“Voluntourism” – giving back on your getaway – is on the rise. But, says Marina Sevier, making a positive impact requires research and careful planning.

“Voluntourism” has become an industry worth an estimated £1.5 billion per year, with up to 10 million “voluntourists” paying thousands of pounds to companies and charities to work in poor communities. It is now a mainstream tourism product, so much so that First Choice Travel purchased for-profit voluntourism operator i-to-i for £20 million in 2007, and in 2015 Carnival Cruises announced the launch of Fathom, a social-impact cruise that gives holidaymakers the chance to take part in “helping to cultivate cacao plants, building water filters and providing English tuition”.

In theory, “voluntourism” is an extremely attractive proposition: going on a trip abroad and giving something back, from teaching English in Nepal or helping rice farmers in Bangladesh to conserving marine life in Madagascar. Voluntourism can encompass anything from a student gap-year project to a skilled professional placement or a luxury family holiday with a few days volunteering. There are even plenty of opportunities to help out at home on volunteer holidays with the National Trust, the Conservation Volunteers or Vinspired.

But while “voluntourism” can offer a fulfilling experience, there is a growing degree of scepticism about the tangible benefits it brings to local communities. Critics argue that many volunteering organisations are driven by profit and have commoditised the experience of volunteering at the expense of actually addressing the needs of local people.

“Just because a product is volunteer tourism does not mean it has positive impacts,” says Victoria Smith in an article on voluntourism in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism. There is a risk that even the most altruistic traveller can do more harm than good and even the best of intentions can be misplaced, Smith argues. Volunteers could help build a school, knowing nothing about construction, collectively spending thousands of pounds on the project but creating a school the community cannot maintain. Instead, the money could have been spent making a lasting impact by funding a single classroom, books and a teacher’s salary while also giving work to a local tradesman.

The last two decades have also seen a boom in orphanage tourism, with some shocking unintended consequences. A 2014 report supported by UNICEF, Save the Children and other leading NGOs suggested that volunteers can have a detrimental psychological and emotional impact on children in institutional care. Stephen Ucembe, who grew up in an orphanage, describes his personal experience of volunteers: “We did indeed cling to their presence like they were never going to leave; but, eventually, they had to leave. All we could do was curl up and behave like nothing ever happened, but deep inside they had shattered our trust.”

A growing demand for volunteer placements in orphanages might actually be fuelling the “supply” of children, many of whom have families that could care for them. The report revealed that four out of five of the two million children who live in institutional care have at least one living parent. In the worst-case scenario, children have actually been trafficked into orphanages and kept destitute to attract tourist support and funding. Better Volunteering Better

Care promotes ethical volunteering as an alternative to supporting children. As a strict rule, unless you have the right qualifications, expertise and background checks, you should avoid orphanage volunteering. It is better to help children within their families.

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is the world’s leading international development organisation working with volunteers to tackle poverty in developing countries. CEO Dr. Philip Goodwin sees “a clear distinction between ‘voluntourism’ and ‘volunteering for development’, a category apart from the travel or tourism industry, based on the needs of the communities we work with rather than the travel plans of the volunteers”.

But it is not simply a matter of a charity organisation being good and a for-profit travel company bad, or of a longer volunteer commitment necessarily being better than a shorter project. Not even the overall fee is an indication of quality. The key criterion is whether the organisation is putting the genuine needs of the community at the centre of its mission. You, the customer, must ask the right questions and demand transparency upfront. Who are the local partners? What is the volunteer selection process and training? Where is the breakdown of costs? How is the project managed? Most importantly of all, what happens after the volunteers leave?

Alasdair Harris, executive director of the marine conservation social enterprise Blue Ventures, says, “Don't be afraid to grill the organisation on how the adventure you'll be undertaking will benefit the community. Ask what research has been published from the programme and what percentage of the fees are spent in-country.”

There are legitimate costs that need to be paid for in recruiting and responsibly managing volunteers, such as providing a safe environment, 24-hour emergency contacts, transportation, equipment, food to eat and a place to stay. People and Places, a social enterprise arranging placements in projects for community development, business, education and training, pays at least 80% of the volunteer’s fee to the local partner community. Kate Stefanko, placement director at People and Places says, “Good organisations will be transparent about everything.”

As a rule of thumb, arranging your volunteering should feel more like a job interview than simply booking a holiday. “The key is in the matching process,” says Kate Stefanko. “We take great care to match the skills and experience of the volunteers to the needs of the projects.” An organisation that is genuinely concerned about tackling poverty and safeguarding the volunteer will assess a volunteer’s suitability before a deposit is paid or the placement is confirmed.

Everyone has skills to offer. VSO and People and Places are perhaps best known for placing volunteers with professional experience, but young adults and students can also make a worthwhile difference, from working within a team on marine-data collection with Blue Ventures or building a playground in Uganda with the small charity East African Playgrounds, to joining the UK government’s global volunteering initiative for 18-to-25 year-olds, the International Citizen Service, which works with nine trusted providers, including VSO. It can be a formative experience of learning and giving. As one young volunteer from Blue Ventures says, “Participating in the data collection was fascinating. There were many moments of physical and emotional discomfort when faced with the harshness of life and the depth of the poverty. I am truly grateful that BV actively made those moments available to, rather than sheltered them from, the volunteers.”

With experience-led “voluntourism” you are likely to have a fascinating and possibly life-changing holiday, but you will not necessarily make a tangible difference to a cause – and you may even have unintentional negative impacts. A good alternative is just to travel as a tourist with an ethical travel agency, where you can potentially bring more sustainable benefits to a community by supporting the local economy and immersing yourself in and learning about another culture. You could go that extra mile with the charity Stuff Your Rucksack, founded by TV presenter Kate Humble. It helps responsible travellers connect with and deliver basic-but-essential provisions – such as toothbrushes, pencils and maps – to projects and communities in need around the world.

Get it right, says VSO’s Philip Goodwin, and “overseas volunteering is a powerful, practical and sustainable way to tackle poverty”. It can also be immensely rewarding. Don’t be put off: just do the research, ask the right questions and look for transparency.