Responsible family volunteering

The most responsible thing you can do when volunteering with your family is being open to differences. These are real projects that you are getting involved with, working in real communities often with completely different cultures and lifestyles than those you might be accustomed to. You need to stay open to this, be prepared to adapt to the daily routines of your host communities, the unpredictable weather and normal, everyday accommodation. By traveling with a responsible volunteering company, you will ensure that your interests and age ranges are well matched with local project needs.
The success of this trip is in the attitude that you have towards it. The more gung ho you are, the more you will love it.
Research has shown that the organisations with the highest fees are not necessarily the most responsible – and the fee may even have an inverse relationship to the value of the placement. Likewise, ‘cool’ marketing with extravagant websites that entice family volunteers, but mask the real grassroots nature of the project, aren’t always a reliable way to judge a volunteering organisation.
The secret to finding the right project that really has a local impact but that will also suit your family’s interests, skills and age ranges is to ask lots of questions. Any truly responsible organisation will take the time to answer these, and be able to do so with confidence, and with a genuine knowledge of the country, community and conservation project you are hoping to contribute to. For example, the organisation should be willing and able to put you in touch with former family volunteers to learn more about their experience, and how they feel they helped. Check out our 10 questions to ask your volunteer company before you pursue this family trip of a lifetime.
Finally, a good starting point is to remember that you’re not going to change the world – if it really were that easy, charities and volunteers would have ceased to exist long ago. They do, however, all make a difference. Although you should be aware that there is a difference between taking baby steps to create change, and paying good money for something that is no more than a tokenistic gesture and, in short, a bit of a money making racket.

Wildlife & environment

From good will to hunting

It is a very appealing concept, going to save the baby lions for a week. It’s safe for the children and it is a great way to learn about wildlife conservation. It might be less appealing, however, if you got to see the whole picture. Which is a lot less cuddly. In South Africa, ‘canned hunting’ is an ongoing issue, whereby lion cubs are tamed, with the help of volunteers’ naïve nurturing, bottle feeding, hugging, walking and playing with them, like kittens, so that they can be sold to hunting industries. Or worse, they are already being habituated on a reserve that earns money as a sanctuary, but then transports the grown lions to another part of the land later on, only to become easy, and now tamed targets for tourist hunters. Who pay thousands for their trophy as well as the all important smug, sick selfie. It’s horrific for the cats – and a gross abuse of the volunteer’s time, money and trust.

What can you do?
Always ask the right questions. Our volunteering vacations that work with lions have gone through scrupulous checks that they do exactly what they say on the tin. As opposed to the can. If you spot lots of images of people cuddling or walking with lions, therein lies a big clue. Because lions that are really going to be set free one day are not going to be habituated to this extent. Otherwise they would not survive in the wild. There are some reserves, however, where lions are bred to be released into the wild and everything is hunky dory. Crucially, these projects are not very hands on, as habituated lions without a fear of humans would simply be too dangerous to release.

See our wildlife conservation volunteer guide for more information on this subject.

Not on your Nellie

There are a lot of elephant sanctuaries in south and southeast Asia now due, in part, to the fact that many of the animals were ‘made redundant’ or abused following the welcome demise of the logging industry, which they contributed to by dragging timber from one place to another. While many of these sanctuaries are doing great work to prepare these elephants for the wild again, inviting people to help feed them, clean them and generally care for them, others are not doing such great work. They promote these volunteer positions by promising elephant rides and performances, neither of which is connected in any way with sound conservation practices. This is because elephants are treated with force and brutality in order to train them to carry humans safely and entertain them. In addition, in some places young elephants are being taken from the wild, their mothers often being killed in the process, in order to breed them in captivity to make money out of ill informed tourists simply wanting to help.

What you can do
Again, ask questions and more questions of your volunteering organisation. At Responsible Travel, our elephant volunteer placements do not visit any sanctuaries permitting such elephant rides or performances. See our Elephant conservation vacations guide for more information.

People & culture


It is not uncommon for parents to want to bring their families on a vacation which invites them to contribute to the welfare and education of vulnerable children. This is a controversial area, however, and following a campaign that we led in 2013, we removed many trips from our site that involved volunteering in an orphanage – or even visiting one when the children are present. This was for a number of reasons, the main issues being as follows:

Tragically, because tourist numbers are on the up in countries like Cambodia and Thailand, and many of these want to contribute to orphanages, vulnerable children have become a commodity. In Siem Reap, for example, where the local population is under 100,000, there are now over 30 orphanages. The fact is that up to three quarters of these children are not orphans at all, but have been enticed there to make money, their families having been convinced that they will have a better lifestyle by doing so. Research has shown that, despite considerable donations, many orphanages are deliberately kept in horrific conditions, because ‘poverty pays’. The donations are, of course, being pocketed by the owners, not going where they should be. And one final pointer that many visitors don’t often think about, because you would be very hard hearted to resist being affectionate to children in need – even if orphanages are real and doing good work, untrained and short term volunteers can cause more harm than good, causing psychological harm to children who have attachment issues, and who are abandoned by smiling, caring people over and over. This is why it is vital that vulnerable children are only cared for by highly qualified experts, preferably for an extended period. Not people just passing through.
What you can do
If you are a qualified expert in working with children and are happy to undergo all the necessary Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, then please do consider this as an option for another time, when you have time to travel without your children and can commit a lengthy period of time. Responsible Travel’s policy for these sorts of placements is a minimum of a month’s volunteering. And if, during your wildlife conservation vacation you are offered a trip to an orphanage, please take all the above pointers into consideration, and find a way of supporting the community in another way.

Respecting local culture

Most volunteers get it, but there are always a few that turn up and just don’t. Dressing in a way that is inappropriate to the local culture is just wrong. Your volunteering organisation will advise you in advance, but really – most of the countries where you are volunteering are not going to understand and, indeed, they will be upset by very short shorts or skirts and low cut tops. Please do follow the cultural dress codes. It is part of our responsibility as adults to teach our children about respecting different cultures, so please discuss this with them too well in advance of your travels.

Similarly, our ‘selfie’ culture can feel invasive to local people. The best advice is to put the camera away for a few days until you get to know local people and then always, but always, ask before taking photos, and also before sharing them on social media, especially those of children.

What you can do
Read up in advance what the dress code is locally – your vacation company will be able to offer advice. When it comes to photographs, you might want to consider bringing a small portable printer so that you can share photos of people you have met when you are in situ. And if you promise to send them a copy once you are back home, do make sure that you do so.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Surkov Vladimir] [Family in Borneoi: Oyster Worldwide] [Elephant painting: Kris Martis] [Orphans: Tracy Hunter]