Recently, Travelocity announced the relaunch of its “#travelforgood” grant program. The program awards three philanthropic travelers with a $20,000 voluntourism trip to any destination of their choice, along with a $10,000 donation to the winner’s non-profit. 

Of course, international volunteering has been critiqued before, and unfortunately, many of the critiques boil down to two simplistic opposing views: either “all international volunteering is bad” or “It can’t really hurt, can it?” But evidence does suggest that international volunteering can be done well, and enough research has been done that prospective volunteers can make informed judgments.

 And yet, many well-intentioned travelers still attempt to #travelforgood without actually creating social change. Based on my fifteen years of research in this sector as a professor, and my work with the service-learning organization globalsl.org, here are some common mistakes to avoid:

1. Wanting to volunteer in the development sector without first educating yourself on theories of development. 

Research and decide which theory of change you want to engage in through your presence. And in the process, consider these inspiring, alternative models of development that offer a different approach to what we’ve usually seen in the past. 

2. Not understanding your cultural assumptions.  

Everyone wears blinders, everyone brings assumptions. These realities are inescapable. But you enhance your capacity to do good work by learning about a country’s historical challenges

3. Assuming that a “developing” country means a place where you have much to offer others, but others have nothing to offer you.  

The “developing world” is actually one of the most interesting locations of innovation in the world today. Be open to learning from others as much as you are to giving. Volunteering abroad should be a reciprocal exchange. 

4. Volunteering for activities you aren’t qualified to do at home. 

If you’re not credentialed to work in a particular sector at home, volunteering to gain experience is the crassest form of using community members as a means to an end. 

5. Volunteering at organizations identified as harmful by child development professionals and medical doctors.

A global coalition of child wellbeing organizations is advocating against short-term service in orphanages. The evidence is clear: short-term orphanage service is not an effective mechanism for supporting child development. Rather, repeated attachment and exit is harmful. Similarly, a network of medical schools and doctors is discouraging pre-professional, clinical volunteering. It’s a violation of medical ethics that frequently results in clear harm for patients and undermines the local medical system. As this picture gets clearer and clearer, pre-professional clinical service decreases applicants’ chances of getting into medical school.

6. Not critically examining how an organization markets to you.

If you notice an organization’s website is mostly selling experiences of short-term care with vulnerable children, realize that you are seeing red flags. This portrayal indicates that they are more interested in selling a product to you than supporting holistic and sustainable community development.

 Photos can also be red flags. If the organizatios doesn’t follow broadly accepted ethical photography guidelines, they probably lack development expertise. 

7. Only checking an organization’s financial statements for low overhead costs. 

As is the case in social sector work broadly, the lowest overhead does not necessarily correlate with the most responsible programming. Instead, look also for evidence of a deliberate use of funds in the direction of community development. 

8. Not asking about the role of community voice in your organization. 

Listening well is fundamental to successful cooperative development. Decades of research in development and international volunteering make clear that communities value service partnerships that ensure community voice and self-direction

Communities want organizations to help them leverage the strengths already present in their community. Top-down development interventions based on outsiders’ perceptions of community needs do not result in meaningful impacts. 

9. Accepting an organization’s previous “success” at first glance. 

When researching an organization’s previous project outcomes, you should also think about how the organization measures success. What does their approach to outcomes measurement tell you about their commitments and goals? 

10. Picking the first organization you find that matches this criteria. 

Take the time to compare. Don’t merely run through these questions with the first organization that strikes your fancy. Only by comparing will you begin to realize that there’s tremendous variation of quality and intentionality among organizations. 

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