I listened to a short radio article yesterday on the BBC 4 consumer programme ‘You and Yours‘ – it’s about 40 minutes in.
It was very disappointing. A young medical student called Savannah recounted a disturbing story about “a large sending organisation” that had placed her in poor accommodation and at a challenging project with no support – I think the interview was about 4 minutes. It did nothing but sensationalise – it was prurient in its sensationalisation of what sounded like a horrid and worrying experience for the volunteer (and by inference her co-volunteers).
This was not the fault of the volunteer or the journalist, Phillipa Jacks, who was also being “interviewed”– the time she had was less than a minute. This was radio journalism at it worst – collect a horror story – report it and do nothing – nothing to address the issue – Savannah also mentioned a good experience she had had with a local charity– neither organisation was named – what was achieved? – what can the consumer learn from this? – I’d bet my house on the fact that “big operator” has much more marketing buck than the local charity and knows all the right marketing language to use – so who is the potential volunteer going to find first when left to their own research??
This post however is not about the shortcoming of ‘You and Yours’.
It’s a piece about what’s happening because volunteers are not naming organisations that mislead and mis-sell – and how constructive criticism can be really advantageous to volunteers in helping them to avoid the kind of situation Savannah found herself in.
The radio programme happened within hours of Mary posting on the better volunteering page on face book – read it here
(better volunteering is a campaign page for the improvement of volunteer travel.)
Mary volunteered in Sri Lanka – she has named the two organizations that were involved in her volunteer experience – she has detailed some of her concerns. I suspect there are more – and she has made suggestions for how these can be improved. She has posted on an open forum – both organisations will be able to respond if they wish. There is no mistake about the organisations in question – (unlike the radio interview.) Future volunteers have access to that information – it can be shared. I have no reason to believe that Mary’s experience was unique – we know that many people need someone else to take the first step to complain and then they will follow suit.
Mary is to be commended – reading her post one can see that she went to great pains to be constructive in her criticism.
As Eric Hartman said in a blog post yesterday
“Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of potential consumers, who see themselves as good people, who know relatively little about community and international development – are interested in purchasing a global service experience. One of the easiest things to sell is the perception of having done good – to a person who sees herself as good and is unfamiliar with the place she visits.
This dynamic presents an opportunity for unscrupulous study abroad and voluntourism companies. Too often, these organizations have no commitments to the communities where they work – and may even lack development experience. Bright photos filled with an exotic background, the appearance of diversity, and smiling children will recruit participants and fill the coffers. This is a problem. And it leads to the reasonable criticisms of shoddy voluntourism. But too often critiques like this seem to dismiss the whole sector.”
And this is the problem – whilst volunteers are not naming the organisations that mislead and mis-sell to them, those very organisations are able to hide behind an industry critique – they are not accountable – they suffer no more than the sector as a whole. They do not change.
We, at people and places, have heard many stories about poorly served volunteers and exploited communities – from the volunteers and the communities themselves. It would be ineffective for me to name the organisations concerned – it would be hearsay and defended as such. Communities find it extraordinarily difficult to name organisations – many are dependent financially on the volunteer programme – and they either have contractual obligations not to criticise or they know that such criticism will lead to the loss of income they have come to depend on.
The volunteer – the paying customer – has so much more power.
Those who have volunteered can –
- complain directly to the organisation concenred – giving clear details and examples
- name and shame – publish on the social networks – write to the volunteer directories – post in the forums you and your friends use. We have to start calling individual organisations to account – it is too easy for them at the moment – the blanket condemnation of volunteer travel hides their irresponsibility
- post positive reports if you have had a good experience – but make them balanced – point out the challenges too – there will certainly have been challenges if your placement was worthwhile! These honest and balanced reports will contrast with the growing number of ridiculously glowing reports posted on the forums etc that were not written by volunteers themselves.
- if the organisation is a member of a trade association or the like, report them to that association – for example ABTA, Year Our Group, responsibletravel.com – if they have misled or mis-sold to you, report them to Trading Standards
Those who are planning to volunteer can –
- when you research online – look further than the paid Google ads and the first couple of pages on the directories – many of the better volunteer organisations cannot afford to advertise – and certainly not on every site. Many directories (not all) prioritise organisations that advertise with them and the other organisations appear at the end of the listings
- make sure part of your research involves getting onto forums and asking about the organisation you plan to travel with – and be aware that some answers you receive may appear to be from previous volunteers but are not.
It’s quite simple really – you were sold a product – did you get that product? – no? – complain directly to the organization – if you get a satisfactory response and can see that your complaints have been addressed, great – if not go public – but always ensure your criticism is balanced and justified with real examples form your experience – and always give the organisation you are complaining about an opportunity to reply.