Voluntourism: Should You Pay For It?

Building Schools in Nepal

Everyone loves a vacation that allows them to explore a new country and new culture. What really makes a trip memorable is getting to know the country at a closer and more personal level than the average tourist just passing through. Quite often many kind-hearted souls endeavor to do this by paying to join programs that place them at an orphanage, school, or hospital. It’s often called ‘voluntourism’ but you may be surprised to hear that despite the good intentions, paying to volunteer can sometimes come with unintended negative consequences.

The question of paying to help people is a sensitive one, and there are plenty of valid – and sometimes angry – arguments for each side of the debate. Some posit that providing assistance in any form is never a bad thing, and say that as long as you’re making a difference to someone, where’s the harm? Others ask why one should pay Company A to send you to Organization B when you can just give directly to Organization B? A quick search on Twitter and Facebook reveal thousands of opinions from all over the world.

But despite the debate, voluntourism is big business, and there are plenty of companies making a pretty penny offering their services. So why do so many people do it? The most common reason is that it’s often easier and safer than doing it on your own. When you’re in a foreign country you can’t just walk around until you find a place to volunteer at. Language and cultural barriers are a problem, and your average Cambodian orphanage doesn’t have a slick website with Google Map directions and English-speaking support staff to help you get started. Paying a placement company provides the means and the support to help you help others. At least… it should.

So if you do opt to go this route, there are a few questions you should ask first:

How much will I pay, and where does the money go?
If you’re paying someone $2,000 to spend a weekend teaching English, that sounds a bit fishy to us. Do a bit of thinking about what the actual costs should be, and use that as a baseline to gauge what type of program you’re paying for. Also…

…what type of support is offered?
Any decent placement company should offer a healthy menu of support and coordination services. This should include things like airport pickup, a local contact for the duration of your stay that can answer any questions, and give assistance with things like finding accommodation, directions, emergency contact information, and orientation at your volunteer location.

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What type of reputation does my placement organization have?
Do your research. Any company with a decent program in place should proudly display positive comments from previous volunteers.

Take some time to get acquainted with the project and the people. The longer you can help, the better.

How long are you staying for?
This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but generally speaking, spending a few days helping out will have a negligible impact. The time and manpower it takes to train new volunteers to get up to speed might not be worth it if you’re just going to leave a few days later. Try to spend as long as you can helping out. Get to know the place, the people, and the culture.

Most importantly – who are you doing this for?
Let’s face it, everyone likes to get a pat on the back, and those usually get generously handed out to people who help those less fortunate. There are plenty of cases where foreigners were seen as helping someone simply to tell people they did it, or to get a boost in karma by posting pictures on Facebook. The honest truth is, if you’re not there to help others, you’re there to help yourself. Be honest – who will benefit more from your time there? If the answers isn’t “them” then rethink your trip.

As we said, there are two sides to every story, and every organization that takes money to place volunteers is different. While it does take time, effort, and skill to run a successful placement program, this has to balance with visible and meaningful results. Your heart is in the right place – just make sure your effort is, as well!