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Volunteer tourism, dubbed ‘voluntourism’, the practice of carrying out volunteer work abroad, has long been a controversial topic, making headlines once again over summer. The latest example is a NowThis video, featuring Samantha Nutt, founder and Executive Director of War Child Canada, who lays out the often negative impacts of voluntourism, feverently discouraging the practise. Nutt outlines how a revolving door of volunteers, carrying out work that greatly outstrips their skill-set, both takes away work and wages from local people and fails to put money in the hands of front-line workers – who are better equipped and specially trained. In doing so, she presents voluntourism as a wholly unsustainable practice.

What does ‘Voluntourism’ have to do with you?

But why does this matter? Is volunteerism not simply the venture of naïve young adults looking for a feel-good holiday on their gap year? In fact, most of the negative impacts outlined by Nutt are completely applicable to volunteers of any age, and her warnings must be heeded by anyone with an interest in undertaking volunteer work in any capacity. In light of this, it is necessary to highlight the ways in which you and your employees can ensure any volunteer work carried out in the name of CSR is responsible, sustainable and reflective of your ethos as a company.

What can be done to ensure volunteer work is socially responsible?

  • Firstly, determine whether volunteering is the most appropriate course of action for your chosen cause. In some cases, it may be more prudent to support a cause financially rather than through volunteer work. This is particularly true when contributing to causes abroad: in these instances, the often high costs of travel, accommodation and food must be covered before any charitable work has even started. This means that the volunteer work that is eventually carried out must be of extremely high value so that initial costs are not merely covered but are also worth it. Thus ensuring that money spent on expensive flights would not have been better spent as a donation to pre-existing foreign aid charities working on the ground in the community you wish to support.


  • Be realistic about the relative value of the volunteer work you can offer as an individual. It’s vital to consider whether it might be more sustainable for work to be carried out by local people, gaining training and employment and exercising skill sets which will help to build up their community and economy in the longterm.


  • Furthermore, and particularly if volunteering abroad, it is important to properly safeguard the community you wish to help. In order to volunteer in the care sector in the UK, an individual must hold two references, a DBS check and undergo an interview and training, so if an organisation abroad is offering the opportunity to volunteer with vulnerable people, such as children, without any checks or qualifications, this should be an immediate red flag.


  • Prepare to be in it for the longrun. As highlighted by Nutt, one of the major issues with voluntourism is its transient nature. Most volunteers will spend a maximum of several weeks with an organisation, making it somewhat difficult for individuals to trace sustainability of a project in the longterm. Whilst extended volunteering may be a more significant commitment, it could help to alleviate some of the potential issues associated with voluntourism, whilst enabling you to gain specific training in areas most valuable to the charitable cause.


  • If you are volunteering on a short-term basis, consider spending your time with an environmental charity rather than working with young children in schools and orphanages. For some this may seem like a less personally rewarding prospect, but your conscience may rest easier in the knowledge that your work has had no detrimental effect on vulnerable young people. Whilst wanting to care for children and helping to teach and nuture them is laudable, Nutt explains how an ever-changing pack of volunteers, coming fleetingly into children’s lives, only to leave, never to be seen again, can have a severe impact on their psychological wellbeing.


  • Go local. Working with a local organisation will make it considerably easier to ensure that your volunteer work is sustainable for both your chosen cause and for you, as initial costs will be kept to a minimum and it may be easier to form a more long-standing program of maintained volunteering involving more regular commitment from your employees.


  • Seek to learn from your past volunteering experiences. If you have previously embarked on ‘voluntourism’ trips, look back at your experience and identify areas in which your contribution to local communities could be made more ethical for any future trips. Consider not only the deep complexities of development issues but also how long-term change can be brought about over time. Critically analysing how you may best champion change in the longterm may initially leave you feeling like more of a student than a superhero, but over time, will allow you to gain a deeper understanding and ultimately be of greater help to your cause.

The ongoing controversy around voluntourism doesn’t necessarily have to spell the end for the volunteering sector as a whole. However, it does highlight how necessary precautions must be taken in order to guarantee that your volunteering work will be as beneficial as possible to the community you seek to help. Above all, before undertaking volunteer work, it is important to be clear to yourself what you wish to gain from this experience, endeavour to truly understand the situation of the community you are working with and know that there will be no quick fix for any long-term problem. In doing so, you will always be of better service to those who are in need of help.

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