Is there a good way to be a voluntourist? - Generocity Philly


Sep. 6, 2017 12:21 pm

Is there a good way to be a voluntourist?

If you want to be a globe-trotting do-gooder, consider this: Are local people running the show? Are your skills suited to the project? Where exactly is your money going?

Lansie Sylvia.

(Illustration by Hannah Agosta Illustration, based on a photo by Jessie Fox)

How to Give” is a monthly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


Is there a way to make vacations more philanthropic? Travel is really important to me, and I’d like my kids (ages 9 and 12) to learn about different parts of the world, but we spend so much money on typically touristy things like museums and restaurants. It just feels like there could be a better way to give back while traveling.

What you are talking about, fellow globe-trottin’ do-gooder, is voluntourism — and it is a hot button issue right now. The classic trope is the skinny white co-ed volunteering at a school in Africa and having her “life changed #wanderlust #weareallrefugees #love #blessed.” It’s become so ubiquitously problematic there’s even a parody Savior Barbie Instagram account and a stellar Onion article specifically spoofing the optics of such experiences.

The main critique of this type of voluntourism — which usually last one month to one year and tends to involve a person or couple building a school or orphanage, or teaching English — is that its ineffective and superficial at best, and exploitative and corruptive at worst.

International travel is important and formative. Find a way to do it well.

Especially when there is a huge difference in age, experience, lifestyle and yes, skin color, between the volunteer and the beneficiary/host, these experiences can reinforce the white savior complex, “othering” communities and reaffirming the narrative that White and Western is Good and Helpful and Black and Foreign is Bad and Needs Help (heyoooo, Edward Said!)

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So this would normally be the part of my Generocity article where I tell you to stop trying to have an experience and just give money instead (I mean, yes, give money, always) but as someone who had the extreme privilege to travel internationally at a young age, I consider those experiences important and formative. They made me more understanding and humble, and taught me to think critically about issues of poverty, exploitation, commerce and humanity.

Therefore I say: If you want to take your family on a voluntourist-y vacation, let’s find a way to do it well.

There are a large number of NGOs around the world that love having volunteers and utilize values-based travelers like you and your family to accomplish meaningful projects that benefit local communities. As with everything philanthropic, you have to do your research!

Here are some guiding questions to help evaluate what options are best for the communities you’re visiting as well as your family:

Are we prepared?

Your kids are at great ages to learn about new cultures. Months before you take your trip start a family program of learning about where you’re going, watching age-appropriate documentaries and reading books that offer history, context and first-person narratives. If there is a history of empire, violence or tension between the place you’re visiting and the U.S., that might be something to gently explore as well.

Who is my money going to?

Companies that offer voluntourism packages range from the terrible to the wonderful, just like any other company. Ask lots of questions about where the money is going. Are they hiring local tour guides and cooks? Are the accommodations environmentally sustainable? Do they take families to the same five eateries or do they spread the wealth and sustain a larger community of local entrepreneurs? There’s big money in this field, and people are very good at glossing over where it lands.

Is there continued support and infrastructure in place?

Digging a well or building a school is all well and good until something breaks and that well or school is no longer safe or useful. Ask about the sustained support that will be provided with projects.

Are locals leading the effort?

A big, red flag is when you go into a volunteer situation and the company, management and workers are all foreigners. Local people know what their community needs, have institutional knowledge, and must be invested in the project in order to create long-term sustainability. If the project doesn’t involve at least 50 percent local people in both leadership and on-the-ground roles, stay away.

Are my skills suited to the project?

Wanna teach? Be a trained teacher. Wanna build a school? Know how to lay bricks. To ensure that the experience you’re providing is effective and helpful, you need to have training to do it. Look for age-appropriate opportunities that allow everyone in your family to be involved in a meaningful, safe way.

May I please take your picture?

This drives me up a wall. People are not set pieces within the dramatic arc of your soul’s salvation (not you, dear reader, but the universal you). Always ask before taking someone’s picture — ask their name, where they’re from, how their day is going, and if it’s okay to take their picture, and secondly if it’s okay to post that picture on social media. Whenever possible, offer to print or send them a copy.

Final thought: The U.S. is a vast and wild country full of many different cultures and ways of being. Have you considered doing a volunteer vacation here? has a huge list of opportunities to volunteer in national parks, searchable by state. As I’ve always said: Philanthropy starts at home. Safe travels!

Have you taken any trips that fit this mold that you’d recommend? Any tips we missed? Share in the comments.


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