5 Pitfalls of Voluntourism

So much of the social impact sector relies on the support of volunteers. This is true both domestically and internationally. Volunteers play a vital role in our operations and our ability to effect change. With so much good being done by volunteers, it seems ungrateful to complain about harm that can be perpetuated by them. However, we must be brave enough to examine closely some of the work being done by volunteers and consider whether it is ineffective or even downright harmful.

Occasionally, a scandal involving volunteers makes headlines and our whole sector is up for scrutiny. Rather than describing the most extreme cases; my goal instead is to share those prevalent issues that cause systemic harm to our organizations and within the communities where we work.

To be clear, I am not blaming volunteers. These are individuals who want to make a positive impact on the world and have turned to our organizations as a vehicle for doing so. The problem starts, and ends, with us—the organizations who use our volunteers ineffectively and create harmful situations. Understanding these issues and being clear about the roles your volunteers play in your organizations’ work will help you avoid exploitation and set your programs up for success.

Issue #1: When Volunteers Displace Local Paid Labor

At this very moment, thousands of people from Central America are on a dangerous path through Mexico to wait at the U.S. border for asylum. I cannot forget the feelings that surfaced in me when I heard a Guatemalan asylum-seeker in Tijuana say that he left home because he could not find work in his rural village. Mere weeks ago, a group I knew had sent a team of volunteers to his village to help build a school. I understand that the political, economic, and security issues in Guatemala are vast and complex, but I could not help but notice the irony of sending a group of USA-based volunteers to do free labor in a country where thousands are competing for (and ultimately fleeing due to) a scarce amount of paid work. 

Many countries with emergent economics do not need more free labor. They need more jobs—well-paying jobs that can provide livelihoods for their families and allow them to plan for their futures. How do you think our volunteers would feel if they knew that people were going hungry, resorting to crime, and fleeing their homes because there was no paid work? Volunteers are, of course, not the cause of this vast economic crisis, but parachuting into a community to lay bricks may not be the first and most essential thing the community needs at that moment…which brings me to the next point….

Issue #2: When Volunteers Perform Services That Are Not Needed

We sometimes create problems so that volunteers can solve them. In a recent article on Nonprofit AF, blogger Vu Le described the harm done by corporate sponsors requiring nonprofits to provide one-day volunteer experiences for their employees. Often the nonprofits do not have work that can be done by four hundred people in one day, so they will create work that doesn’t need to be done. One commenter on the article said that the wall of her homeless shelter was painted seven times in one year by seven different corporate volunteer groups. Each corporation wanted an opportunity for their employees to volunteer, so the nonprofit created that opportunity: paint the wall, seven times each year. How motivated do you think those employees would feel if they knew they were painting over a wall that had been painted only two months ago? That their work was meaningless, redundant, and wasteful?

In other communities, volunteers have built schools where there were no teachers, no books, and no students. They dug wells that were never used, built homes that were never lived in. Why all this waste? Because it was revenue-generating to offer people the chance to “do” something. Nonprofits and social impact organization wanted their money, not their labor. How do you think our volunteers would feel if they knew this?

Issue #3: When Volunteers Deliver Sub-Standard Services

Just because someone is volunteering does not mean they should be asked to perform a task outside their skill set or for which they are not qualified.

I would not want to have my furnace repaired by a group of middle school students. In the event of an earthquake, I would not want to be in a building constructed by teenagers in three days. I also would not want to survive a traumatic event only to be counseled by an undergraduate student who doesn’t speak my language, relate to my experience, or have the knowledge and skills of a trained professional, which would be needed to administer proper therapy and healing. (This actually happened to me when I was living overseas and called the only English-language crisis hotline in the country. My “crisis counselor” was completely unprepared to deal with my situation, offered no helpful information, and herself seemed traumatized at the end of our call.)

All sovereign nations require qualified, licensed, and certified professionals to complete tasks in accordance with rigorous quality standards. Those same standards need to be observed even when the labor is not paid. A good barometer: If you are not qualified to do the task in your home country, you probably shouldn’t be doing it in a foreign country.

Issue #4: When Volunteers Attract Scammers

Perhaps this issue is exemplified most vividly by Cambodian orphanages. At first, there were (and still are) real orphanages housing children whose families were killed in the Cambodian Genocide of the 1970s. Tourists came to visit the orphanages, volunteer for a few hours, and donate money. Scammers quickly realized that orphanages could provide a lucrative revenue stream, so they began creating “orphanages” by convincing families to let their kids live in a “boarding school” where they would be educated and fed for free. Instead, these children received no education, endured substandard living accommodations, and were even subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

Tourists and volunteers did not know this because they only visited the “orphanages” for a few hours or days, not enough time to see the true conditions. It was not until one volunteer learned the Khmer language that she was able to talk to the children and expose the scam. These phony sites, be they orphanages, schools, churches, or farms, have popped up all over the world and are luring in volunteers for their cash.

The abundance of scammers and human trafficking enterprises undermines the credibility of legitimate organizations and makes our work more challenging and costly. This also makes it incredibly challenging for our volunteers and donors to know which organizations to trust. 

Issue #5: When Volunteers Engage in Harmful Interactions

Staying on the theme of orphanages, let’s say volunteers do visit a legitimate one. It is widely known that children in orphanages receive a limited amount of individual human contact a day – sometimes as little as 10 minutes (a statistic from rural Russia). It’s not difficult to empathize with the idea that visiting an orphanage to play with the kids, even for a few hours, is better than nothing at all.

But many volunteers don’t realize that these short encounters create attachment issues in children who otherwise have no consistent caregivers in their lives. Orphanage staff leave their positions and find new employment. Friends get adopted, transferred, or placed in foster homes without notice. And now, tourists enter the orphanages, wanting to take photos and play with the children. In the moment, it might be nice to have that attention, but ultimately those volunteers are not sticking around either. All this loss is hard on a kid. Having to say goodbye, yet again, to another person can make things worse. This 2019 article in Al Jazeera summed it up by saying:

“A lot of the children are really damaged. They are damaged firstly because they are being taken away from their parents, and then secondly a lot of them…have what is called an attachment disorder. So that they continuously get attached to a new person; a new volunteer plays with them, showers them with affection, and then leaves very quickly.”

As a result, most nonprofits that work directly with children in institutional care settings encourage volunteers to work directly with the caregivers, not the kids.

Being more aware of these five issues will help nonprofits determine the right elements of their work that can be outsourced to volunteers, and select the right volunteers for the job. In every one of our volunteer assignments, we want to make sure we are not doing more harm than good.