August 18, 2017 3 min read

A guest post by Sarah Reid - Ecotravelist

Voluntourism is big business. It can also be a pretty shady business, which has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children, amongst some other pretty depressing findings that have led many experts to warn travellers off voluntourism completely. But it’s not all bad news – there are some wonderful organisations (mostly NGOs) around the world helping to enact real change, and if you have the right intentions and are properly qualified to help, there are plenty of opportunities to lend a hand. Before signing up to any project, ask yourself these questions to ensure your time and money is not spent in vain.


Would you still do it if you couldn’t Instagram it?
It might sound cynical, but this question forces you to analyse your intentions. Do you legitimately want to help people (or animals) in need, or are you more interested in posting pictures on social media to make you look good, or using the experience as career leverage on your Linkedin profile? Perhaps you have a ‘savior complex’, or maybe you just want to volunteer because it makes you feel good. If you’re more interested in what volunteering can do for you (aka all of the above) than what you can do to help, you may end up doing more harm than good. 


Does the organisation have the same values and intentions as you? 
It’s an unfortunate reality that many volunteering organisations around the world are designed to make money, rather than change lives (and many hide this fact very well). If you’re set on volunteering, do your research to help choose an NGO that is genuinely invested in their cause. Key questions to ask include:

·      How much of your money goes to the organisation, and how is it spent? Be wary of organisations that are not transparent about this information.

·      How does the organisation operate? If it’s an orphanage, how does it acquire its charges, and how are the children treated? If it’s an animal ‘conservation’ facility, what kind of legitimate conservation initiatives does the organisation employ? Do not take the organisation’s website at face value. 

·      Does the organisation work closely with the community, or does it decide what’s best for the community? This kind of neo-colonial attitude should raise alarm bells.

·      If the organisation offers the opportunity to work with children, does it require qualifications, background checks, and a commitment of at least three months? Child protection experts claim these should be standard requirements for working with vulnerable children.


Would you trust yourself – or be legally allowed – to do the job at home?
Chances are, you would not be able to work closely with vulnerable children in your own country without the appropriate qualifications and checks. Neither would you be allowed to build a school if you’re not a chippie. The same rules should be applied when working or volunteering abroad. Instead of jumping into a task that you’re not qualified to do, offer to help organisations with the skills you already have. If you’re a graphic designer, offer to build the organisation a website. If you’re a tradie, find out if the organisation needs anything fixed. If you don’t have any transferable skills, donate school or medial supplies to a responsible community member who can be trusted to distribute the items fairly among the community.


For more eco travel tips, check out Sarah's website or Instagram @ecotravelist

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