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Voluntourism: What it is and How to avoid it

What is “Voluntourism”?

“Voluntourism” is a newer travel trend that combines volunteering with tourism, and from what I’ve observed doesn’t do either very well.

Though the idea sounds good in theory and “voluntourists” are nearly always well intentioned, (otherwise they would spend their precious vacation time in Ibiza or Cancun) the resulting waste and unintended consequences bring into question if more damage than good is being done. The effects that the presence of voluntorists, the money voluntourists bring in, and the activities of the administering organization undertaking are (usually) at best a waste of valuable resources that could be used better in hardship areas and at worst does significant long term damage to the people and environments they mean to help.

A prime example of voluntourism: elephants in Asia.  Most people that travel know someone that has “volunteered” with elephants, right? Elephants that have been “rescued”?  This experience is commonly seen as superior to the tourist traps that let you ride elephants for a fee after you watch them do tricks and paint a picture for you.  The problem is that even many of these “elephant sanctuaries” perpetuate a cycle of exploiting these elephants that the volunteers are trying to help.

Many of these “elephant sanctuaries” haven’t actually freed the elephants.  The “sanctuaries” are just paying the owners of the elephants to let the elephants stay at the sanctuaries, essentially renting the elephants from the owners so that “volunteers” can enjoy the experience of “volunteering” with the elephants, paid for by those volunteers.  By doing so, they perpetuate the cycle of elephant ownership and exploitation.

So, by “volunteering” the participants are perpetuating the thing that they wish to see abolished (elephant ownership and exploitation).

Whether you believe that elephant ownership and use for labor is wrong or right isn’t important for the point being made.  The point is that many times volunteers are, by their own standards, doing more harm than good.  This is the dilemma and dirty underbelly of voluntourism, and these unintended effects happen much more often with people than elephants.  So it was interesting that during my time on the island, I met a social anthropologist who was researching the “culture of volunteers” just I was asking the question of where the line is that exists between volunteering and voluntourism.

This social anthropologist was very ninja like in measuring the opinions she expressed, which I respect, but the things I saw her pay attention to, and the questions she asked made me think a lot more about the ultimate question – is volunteering worth it?

My opinion, based on my own experiences and observations, is that volunteering can be beneficial on a case by case basis and depends highly on the skills and personality of the individual volunteer, but it can just as easily be damaging or a waste. On the otherhand, voluntourism is (usually) at best a waste of resources and at worst highly damaging to fragile situations and populations.

More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis

  • Preface: Voluntourism – What Is It, and Why to Avoid It
  • Part 1: The Beginning. The Reasons.  The Dilemma
  • Part 2: Teaching English, Serving Coffee, Going Solo
  • Part 3: Translating in Moria Refugee Camp, Steps from Hell, and the Meaning of “A Brother Abroad”
  • Part 4: A Crash Course in Teaching English and a Worthwhile Venture
  • Part 5: Riots in the Refugee Camp and The Exodus of the Kurds – Politics, Cowardice, and Voluntourism
  • Part 6: Oh the places you’ll go, and the people you’ll meet…all over a cup of coffee
  • Part 7: Welcome to Greece. Welcome to the Real World. Welcome home.
  • Part 8: The Burnout. The Inevitable. What I Learned about the Reasons I Came.


Why voluntourism can do more damage than good

Here’s a popular example. In impoverished parts of Africa, volunteering and aid work have been common for some time. People come from far away to help deliver useful material goods to an impoverished community. Unfortunately, many experienced aid workers argue that this results in the helped communities becoming reliant on “being given a fish” instead of “being taught to fish.” In other words, the community being helped is being cultivated into a paralyzed community that will eventually lack the innovation and ingenuity to survive on its own and instead require assistance indefinitely.

Also, this altered power structure, with mysterious foreigners coming in to fill roles of power as solution providers and resource providers once filled by locals, can do irreparable damage to social structures of such places if done indiscriminately, some also argue.

Granted this is an extreme case, but this scenario can exist to varying degrees, paralyzing the communities aimed to be helped. In many situations, such when the UN and peacekeeping forces went into Somalia in the 90’s, this is the only humane answer, but in plenty of other cases it poses the possibility heavy damage to the community.

But, when you add the economic incentive that tourism providers consistently chase by making such operations “volunteering experiences” you add the murky factor of the almighty dollar (or Euro) to an otherwise righteous (but still murky) cause. Consistently doing the right thing in impoverished areas and crisis situations is hard enough. Doing the right thing in a crisis situation while trying to make a few dollars is seriously questionable, as is paying to participate in a crisis sitation.

This dilemma is partly why I’m such a proponent of empowering refugees, and any disadvantaged community, with useful education (language, vocational skills, personal development) and gainful employment as these options aim to cultivate a populace that can stand on its own, not needing voluntourism to thrive. That is why during my trip to Lesvos I gravitated so heavily to the idea of teaching English and working with a team to create and deliver free English study materials to become conversationally fluent as quickly as possible

Waste in Action: $3,000 Price Tag for 6 Weeks of Volunteering

An example of waste and excess in volntourism from recent experiences was observed by a friend on Lesvos. A particular NGO requires volunteers to pay ~$3,000 to volunteer for a 6 week experience. This ~$3,000 covered shared accommodation (think hostel), administration (managing the volunteers), and daily shared transportation (think “shared shuttle”). For 5 weeks on Lesvos, in a one bedroom apartment in the center of downtown, with a rental car I only paid about $950. You do the math as to whether the $3,000 was worth it. Better yet, think about where that extra ~$2000 a month per volunteer is going…and what it could be used for instead.

I found it interesting that the NGO’s website also lists that it has “fundraising mentors” that guide participants in raising money in their community to pay for the $3,000 price tag of their trip. I immediately thought of the salaries and overhead expenses those “fundraising mentors” require which is paid for by volunteers and donations, and alternatively could go towards medicine, more nutritious food for refugees, or paying to bring mission critical personnel (doctors, lawyers, therapists, etc.) into the camps.

The kicker is that this organization, with the $3,000 for a 6 week experience price tag had their volunteers in Moria Camp painting trash cans. Now, in case you don’t remember, Moria Camp is the refugee camp on Lesvos. 7,000 people live in a space intended for 2,000. There aren’t enough facilities and infrastructure (sleeping, bathing, sewage disposal, etc.) to support this number of people and the result is an entire camp filled with sick people exchanging diseases all amidst the smell of human waste and trash without enough doctors or medical providers to keep everyone healthy. In this scenario, the best task these people could find was painting trash cans so that someone else could come by and paint flowers on them? I’ll let you decide if that money and manpower was used wisely.

Now, speaking of this same organization (we’ll call them “$3,000 for 6 weeks”), let me introduce some of the iffy politics of Lesvos, Greece to you. The organization I was with, though at times misdirected (as all organizations will be from time to time) genuinely made very proactive attempts on a daily basis to ensure we were always having maximum impact on the lives of refugees with our resources. We constantly experimented with ways to give back in a more efficient way and operated with minimal overhead and outside funding. The organization I was with spotted for boats filled with refugees coming from Turkey, taught English with minimal training and resources, and setup a café for refugees from scratch and through local partnerships, all while augmenting the operations of other NGOs – but we weren’t allowed in Moria Camp. It was illegal for us to be in the camp and if caught, our organization would pay for it heavily.

On the other hand, the organization with a $3,000 price tag for a 6 week experience and its volunteers were allowed to enter the camp…to paint trash cans. Now, to be fair, they likely did more in the camps than that, but if anyone has enough time to do that, I’d argue they’re not efficiently or gainfully employed. When approached later about what they did on a daily basis some replied that they usually helped serve food or played with the kids. What food servers or daycare providers do you know that make $3,000 per month after taxes? Odds are, you don’t know any, and that is indicative of how wasteful and worthless voluntourism can be, if you allow it to be.

A Side Effect of Voluntourism: Returning home with a skewed perception of “the real world”

Perhaps one of the most damaging elements of voluntourism is how, if unchecked, it can perpetuate small minded views of the world by taking insulated, fake, and structured experiences and selling them as unabridged and eye opening. In the case of these college aged kids that were painting trash cans and handing out food from 9 to 5, it can leave them thinking they’re “woke”, bearing a view of what “the world is really like” when in fact they’ve transported their own world with them during their travels, and destroyed much of the potential value in volunteering. They come as children and they potentially leave as children that have observed uncomfortable things and are thankful to live in the developed world, but they miss the deep lessons that come from experiencing the world while vulnerable, exposed, tired, raw, and flexibly as you let it shape you. This comes when impoverished people accept you into their culture because they see a likeness in you. It doesn’t come when you’re seen as a distant “helper” that maintains a higher power position and a superficial façade for the duration of the relationship.

This may sound extremely judgmental, I understand that. So, what makes me take on this perspective? The experiences and stories that refugees have shared with me.

There are perks to being a charismatic volunteer that understands a bit of Arabic when no other volunteers do. The refugees unexpectedly open up to you saying things like, “she’s the one that yells at us and doesn’t help anyone, we don’t know why she’s here” as they indicate one volunteer. “Those are the ones that get paid,” as they point to others. “We see them around a lot but we don’t know what they do. They’re nice, but they don’t do anything except stand around.” “He’s the one that is always ready to fight refugees.” Listening to statements like those about volunteers, as the volunteers being referred to stand right next to us, absolutely shaped my opinion about the value and waste of voluntourism. If the people we were there to help weren’t able to see any benefit being provided, was it really worth being there?

What is a “good” voluntourism experience or a worthwhile volunteer experience?

During one English class I was teaching on Lesvos, to allow the refugees to practice speaking English we went around the group and discussed valuable pieces of advice we had received in life.  One of the students gave a remarkably simple yet useful piece of advice from his Afghan grandfather.  “Be useful.  Don’t be useless.”

Well-meaning volunteers must be conscious of this strikingly useful piece of advice when volunteering, if they want to avoid the wasteful and damaging effects of voluntourism.

Only go where you know that you can be useful in a way that benefits in the long term.  While you are volunteering, ensure you are continually being useful to the community or cause that you intend to help and make sure that (as much as possible) you are doing no harm.

Most importantly, keep in mind why you are there. If you are present to help refugees in a certain way, make that your goal. Don’t put any mind to having a comfortable, Instagram worthy experience that you can brag to your friends about, because the second that you do, you’ve compromised the value of the experience – for yourself and whoever you aim to help. At that point, it is no longer a volunteer experience, its tourism.

But, maybe, a tourism experience is what you genuinely want? This leads to another good piece of advice: before you start, get honest with yourself about what you want from the experience.

Take a deep look at yourself and figure out what kind of person you are and how you will be able to contribute. After you have given this some though, communicate with people in the area (and organization) that you’ll potentially be going to. Try to understand if it is worthwhile and suitable based on your nature and your skillset. On Lesvos, there were quite a few half empty yoga classes and yoga teachers being turned away from NGOs because there were so many on the island, but every single English class was overbooked and refugees weren’t able to get in enough visits with therapists. To be the latter (needed and useful) and not the former (searching for an opportunity to help when you should already be helping) assess yourself beforehand and see if the volunteer opportunities that exist suit you. If they don’t, pass and look for an opportunity that does.

Talk to other volunteers that are aware of the risks of voluntourism and be sensitive to “picking up what they’re putting down”. No volunteer experience, or any experience for that matter, is perfect. So, make sure to talk to previous volunteers and listen to their critiques and thoughts on their experiences. Do they party with co-volunteers every night but question whether they created lasting positive impact? Did they work like slaves each day but found it to be the most fulfilling experience of their life? Did they find it difficult to work through the bureaucracy? Was it worth their time? Contact these people anyway you can – via email, Facebook, connection through a friend – and listen to what they say. Give their thoughts heavy weight in deciding how to invest your time. They have a perspective on the organization and its activities in a way that won’t make the NGO’s Facebook page and that you need in order to make a well informed decision.

What is a “Good Volunteer Experience”? (My opinion…)

As I would define it, a good volunteer experience provides personal growth to the volunteer and utility/value to the group being helped more than could otherwise be achieved if the dollars (the cost of the experience) was donated to an established organization. Additionally, I think a good volunteering experience creates immediate and lasting good for the community or cause we wish to help with the experience.

The trend I noticed: good volunteering experiences usually come from large, respected organizations with strict criteria for joining (think Red Cross) or grass roots organizations focused on a small mission (save one person, empowering through education, safe spaces for women, emergency clinics, etc.) and grow organically.

Examples of Great Volunteering Projects

One Happy Family: A aid model to follow

A prime example of a “good experience” or worthwhile volunteer organization on Lesvos was “One Happy Family”, also known as the Swiss Cross. To my understanding, this organization started as a grass roots attempt to create a school and teach kids held up on Lesvos so that they would not be behind their peers educationally when they made it to their future home countries. From this school, a community center grew with vocational classes (at the request of the refugees), fitness and yoga classes (at the request of the refugees), and a clinic named “Doc Mobile” that privately augmented the understaffed medical services officially provided in Moria Camp. The kicker: this project was primarily staffed by refugees. Security guards, cooks, teachers, yoga teachers, as many of them as possible were refugees that had been trained so that as many roles as possible were filled by refugees, not volunteers.

A Home for All

A grass roots project started by a Greek couple I love, Nikos and Katherina. What was once their restaurant on the shore of Gira Bay became a place where families of refugees could come to and have a free meal as a family, on Greek shores and away from the stresses and troubles of Moria Camp. This project started with them doing something based on common sense, inviting over families for dinner, and blossomed into a staple NGO on Lesvos. Volunteers (most commonly Dutch) make reservations in advance to spend the summers as hosts, waiters/waitresses, and dishwashers. A great situation for “unspecialized” volunteers to lend a hand if they sign up early enough. Is this operation? I think so. I think the respite it provides is useful to the emotional health (and staving off PTSD) in situations like Moria Camp.


Mosaik. This name comes up frequently on Lesvos. This organization empower refugees with education: English, Greek, tech & computer classes. You name it, they teach it. This organization gives refugees the skills necessary to thrive, not just survive. If you want to see what is required to have a worthwhile volunteer experience, contact these guys (and mostly gals) and ask them what help they need and what it takes to qualify. I promise there’s no $3,000 price tag

What types of volunteers are most needed in refugee camps?

Despite the fact that Voluntourists stand to cause a significant bit of waste or damage, the organizations above are proof that pure volunteering has the potential to do some amazing good. So who is best suited to volunteer in a way that creates unquestionable and lasting benefit?

  • Doctors, dentists, optometrists, and pediatricians
  • Mental health providers
  • Teachers and educators
  • Experienced aid workers
  • Translators
  • Experienced support providers for very specific, ongoing operations (e.g., IT support, PR and social media support, logistics and supply chain support)
  • Problem solvers and self-driven, adaptive people

Who is suited to volunteer and make a positive impact without having a volunteering experience?

The examples above are more likely than most naturally to fill a critical need in volunteering circles, especially relating to refugees, but you might have noticed that last line – “Problem solvers and self-driven, adaptive people.” These people are integral to crisis situations and ambiguous situations when the bean counters and structured personalities don’t know which way to move. These were the people that made the English classes and the café a big success and value to the refugees we served, even though we didn’t have any training being teachers or running a coffee shop.

If you have a proactive attitude and stance of “what’s the problem and how can we fix it”, and “what’s the situation and how can we make it better” then you can be the saving grace of in a smaller organization with a good mission. If you fit this character type, it’ll take some work and patience, but you stand a solid chance to do some good.

What if you aren’t one of these “types of volunteers” need in a refugee camp and but still genuinely want to help?

If you still want to help then you still have three options for doing some lasting good

  1. Connect with a well-established organization that has a defined mission that is still relevant and has a need for the specific or general support you can provide
  2. Collect a good amount of cash. Go to wherever you want to volunteer and connect with as many smaller organizations as possible assessing their mission, effectiveness, and needs. Then, provide funding and resources directly to resource strapped organizations that are on the right track.
  3. Learn some new skills in order to join one of the groups above.

Connecting with a well-established organization

Despite the bad reputation that large organizations get for inefficiency and slow reaction to rapidly changing problems they do have one good trait – they have a plan and stay the course. On Lesvos, no matter how many small NGOs rise and fall, the Red Cross will always be there in some shape or form. They’ll never solve all of the problems, but they will absolutely tackle some big ones and they need people to do that. You can be one of these people. These organizations are managed well enough to make good use of your time and energy and their reputations somewhat assure accountability.

Go to wherever you want to volunteer with a fistful of cash and make it rain…on small, productive organizations

A great example of this was a teammate named “L”. In the times between spotting, driving, teaching, and cafes, she slyly made her way around Lesvos talking to different NGOs about their missions, be they women’s issues, education, or just chillin’ (like our café).

For the café, she bought much needed materials for serving so that operations could be more efficient (like a real café) and more time could be spent being hospitable to the refugees, our guests. At the same time, she would go to medical clinics and provide much needed medications and schools to provide books and supplies. The price of her ticket alone was worth her actions. The way she injected much-needed funds into productive but small organizations that didn’t have enough time to market themselves effectively helped them survive. She also circumvented the “taxes of bureaucracy,” aka overhead, by going straight to the source of the need.

Another example is a young girl from California who showed up to Lesvos alone with a fistful of cash and asked around to find a need. She did. A lack of women’s hygiene products in the camp, due to costliness. Then, she spent the next few months (until her visa ran out) wandering around outside the refugee camp making friends and distributing hygiene packs. Simple, but unquestionably good.

Another girl from the US identified a different need. The refugees received a good amount of international attention and resources. Even though these resources weren’t enough, the resources were more than the Greeks, and the Greek children were receiving from the international community. The Greeks were sacrificing so much, but had been neglected in her opinion. So, she downloads movies, posts flyers, and shows up in tiny villages all over Lesvos playing open air movies for the children of the villages. Is it saving lives? No, but she’s offering children a two hour escape from their less than perfect situation while letting the Greeks know that the international community does support them. She is effectively creating the impact of an entire, multi-person NGO, all with a laptop, some creativity, and a bit of friendliness. And to answer your question, no, she doesn’t speak Greek.

Learning a new skill to make yourself competitive for volunteering opportunities

For about a week on Lesvos, my volunteer experience wasn’t going as planned and started to become a waste of time. So, I did what any independently minded person with a little salt and pepper would do – I refreshed some old skills and went free-agent in the volunteer community under the radar. I hadn’t spoken a word of Arabic (other than to taxi drivers) in about 7 years, but when I realized my volunteer experience was potentially not worth the price of my flight, I did hours of refreshing my Arabic and picked up a translation gig in Moria Camp that I was admittedly slightly underqualified for – at the start. By day 2, my Arabic was up to par and I was exchanging trash talk with friendly refugees just fine. It took some work, and the experience I gained (and the people I helped) made the work unquestionably worthwhile

For the best opportunities, you may need to pick up a skill. An organization I respect, ERCI, was in dire need of a skipper (captain for a small boat), lifeguards, and people with a bit of crisis related training. The experience of working with them would have been worth the cost (time and money) of a certification or two. A quick TEFL course might be an in to work with Mosaik, if you’re competent and driven. Perhaps you could teach yourself some French or Farsi on duolingo to make yourself invaluable? Even conversational level fluency could open doors.

Should Voluntourists feel guilty?

With all of this opportunity to create some “lasting good”, should the voluntourism crowd feel bad?

No. Absolutely not. As long as they are unaware of their potential impacts. I’ve never met a voluntourist that intentionally wanted to waste money or to damage the community they had arrived to help. On the other hand, after reading this, they should be aware of the potential impacts of voluntourism and be willing to accept responsibility for their impacts, if they were unaware of them before. Here’s a lesson I took from marketing – if you attempt to do two things extremely well, you’ll likely fail at doing either one moderately well. This usually applies in life. This also applies in volunteering.

Volunteer. Vacation and be a tourist. Pick one and do it well. Then pick the other and do it as best as you can. Avoid doing both at once, because you’ll likely fail at both.

So if you’re intent on volunteering, how can you identify a good organization to volunteer with?

Assess any organization you might join in these 5 areas and you will very likely uncover if the organization is suited to you, your strengths, and what you want to achieve:

  1. Does the organization have a well-defined mission and well-defined problem that they are trying to solve? Is the problem still a relevant and pressing issue?
  2. Does the organization take a well-defined, structured approach to solving its chosen problem?
  3. Does the organization have a well-defined, structured approach to how they are using volunteers to solve the problem? Are volunteers the best option for solving the chosen problem (not refugees, locals, professionals, etc.)?
  4. Does the organization efficiently and openly use funds, donations, and resources in an ethical matter? (You’d be surprised by the waste that occurs by organizations)
  5. **Optional** What is the organization’s structure like? The need for a structured organization is dependent on your personality type. If you are a level 12 cubicle warrior, having a well-defined organizational and reporting structure with consistent direction may be in your best interests. If you’re a lone soul prone to going rogue (like me) then a lack of structure and “freedom of movement” may required for you to be efficienct. In either case, think about this when sifting through organizations.

Tips for Volunteering

As navigating the world of volunteering can be daunting, whether it’s with elephants, pulling up fences in Patagonia, or teaching English to refugees, here are some quick tips to operate by to ensure yourself a worthwhile volunteer experience, for yourself and the people/community that you’re trying to help.

  1. Do no harm in the short term and as little harm as possible in the long term
  2. Remember why you’re volunteering and who you’re trying to help. If what you’re doing doesn’t line up with why you’re volunteering, start asking serious questions.
  3. Dig and ask questions the entire time, of the leaders, of the people you’re helping, and of yourself. By doing this you’ll learn, you’ll grow, you’ll stay on track to your objective and the reason you started the experience, and you’ll gain unique perspectives that need to be shared back on your home turf.
  4. Learn about the people and community you’re trying to help, as much as possible and directly from them. If you are in an area and with a people and you are learning about them mostly secondhand and via hearsay, you are too far removed from the real situation you should be helping. Get closer.
  5. Beware of downstream issues caused by your actions as a volunteer, or problems created by volunteers that are perpetuated or made worse by continued volunteering (e.g., elephant volunteering, money going to disreputable organizations, socially paralyzing the communities you wish to help). If you realize something doesn’t add up, you have a moral obligation to do something.

Things to avoid in volunteering

  1. Don’t pay ANYONE to volunteer.  You would never pay your boss to work.  As an employee, you would never pay a human resources team to manage you.  In the same vein, don’t pay to volunteer.  If the organization argues that the funds are for room and board, ask to see a cost breakout – I haven’t seen a situation yet where this “room and board fee” remotely lines up with what I paid as an individual arranging my own accommodation. Unless you can find the equivalent of a “10k” or quarterly financial statement that gives good justification for “overhead fees”, don’t pay.
  2. If you do pay anyone, make sure every cent goes to refugees or the community you’re trying to help in a directly beneficial way that you can live with that is viable in the long term
  3. Avoid organizations that do not use resources or funds for their intended purposes.  Emergency cases exist, but if an organization has promised to use funds or resources for a specific purpose and doesn’t, this implies a lot about the organization regardless of what the ultimate use was. At best this is immoral and at worst (and most likely) it’s illegal. It happens more than you think, so be aware.

And with that, good luck!

I’ve said some potentially controversial things here and also given some complicated advice. If you have any thoughts, questions, or disagreements, feel free to share them in the comments – I love discussion. Or, email me directly at [email protected]

For any people that have volunteered in any capacity before, I encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments – even if you disagree. You’ll be doing a great service to the next wave of volunteers. Thanks!


– Continue to Part 1: Lesvos: The Beginning. The Reasons. The Dilemma –


More from the Series: Adventures as a Global Volunteer – Lesvos and the Refugee Crisis

  • Preface: Voluntourism – What Is It, and Why to Avoid It
  • Part 1: The Beginning. The Reasons.  The Dilemma
  • Part 2: Teaching English, Serving Coffee, Going Solo
  • Part 3: Translating in Moria Refugee Camp, Steps from Hell, and the Meaning of “A Brother Abroad”
  • Part 4: A Crash Course in Teaching English and a Worthwhile Venture
  • Part 5: Riots in the Refugee Camp and The Exodus of the Kurds – Politics, Cowardice, and Voluntourism
  • Part 6: Oh the places you’ll go, and the people you’ll meet…all over a cup of coffee
  • Part 7: Welcome to Greece. Welcome to the Real World. Welcome home.
  • Part 8: The Burnout. The Inevitable. What I Learned about the Reasons I Came.