How commercial volunteer tourism can be GOOD

Jane Godfrey
Jul 23, 2023

When volunteer tourism first emerged in the early 2000s, it referred mainly to small not-for-profit organisations providing opportunities for limited numbers of alternative tourists to volunteer their labour (e.g. construction, childcare, teaching English) in order to ‘give back’ to the communities they were visiting. Nowadays, however, each year thousands of volunteer tourists pay large sums of money to volunteer overseas.

There is a wide variety of volunteer tourism organisations. Many of the largest and most widely-known do not operate their own volunteer projects but instead work as ‘agents’. They promote the projects, take the payment (often including a commission) and ‘match’ the volunteer with a locally-run project (which often has limited resources to promote its work).

Often these large volunteer tourism organisations are commercial for-profit businesses based in a developed country rather than a developing country where most of the volunteering occurs. Commercialising volunteer tourism changes the dynamics between the volunteer tourist, the volunteer tourism company, and the host community.

Commercialising volunteer tourism changes the dynamics between the volunteer tourist, the volunteer tourism company, and the host community

Volunteer tourists who pay to volunteer may have higher expectations of their experience. Their volunteer tourism experience essentially becomes a commodity they are purchasing and therefore they expect to ‘get what they paid for’.

In order to remain profitable, commercial volunteer tourism organisations have to ensure they are meeting the expectations of their volunteer tourists so they can attract future volunteer tourists (i.e. customers).

This can lead to a focus on meeting the wants of the volunteer tourists, rather than the needs of the host community. For example, the organisation may focus on making sure the volunteer tourists are having fun at their volunteer project, rather than choosing projects where the volunteer tourists could do the most GOOD.

So, what can volunteer tourists do to ensure their volunteering experience is as GOOD as possible?

1. Be honest with yourself about why you want to volunteer. Don’t choose to volunteer because it’s what you think you ‘should’ be doing. If you’re more interested in tourism activities rather than volunteering at your destination then ask yourself whether volunteer tourism is the best option for you.

The organisation I volunteered with in Peru also offered Spanish lessons. Some of the volunteer tourists said if they’d known they could come to Peru and stay in a guesthouse and take Spanish lessons (but not volunteer) then they would have done this instead. Improving their Spanish language skills was their main focus and they only chose to volunteer as a way of doing this.

Look at the GOOD Travel website for other options that allow you to interact with the host community while travelling.

2. Choose a project where you can make an actual contribution – not just the one that looks the most fun! That’s not to say you can’t have both but the focus should be on maximising the contribution you can make as a volunteer (and minimising any negative impacts to the host community).

Sometimes what will be the biggest help might not be what you had in mind, for example, when imagining volunteering at childcare projects we tend to picture playing with children rather than chopping vegetables or doing laundry. However, having volunteers do these menial tasks (which don’t require training or language skills) can free up skilled staff. For example, having volunteers fold the medical supplies at the clinics in Peru allowed the local doctors and nurses more time to spend with their patients.

3. Clarify with the organisation what hours they expect you to volunteer, what tasks you should be performing, and who to ask for help if you need it. This may be unclear before you arrive in country. However, once you start volunteering these things should be clearly explained at your orientation. If you don’t understand what is expected of you, ask!

Sometimes the people working at the volunteer project might not be confident telling you what to do. For example, some of the volunteers at projects in Peru said the local staff seemed hesitant to give them specific tasks unless the volunteers explicitly asked “what can we do to help?” This may be more of an issue when the volunteer tourism organisation operates as an agent recruiting volunteers but does not have on-the-ground staff at the volunteer projects.  

4. Learn as much of the local language as you can. Obviously, you won’t become fluent in a few weeks but speaking at least some of the local language will help you communicate better with members of the host community which will help you get more involved (and therefore contribute more) at your volunteer project.

Most of the suggestions listed above apply to both commercial and not-for-profit volunteer tourism. A previous GOOD Travel blog post also identified 5 questions potential volunteer tourists (or voluntourists) should ask themselves.

What can commercial organisations do to ensure the volunteer tourism experiences they are offering are as GOOD as possible?

1. Set high expectations. Volunteer tourists may be more willing to perform more difficult or ‘dirty’ tasks if they can see a direct benefit and/or if there is a social aspect (i.e. they are volunteering with others). If volunteers feel no-one notices what they are doing at the project they may interpret this to mean they are not really needed. A timesheet or rollcall can help volunteers feel more accountable.

2. Match volunteer tourists’ skills and interests to the volunteer project. This can be difficult to do when there are many volunteer tourists coming through (the organisation I volunteered with in Peru hosted 200+ volunteer tourists each week during peak season) but ensures you maximise the potential contribution from the volunteers.

3. Consider implementing a minimum length of stay or minimum language requirements. Commercial volunteer tourism organisations may be hesitant to do this because it limits the number of potential volunteer tourists. However, these can also be implemented on a project-by-project basis. For example, some organisations will allow volunteer tourists with no language skills staying only one week to volunteer on a construction site but have higher minimum requirements (e.g. a longer minimum stay, more language skills, police clearance) for volunteers working with children. 

4. Ensure local projects do not agree to host volunteers simply to get money. It is common for commercial volunteer tourism companies to pay local projects to host volunteer tourists. However, ensure this does not become the main contribution the volunteers are making or that the volunteers are paying to perform jobs that local people would otherwise be employed to do.

Commercial (or commodified) volunteer tourism is neither inherently GOOD or bad but risks prioritising the wants of the volunteer tourists over the needs of the host community to continue to attract paying customers.

Commercial (or commodified) volunteer tourism is neither inherently GOOD or bad but risks prioritising the wants of the volunteer tourists over the needs of the host community to continue to attract paying customers

Have you volunteered abroad? Did you volunteer with a commercial company or a not-for-profit organisation? Do you think there is a difference between the experiences provided by the two types?

July 23, 2023
5 min read