Volunteer Travel – less bitching more balance needed!

By Sallie Grayson. Filed in good and bad practice  |  
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There has been much criticism of volunteer travel – and  “voluntourism” recently. (Where and how the two differ and the confusion caused by the subjective use of the two terms is fodder for a whole other post –  I must do that one day soon!)

We at people and places are leading much of that criticism – I like to think that we campaign by demonstrating good practise and highlighting  bad practise…. but I am concerned that we may be getting the balance wrong.

thanks to Action for Happiness for this image

I saw this picture the other day and, for me, it crystalises what I think those of us who are  campaigning for better and more responsible volunteering  should be doing now.

A recent article in Independent Voices and the responses caused me huge concern. Such vitriolic name calling serves no one – it is little more than bitching. All too many articles in publications and online are becoming blanket condemnations of the “volunteer travel industry” and the volunteers themselves….. particularly if those volunteers are young.

Last week Kate and I attended our first ever student volunteering  fair at Manchester Metropolitan University. (We firmly believe that well placed, well matched and  well prepared young volunteers can be effective – we have seen it ourselves with the younger volunteers who have travelled with us to date)

The vast majority (95%) of the students we talked with have thought about many of the implications of their presence in vulnerable communities, and whether they have anything of value to offer.

YES –  they are motivated by a degree of self interest – as we all are –  BUT

  • they want to learn more about how to travel ethically
  • they want to be sure that they are doing less harm than good
  •  they want to be responsible.

Their problem?

  • how on earth to work out who to believe
  • where to find guidance to make the right choices –
  • how to negotiate their way thru the buzz words we all use to find the organisations that “do what it says on the tin”

So what should we be doing to assist these young people who WILL continue to travel 

We who are campaigning can –

  • give examples of good practise every time we publish something about bad practise – this is particularly true of journalists and bloggers
  • if you are a directory listing volunteer agencies – be honest about how an organisations advertising spend will influence how high up that organisation appears in the searches ( I know –  dream on Sallie – but not one of the students I talked with realised this was common practise and most believed the order of appearance is some form of endorsement by the listing directory)
  • stop telling  volunteers – young ones particularly-  that they will do more harm than good – and start explaining how they can ensure they do more good than harm – they want to and will travel with or without our advice!

Those who have volunteered can –

  • name and shame –  if you’ve had a bad experience – 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 (I would love to name and shame for you – but I can’t – it wasn’t my experience – so it is only hearsay – and will be defended as such)
  • 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.

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  – if you run one of these –  please let me know and we will happily promote you!) 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.

As our local partner Paul Miedema from South Africa said in his passionate presentation  at a conference last year  (watch him from 26 mins 30 seconds)

” It’s time for us to do better “

3 Comments

  1. Comment by Sallie:

    This just in from Billy at volunteer forever http://www.volunteerforever.com/home – so thats one organisation that doesnt use ad revenue to decide pecking order for volunteer organisations – and by the way I knew that when I wrote the above blog – just wanted to be completely balanced!

  2. Comment by Sallie:

    This is what Billy wrote to me
    Hi Sallie great post, agree it’s important to focus on what actions we can take to move things in the right direction rather than always focusing on what’s wrong. I think changing the standard revenue model for organization directories can be part of the solution, that’s what we’re trying to do with Volunteer Forever. By not accepting any advertisement or listing revenue from orgs, we’re letting the reviews dictate positioning. And for the reviews themselves, we’re hoping that out ability to validate users that have raised funds on our site (and give more weight to those reviews, since we know they’re real) will help. We still have a long way to go- we’re definitely not the most-used directory platform by any means and we need more user reviews before we can say that ratings are accurate. But hopefully by offering a new business model for directories we can, as we grow, contribute to the points you mentioned in your post.
    By Billy Beltz

  3. Comment by Sallie:

    Take a look at the discussions going on in the comments section of the Indepenent article – what do you think? http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-tragic-rise-of-gap-year-voluntourism-8473608.html

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