that with just a bit of training, they offer a “best option” for developing country communities. The student then pays for a trip that allows them to feel like they’ve made a difference and gained clinical experience that will advance their career.

But often, these clinical interventions take place in ways that bypass and undermine existing health systems in developing countries. They are at odds with broadly accepted medical ethics and, in multiple instances, have harmed patients. In response, medical doctors and other global health leaders have formed the GASP Working Group to discourage pre-professional medical volunteering. Even if it’s possible to get around the legal constraints (in most countries, it is not legal to provide medical care without a license), it is well outside the parameters of accepted professional behavior.

Professionals in child development and well-being see the same pattern at play in respect to volunteering in orphanages. Some volunteer companies and local organizations create orphanages in order to give you – the paying customer – the volunteer experience you desire. This is harmful to children.

What to do: Avoid volunteer opportunities that position you as the intervention without an understanding of the existing family, community, and social welfare systems that do actually exist in every country in the world.

3. They disguise themselves as organizations acting in “service” when really, they are just like any other business.

As the desire for international volunteering has expanded, many businesses and unscrupulous nonprofits have entered the sector. It is certainly possible for businesses to responsibly adhere to social benefit principles. Yet it’s not clear that all of these businesses and nonprofits are of that ilk. Marketing machines must only sell the idea of doing good to consumers, not the actual meaning behind their work.

What to do: Do all you can to educate yourself on the international volunteering sector and what to avoid, so that you can increase the odds you actually do make a positive difference with your international volunteering experience.

Discover Matador