Responsible volunteering

Keep your expectations realistic. You're not going to change the world, but for those that you do help during your volunteer vacation you can make a world of difference.
“Voluntourism” seems to embody the concept of responsible travel. You go abroad, donate your time and money to a good cause, spend time with local people, and give something back to a struggling nation. So being responsible should be inherent in a volunteering vacation… shouldn’t it?

Sadly, that “should” conceals a multitude of sins. For every wonderful, worthwhile volunteer placement, there are plenty of ineffective or just downright unethical ones. Even “good” placements can become “bad” ones very quickly if the volunteer’s skills aren’t properly matched with local needs.

It’s extremely hard to sift through the options and pick a placement which is both beneficial to the host country – and a good match for the volunteer’s own skills. So how can you choose? Organisations with the highest fees may not necessarily the most responsible – and cost may even have an inverse relationship to the value of the placement. Likewise, clever marketing can entice volunteers, but mask the effectiveness – or otherwise – of the project, so a flashy website or brochure is another unreliable way to assess an organisation.
The only real way to learn more about your placement is to ask plenty of questions. Any truly ethical organisation will welcome concern from potential volunteers – as it shows they’ve done their homework, and are genuinely concerned about making a difference. Ideally, the organisation will also be happy to put you in touch with former volunteers to learn more about their experience, and how they feel they helped. Conversely, irresponsible companies will be unable to answer questions satisfactorily, and may be reluctant to let you speak to former participants. Check out our 10 questions to ask your volunteer company to get you started.
At Responsible Travel, we’ve done quite a bit of the sifting, questioning and filtering for you. All our volunteering abroad vacations meet our criteria, but it’s still up to you – and the organisation – to ensure you find the project which best fits your skills. Our top advice is to ask yourself if what you’re doing abroad is something you’d be able to do back home – and if not, does the organisation offer enough training to be able to justify this? Finally, bear in mind 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. However, for anyone – or anything – that you do help during your volunteer vacation, whether that’s a child managing to pass her English exams or a turtle hatchling making its way safely to the sea – you can be sure you’ve made a world of difference.

People & culture

Orphanage volunteering

When it comes to responsible volunteer travel, few issues are as controversial as working with vulnerable children. Responsible Travel launched an orphanage campaign in 2013, resulting in the removal of a number of trips from our site.

Some of the key issues:
The number of orphanages in places such as Cambodia has risen dramatically, not in response to the number of orphans – but directly in line with the number of tourists in these destinations. For example, Siem Reap, a town of less than 100,000 people and the gateway to Angkor Wat, has around 35 orphanages. Vulnerable children have become a commodity, and up to three quarters of the children in these “orphanages” are not in fact be orphans at all – but their families have been persuaded that they will have a better life in the orphanage. The neediest and poorest institutions receive more money. Research has revealed that, despite substantial donations, many orphanages are deliberately kept in awful conditions in order to obtain more money from volunteers and visitors – which goes straight into the pockets of the owners. Even in legitimate orphanages, unskilled, short term volunteers can cause emotional upset to the children. The children form attachments to the volunteers, who then leave; creating a sense of abandonment again and again. This is incredibly disturbing for these already vulnerable children.
What you can do:
Responsible Travel does not promote orphanage volunteering. Our policy for anyone who wishes to volunteer with vulnerable children requires placements to last least one month. Volunteers must have the appropriate qualifications and experience (in social work, healthcare, counselling , etc) to be able to work with vulnerable children – who may also have physical or mental disabilities. DBS checks (or equivalent) should also be required of anyone wishing to work with children, whether on schools, nurseries or other youth centers.  Volunteers should also be aware that, due to recent negative publicity surrounding orphanage volunteering, some organisations refer to them as “children’s homes” – so do your research to find out exactly what this refers to.

Teaching abroad

Education is often identified as the number one need in developing countries – and volunteers are stepping up to share their skills, language and knowledge with those who may not be fortunate enough to have access to the same levels of education. However, academic placements that were once reserved for long term, skilled volunteers (think VSO) are now being opened up to pretty much anyone from aged 17 upwards, with or without qualifications, and for as little as a few days – or even hours. In many cases, the only requirement is that you can speak English.

There is a common perception that speaking fluent English qualifies you to teach it, but unless you’ve learned about basic classroom management and different teaching techniques (which vary widely depending on culture and age) – not to mention the tricky difference between the present perfect and the past simple – then your contribution will be limited. That’s not to say your native English can’t be of any use; classroom assistants are incredibly valuable in helping with group exercises, correct pronunciation and conversation sessions. But you shouldn’t be preparing lesson plans or leading a class alone unless you are qualified to do so. Less experienced volunteers can also lead after school clubs, help with homework and organise activities such as art and sports sessions, as these are in addition to – not in place of – their school curriculum.

Short term placements can lead to a revolving door of volunteer teachers which is highly disruptive for children’s education. Pupils have to constantly adapt to new teaching styles – whereas in longer placements of a month or more, it is the volunteer who learns to adapt to the class and culture. There is a consistency in the curriculum; topics and activities aren’t repeated; and – crucially – the volunteer has chance to build relationships with the pupils, members of staff, and the wider community. However, teaching assistants can attend for shorter durations.

What you can do:
If you are a qualified teacher, then you will be welcomed as a volunteer. But be sure you are working alongside local staff – the worst case scenario is that a teacher could end up being replaced by volunteers. If you are experienced, ask if you can set up skills-sharing sessions with local teachers; you can suggest new classroom ideas or improve their language skills, while they can give insights into the local culture and share teaching tips of their own. This has a longer term impact than teaching the students – and supports local staff, rather than competing with them. It’s also vital that pupils look to members of their own community for education and skills – rather than assuming these are best learned from foreigners. If you are not qualified and have no teaching experience, you should never be left to teach alone. Ask the organisation what the placement involves to ensure you won’t be doing something you are not equipped to do. Many organisations are claim volunteer teachers are needed as local teachers are “inexperienced”; if you’re not qualified either, this will only exacerbate the problem. Some organisations offer TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses at the start of the placement. It’s a great way to gain a professional qualification – and put your new skills to use immediately in the classroom. Learning as much as you can of the local language before you go will also greatly benefit you and the students. Good organisations will offer language lessons during the placement. All organisations offering placements working with children (or vulnerable adults) should request a DBS check or local equivalent.

Day visits to schools
Some operators include the option to visit a local school for a day in their itineraries. Please note that we do not promote day volunteering trips and will only promote a day visit to a school which takes place during term time if there is clear benefit to the children in terms of education and resources, and where disruption to class time is kept to an absolute minimum.

We would expect that visits of this nature should not occur more frequently than once a month, especially for smaller schools with fewer separate classes. Where schools are larger with more classes, we would expect them to be visited on rotation to avoid repeat visits to any one class more than the minimum of once a month.

Tourists must be accompanied at all times by a teacher or representative of the school and we would expect any gifts to be approved by the school and tour company prior to arrival.

Wildlife & environment

Hunting’s darkest side

A horrific abuse of a volunteer’s trust and a particularly nasty hunting practice, 'canned hunting’ is a prevalent problem in South Africa. Organisers breed lions and tigers, then advertise for volunteers in to look after the cubs – bottle feeding them, hugging them, walking them and playing with them as if they were kittens – so they become habituated. The volunteer thinks they are doing a worthy job looking after vulnerable big cats, but once they become too big and risky to play with, those cats are will be sold on to a canned hunting farm, a private reserve where the wealthy can buy a permit to shoot themselves a lion, keep the pelt and take a dead lion selfie as a souvenir. Because the lions have been habituated by unsuspecting volunteers, they don’t have the inherent fear that a wild lion would have of humans, so they’re easy pickings. It’s horrific for the cats – and a gross abuse of the volunteer’s time, money and trust.
Effectively, organisers take lions and tigers and breed them, and then advertise for volunteers to look after the baby cubs - bottle feeding them, hugging them, walking them and playing with them and playing with them as if they were kittens - so they become habituated.
What can you do?
There are some reserves 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. Big question marks should always linger over volunteer vacations that offer you the promise of walking, playing with and hugging baby lions – as always, the solution is to ask a lot of questions.

See our wildlife conservation volunteer guide for more information about the issues surrounding handling wildlife and choosing legitimate placements.

The elephant in the room

Following Thailand’s ban on commercial logging, hundreds of elephants – once used to haul logs –effectively became “unemployed”. Sanctuaries have since spring up across the country and many offer volunteer placements for those who wish to help out by preparing food, cleaning enclosures and bathing the elephants in rivers. However, in a bid to entice both volunteers and tourists, many sanctuaries also offer elephant rides and performances – neither of which is ethical, as the elephant must be brutally treated in order to perform. Worse, as captive elephants become an increasingly popular tourist attraction (it is extremely hard to breed them in captivity) young elephants are being taken from the wild – which often involves killing their mothers and other adults in the herd, decimating the remaining wild populations.

What you can do
Our elephant volunteer placements do not visit any sanctuaries which permit elephant rides or performances – and we only permit elephant rides in exceptional circumstances, where it supports wider conservation efforts. See our Elephant trekking vacations guide for more information.

A number of us at Responsible Travel have volunteered abroad at some point in our lives, with mixed results. However, this has made us more knowledgeable about the types of experiences out there, the questions to ask the organisation and anything that should set alarm bells ringing.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: US Army Africa] [Top box - bird release: Pacific Southwest Region USFWS] [Lion cuddling: Frontierofficial]