Voluntourism, tips and bias
During the last century, travelling has evolved with people needs into many, different niches. One of these needs, which is changing travelling as we know it, is the need to give back: conscious travels brought people to do more when exploring a new country, not much to live like a local – mostly, to have a positive impact while discovering the place and understand the social, political and environmental reality of a destination.
This new category has been baptized as “voluntourism”, and it is claimed to be born in the 60s. Despite the description might sound inspiring, volunteering when traveling has been criticized many times: this happens because not all travellers are aware of what volunteering implies. Moreover, not all the voluntary organizations know how to structure, develop, and manage a travel experience focused on positive volunteering.
If you plan to focus your next trip on voluntary actions (and personal growth), here are some points you should be aware, before making this choice.
- Learning comes first. It comes by devoting time and energy, with a humble willingness to integrate into cultural dynamics of a certain community. We cannot improve the education of a child until we first know his background and his real needs. Just as we cannot make a ground fertile if first the features are not known. For this reason, we must pay great attention when choosing the company with which we decide to travel and do volunteer work. To get a positive, real impact, the organization which we choose must have a team dedicated to the cause, with a good knowledge of the social and environmental context of the destinations. A local team, for example, is always the advisable option. But “learning” does not only refer to specialized skills or backgrounds: that is something to be learnt from the outside, but never forget what we can learn from the inside.
- Be the volunteer you want to see fighting by your side – not the hero you dream of. Empathy, compassion, respect, and openness are fundamental for you to have a growing experience as well as for the community you are going to support. You will have to negotiate your values, uses and habits with the local ones, and they can be vastly different from you culture of origin.
Moreover: you are not going to change the world, but the world will be a better place after you dedicate some time of your travel to help others – and imagine if each one of us would act like this.
- Be sure your presence in a destination is not “feeding” a bad practice. For example, if we are thinking of making a cash donation, we should not do it to people in difficulty who are not part of an association, or who we do not know well. Our cash donation could be spent, rather than on necessities, in the purchase of drugs, gambling or prostitution. Instead, we can use our money to purchase food, clothes and whatever is needed at local markets, thus fuelling the economy of small communities, and promoting small business, as well as promoting a healthy image of cash donations. This way, you have a positive impact on local economy – especially if you make sure that your volunteering work is not replacing a job position which could be paid, by hiring a local. Some companies might rely on volunteer work to avoid taxation and invest less money in human resources. And this is not the way a destination and its community can develop and live a fair, healthy life.
- Respect local associations and NGOs and be aware of their activities. If you want to organize your own volunteering or come up with an idea to help local communities and fight for a cause, do not do it autonomously. Remember that you do not know enough about local reality. Instead, partner up with a local organization that can guide you, and get the best outcome of your intentions.
- If you care about kids, you should be aware of what is “orphanage tourism”. There are some associations that claim to take care of orphaned children, but in reality many of them still have parents alive: if they live in certain orphanages, it is because they were stolen from their parents (or worse, sold) and used to attract tourists and probable cash donations. Always inquire carefully about the orphanages you decide to visit, and report abuse or illegal actions if you witness it.
- If you care about animals, you should make careful researches about the sanctuary you volunteer at. Some sanctuaries – as mentioned above – may take advantage of volunteer work in order not to invest in human resources. This damages not only people, but also the animals themselves (as they need to receive specialized assistance).
- Give value to numbers. If you participate as a volunteer in an environmental project – such as cleaning up a marine area, examining a land poisoned by chemicals or experiencing the effects of pollution on local fauna – make sure you can access the collected data, to share what has been witnessed and what has been achieved through your work. The kilograms of microplastic collected on a beach, the wipes extracted from a marine area or the number of appearances of animal species that increase again: these numbers testify to the positive impact of our actions, and help us understand if we are doing well or not.
As ImpacTrip, we believe that the friendships, the cross-cultural learning, and the life changes one can get when volunteering – especially far away from comfort zones – should inspire travellers and set in motion a mechanism that can contribute to Earth’s conservation and societies’ improvement. As we take volunteer work and its impact very seriously, we decide to create local teams for each one of our destinations – Lisbon, Oporto, Barcelona and Split. Local teams composed of local coordinators, fully conscious about the cultural context in the area, ready to welcome each volunteer with an accurate introduction based on a social, environmental, and sustainable overview of the country. We partner with local no profit associations which are socially and environmentally active, by providing them support with our volunteers and our local coordinators’ consultancy – to improve existing projects and create new ones. We evaluate our impact and how our volunteers contribute to a positive change in society, by giving them feedback and talking to the associations about the way we collaborate. Consequently, the following can be identified as some of the most important values in ImpacTrip:
- We are transparent about the programs and the experiences we promote, and we are always available to answer our volunteers’ and travellers’ questions.
- We prioritize non-governmental organizations. Our support usually goes to no-profit organizations that can positively benefit from our programs and activities, and which are active in making the difference in the society and creating a positive impact on their beneficiaries.
- We create and update internal policies to protect the welfare and interests of the communities we decide to support. Our policies apply to all dimensions of our company, from our staff members to clients and suppliers. For example, for our Children Education Program, Teaching Program and Special Needs Support Program, we issued a strict policy on volunteers’ proximity and activities: it means there will never be volunteers working in the same place where kids or disable people live (like family shelters or specialized structures). The goal is to respect and take care of kids’ and disable people’s privacy and safety, by never exposing them to any risk of abuse, exploitation, violence, or any kind of neglection.
- All our policies, programs and actions are based on non-discrimination.
Each travel should be done responsibly, not only for the purpose of travelling: and the only way to do it is by being open to learn, work hard and make sure you have the same effect as a seed, and leave beautiful flowers behind your steps. But the real beauty of volunteering is that – once we’re back home – we found seeds planted in ourselves: we leave with the idea of going somewhere to give back and do something good to other, but the truth is that volunteers received a great lesson from life.
You will not change the world, but the world will change you – if you let it. And that is the most silent, efficient way to take care of each one on our unique, precious planet.
DANIELA APPARENTE, ImpacTrip Italy Local Experience Manager & Dreambuilder