3 Fallacies of Voluntourism

In 2019 at the Global PDX Conference, I moderated a panel called “Voluntourism: Power, Privilege, and New Possibilities.” We didn’t shy away from the controversies of sending people overseas for short-term assignments, some of which I’ve documented in the article “5 Pitfalls of Voluntourism.”

While the challenges and disappointments of voluntourism have been well-documented in the media, little attention has been paid to why these issues persist. In this article, I shed light on three of the underlying assumptions—rather, fallacies—that feed into harmful and ineffective volunteer programs. If we are going to do better work in the world, we need to start by banishing these perspectives.

1. Time is just as valuable as money

No, no, it is not. Sometimes it is more valuable than money, sometimes less.

Suppose you have a medical issue that warrants attention. Well, I am not a doctor, but I could volunteer my time to listen to you describe your symptoms. The thing is, no amount of time spent telling me—someone untrained in medicine—about your symptoms is going to prove as valuable, helpful, and life-changing as paid care from a medical professional will be. For your medical needs, my time is not as valuable as the money you would pay to see a specialist. Likewise, for your volunteer programs, the time of a dozen untrained high-schoolers does not compare in value to the money spent training local experts to perform specialized interventions.

But I also said sometimes time is more valuable than money. Suppose you are a clinic raising money from donors so that you can provide free reproductive health care to local women. And suppose you meet someone who is not in a position to give money but has leverage in local government to get legislature passed that will use taxes to provide these services to all residents for free. That person’s time volunteering (to influence their networks to change the law) is significantly more valuable than any monetary donation they could provide.

Know when time is more valuable than money, and when it is not.

2. Doing something is better than doing nothing at all

We hear this all the time, and it is supposed to inspire us to action. The thing is, we want to inspire the right kinds of action.

There are many, many examples in our industry where doing something is absolutely more harmful than doing nothing at all.

In medicine they say, “First, do no harm.” Many assume this is part of the Hippocratic oath, but that is not true. (It is from another of Hippocrates’s works, called Of the Epidemics.) The literal Hippocratic oath, as it was recorded sometime between the 5th and 3rd centuries B.C.E., is much more specific, and I would argue, more relevant to voluntourism:

“I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from [kidney stones], but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft.”

With some light interpreting, this could be the oath for voluntourism:

“I’m not going to attempt to do something that I don’t know how to do, even if I see someone in extreme suffering. I will leave this to those who are trained in providing such help.”

Doing something when you lack the skills, training, and knowledge is not only potentially harmful to the person in need. If it is ineffective or redundant, that means it also took resources that could have been spent elsewhere. Nonprofits, it is our duty to call our audiences to the right actions.

3. Any little bit helps, so never decline an offer

I have read the first four words, “any little bit helps,” verbatim, in many fundraising appeals, and each time it breaks my heart.

First, having worked the front lines as a development officer in the past, I can tell you what happens when we receive a check for $1.00. Our staff would have to open the envelope, record the check on our check log, have a second staff member verify and initial the check log, input the gift into our database, and walk the check to the bank and deposit it (along with other checks, but still). And then—because we didn’t have the donor’s email on file—we would need to print and mail (with a stamp) the acknowledgment letter. It would cost our organization much more than $1.00 just to process that check and thank the donor, thereby completely negating the impact of their gift.

The truth is, “any little bit” does not help, and it really depends on the method and currency of that “little bit.” (Note to donors: if you give only $1.00, please do it online, which automates the entire process and ensures that some of that $1 actually funds programs).

Second, the language of “any little bit” is born from a scarcity mindset, that we should “take what we can get” because we are desperate. But I believe that being specific and selective in our asks and offers is what builds abundance and ensures we maximize resources effectively.

Look at it this way: if a volunteer said yes to every request from a nonprofit, they would burn out quickly.

If a nonprofit said yes to every offer from a volunteer, they too would burn out quickly.

As I demonstrated with my story of the $1.00 check, it takes resources to harness resources. It takes time to deposit a check and record a gift. It takes time to interview a volunteer and set up a project for them. Trying to use every minute of time from every volunteer offer you get – especially when you don’t have needs that match their skills – is a sure way to burn through your resources faster than you can bring new ones in.

Once we can rid our industry of these fallacies, we can focus on investing our resources where we have the most impact, harness the talent that is more needed, and have truly transformational volunteer programs.