Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

August 3, 2012

Voluntourism. The road to nowhere?

Dawn Roberts

The ad pictured an oddly verdant landscape in the African Serengeti. Calm and well fed animals are captured roaming gracefully against a “wish you were here” backdrop of peace and plenty in the wild.
The copy reads: “Feeding African lion cubs, building homes in a Third World country, or helping preserve Caribbean reefs while diving.” This is how I was introduced to the concept of VolunTourism, The business of combining vacation & volunteering. It’s the latest way for the travel agents to package what they refer to as a life changing experience, for the starting fee of $1200.00.

When we ship developing countries a plane full of well-intentioned but naive VolunTourists, are we making sure that the benefit is mutual? Or that anyone benefits? Are we on a collective road to nowhere, compelled by Western Guilt and clever marketing?

The question gets darker when you look at it through the lens of tourism. It's a sector hit hard by digital discount sites such as travelocity and KAYAK. These have made much of the former work of travel agents obsolete. 

There is an uneasy relationship between profit-driven tour providers and charitable organizations. There is no doubt that VoluTourism has been painted in shades of greed by critics, who have valid points to make. It’s easier to count the ways short-term paying VolunTourists hurt a local economy and people than those who have helped. In the past the VSO (UK’s largest charity and volunteer organization) called touring organizations “badly planned and executed schemes” that benefitted no one but the tour providers themselves.

It would be inaccurate to assume that every VolunTourist organization was created chiefly as a cash cow, good intentions be damned. VolunTourism can be beneficial to the extent that projects are completed on a continuum and fill a true need in the host community. One argument against VolunTourism uses the example of the same Nairobi schoolhouse being painted seven times by VolunTourists. Although a story like this makes the rounds quickly, there are hundreds of testimonials on every VolunTour site expressing sincere gratitude for the work done by citizen-volunteers on holiday.

This is not a regular vacation and is not marketed as one. While there is a payoff at the end in terms of having done a good deed. The journey is not an easy one. Each trip requires a set of immunizations and a baseline level of health. Certain skills are a prerequisite in order to be accepted into particular VolunTourist groups. This is how it must be if VolunTourism is to survive and avoid being pegged as one more example of western elitism & disrespect.

The desire to “do good” may be inherent to man. Scientists theorize that the instincts toward moral and fair behavior are necessary to survival of the species. Some religions tell us that humans must stay close to their teachings or stray into the dangerous anarchy that is the dark heart of our nature. Regardless of which school of thought you fall into one thing is certain, man is a complex set of sometimes contrary thoughts and deeds.

Recession and 8.9% unemployment aside, even the poorest Americans have access to resources that the majority of the rest of the world do not. Some say this makes for a level of guilt that rises to the surface of our collective consciousness. That is one part of explaining the appeal of VolunTourism. Western guilt on top of middle class guilt is a strong motivator to consider combining vacation time with volunteering. In principle it sounds like a great idea. Get yourself to Somalia or the Ozark Mountains and begin helping your fellow man. Earn your “Get into heaven E ticket” and have the pictures to show for it.

There are many ways to help heal the world. It is ultimately a personal decision which should be considered with the level of respect that healing our collective battered soul deserves. There is no one keeping score of your good deeds. I seriously doubt there is a bouncer at the gates of the hereafter. If you find yourself there, you’ve already earned your seat in the room.

Further resources for Voluntours:

Dawn Roberts is VP of Business Development for, a tech company that works with causes, their supporters and brands. Before entering the cause marketing sphere she founded and ran the Partnership Marketing Division at Universal Music Group. Dawn lives in Brooklyn and Woodstock, NY and has a dog named Cosmo. She can be reached at


  • At 3:55 PM, Blogger Dylan Nord said…

    Great article!

    I would urge all our potential voluntourists - before considering a destination to donate your vacation to help others, consider your neighbors that may need help. Almost every community around the world has its own unique needs and crises, and America's cities and towns are no exception. Hunger is my favorite example of how local communities are under-served and even Americans are in need. According to Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, 1 in 6 Americans are struggling with hunger.

    I believe that good work can be down away from home - yes, but for too many voluntourists the decision to travel and donate a vacation comes more from a selfish desire to tell an impressive story, than a selfless desire to do good and help others.

    Thank you for helping me remember that good deeds are hiding around every corner, and many times, the people and communities closest to us are in great need.

    We could all do better.

  • At 4:06 PM, Anonymous Jessica D. said…

    I definitely feel guilty because I can't do more to help out, but it's just so expensive to travel to these places. Plus, I don't want to be one of those people re-painting the same building over and over! Do you still think there are genuine programs out there, or do you think that most of them are scams?

  • At 9:13 AM, Anonymous David Coles said…


    There are many reputable organisations out there. I recommend having a read of volunteering options for guidance on what to look for.

    I help run a very small charity called Kickstart Ghana ( and both our beneficiaries and volunteers best interests are at the top of our priority list.

  • At 6:50 AM, Anonymous Hopify said…


    A group of MBA students is developing a new project to help develop and support Volunteer Tourism and address some of these concerns.

    Essentially, the project aims to make sure all "voluntourists" have access to meaningful projects and appropriate preparation ahead of their trips.

    To know more please check the presentation video in Youtube and look for "Hopify, for people who care" in Facebook.

    Thank you!

  • At 1:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    We protect and help travelers and expats with their travel medical insurance. At least 90% of our business/clientele is helping social entrepreneurs, international charities and aid workers short and long term. These people aren't your typical 1 week stint vacationers but deeply committed individuals who are giving their lives and working tirelessly on behalf of those they serve worldwide. There are plenty of great organizations as well. we should know - All of us at Good Neighbor Insurance have worked ourselves overseas in various capacities over the years and so it's natural for us to want to continue helping others just like us. I just wanted to say that there are real heroes out there, and while many individuals may be looking to just feel better about themselves or organizations looking to make money off another segment of the travel market, there are also great opportunities so if people want to make a difference in the world and see real change, they really can play a role and shouldn't lose heart!

    - Mark Sequeira


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