Why You Should Not Volunteer While Traveling

The problem with volunteering overseas is that most do not have a skill set that is really needed for the volunteering position and most organizations want a minimum commitment of 6 months to really “make a difference,” not three days.

Be honest with yourself, why do you want to volunteer?   Volunteers benefit more from the programs than the actual organizations.   Wanting to help is never a bad thing but are you really helping or wanting an experience for yourself?

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We have all seen the Facebook photo with the 20 something westerner posing with kids in tattered clothes and no shoes. This picture of course proves to all what a good person they are as they take a break from spending the average local monthly income of that country on a day of drinking to volunteer at a school. I know I sound super pessimistic but it is the reality of the for-profit volunteer system that is rampant in many countries.

The top international volunteer jobs are:

  • Teaching English
  • Building a school/ community center
  • Taking care of animals

Teaching English

This is the one attribute that most Americans have as English is our first language. Having taught English in Korea for 5 years with no teaching credentials it took me a solid year of looking up on the internet “what is an adverb?” to finally be a somewhat decent teacher. It also took a long time to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Sadly, my students learned a minimal amount of English during my first year in Korea.

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After my first year of teaching high school students I quickly learned my grasp of English grammar was minimal so I ventured into kindergarten where I excelled at singing songs about Annie Apple and Zig Zag Zebra and my Macarena dance that coincided with the months of the year that I created after weeks of dancing in front of my mirror was a success, especially the shimmy shake at the end!

Realize that you may speak English but teaching English is a whole new ball game. It took me a year to understand how to do this properly and I feel horrible for those parents who paid me to teach their kids because I really didn’t succeed at doing that my first year.

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Here is me teaching English to a kindergarten in Korea.  This was my third year teaching English at a kindergarten and I was much better teaching this age group.

Building a School

Have you ever built anything in your life? If the answer is no, what makes you think you can build a school. Building a pencil holder in 8th grade shop class does not count either.   The local people are skilled builders with most having built their own homes using the material that surrounds them so most of the local workers will be providing you with the skills on how to build, not vice versa.

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The tag line for this image is “immerse yourself in the culture by learning to build a structure from a palm tree.”  This “volunteer” is learning how to build a house but I don’t think she is volunteering, she instead is being taught a skill by a local, yet the local is probably not being paid to teach her.  How exactly is she helping?

When building any public facility you need to make sure it is not a government-backed project. If the government is funding the project then they need to hire the manpower to build the school. If you come in and volunteer you are taking jobs from the locals. So first and foremost you need to find out who is funding the project. If it is the state you are actually hindering the community more than helping.  If it is a legit non-profit and they need laborers then by all means but make sure to find out who you are helping.  

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Helping Animals

I feel like these volunteer programs are the most useful but I don’t really think they are volunteer programs necessarily but more educational. You learn about the behaviors and habitats of the animals and you spend a few hours a day doing maintenance support or shadowing a full time employee to see how they care for the animals and/or the habitats.   Some of the companies that support wildlife were started not to preserve wildlife conservation but to take your money.  There are many elephant volunteer camps started purely for this purpose.  You mostly take pictures with the elephants and bathe them as part of your “volunteer” program. There are many legitimate volunteer programs that help animals but again do your research and to become a full time volunteer most conservations and shelters require a 6 month commitment and again it is hard work.

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The key is to do your due diligence and research the programs. Find out where your money goes and who is running the programs. Real volunteer work is hard work and not a vacation; understand the difference. Any company that promotes volunteer work alongside a vacation puts up red flags in my book.  

If you have less than a few months to volunteer then don’t do it. You will make more of a difference by supporting the local community by buying things locally and using local guides and home stays, which will pump much needed income into the local economy.

How do you do this?

Hire locals on the street to show you around, use local accommodation, buy locally…..as you can see anything that helps locals is the best!

I suggest not donating money directly to any organization as once you hand over the money usually the person you gave it to will just pocket it.  If you donate money directly make sure it is to a reputable organization.

Cambodia Orphanage Scandal

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Be educated, mindful and aware when you travel and most importantly have fun!

During my research I came upon this blog that tells you how to find meaningful volunteer opportunities abroad.   www.alittleadrift.com.

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