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What is Voluntourism, and why should volunteers be careful?

Updated: 7 hours ago

Written May 20th, 2021

Published March 25th, 2021

Written by Marie-Noelle Schuster (Marketing & Communications Volunteer)


Since you have come to our website, it shows that you are interested in volunteering in Vietnam. You may want to explore the country and combine both experiences for a more authentic trip. In the world of NGOs and volunteering opportunities, you may come across the term “voluntourism”, the contraction of “volunteer” and “tourism”. Voluntourism represents a form of traveling across the country while engaging the tourists in voluntary work to help the population of this country. The engagement can be related to any sector (agriculture, health care, construction, or education) and usually does not require a long-term commitment or particular skills.

While this concept seems appealing for travelers looking for meaningful experiences and organizations looking for new volunteers, critics may see voluntourism as a hypocritical form of tourism.

What motivates voluntourists, and why are some organizations encouraging it?

Despite criticism, voluntourism is not all black or white, as it can bring many benefits to both the hosting organization and the volunteer. We can argue that voluntourism has a better mindset than mass tourism.

Most of the time, organizations can not complete their projects due to either lack of helpers or funds. For organizations, voluntourism is a great marketing opportunity. They appeal to more individuals with an attractive package. Host organizations would have more workforce to fit the missions requiring low skills or short-term commitment. Therefore, the commitment time of the volunteer does not matter as the high staff turnover would cover the entire year’s needs. Most programs involve fees for the volunteer that will fund their stay, help finance the project, or generate profits for the organization. Hosting foreign volunteers can be seen as a novelty in the local community, leading to multicultural exchange, or the volunteer can turn into a touristic attraction for the locals. International volunteers can also be used as advertising material to promote global cooperation and give them a modern image. Local volunteers are less exposed to such organizations’ communication plans.

Voluntourism primarily benefits the participants. The volunteer will travel the country at a cheaper cost as their contract usually includes lodging and meals. For world travelers, the short-term commitment brings the flexibility they need to change destinations frequently. Volunteering is also an excellent opportunity for them to live more authentically than through mass tourism and experience a new culture among the locals. By helping others while traveling, volunteers will feel good about themselves, and sharing this experience through social media boosts their social image. No matter the length of their stay, volunteering will be an experience to add to their resume, confirming social and technical skills sought by recruiters.

Children get to learn English and discover new cultures thanks to international volunteers.

Why is it poorly considered?

Voluntourism could be the best way to discover a new culture while helping the locals if there was no downside. Some organizations might overuse the term voluntourism to attract potential volunteers with a strong marketing strategy. Often, they would promote a life-changing experience for the volunteer, who will “make a difference” in the local communities. The main issue with this statement is that most advertise programs last for two weeks to a month at most and the missions have minimal positive impact due to the short duration. The lack of time to train unskilled volunteers may lead to low-quality work, especially in the construction field. As voluntourism became a profitable market niche, its excesses can be dangerous and illegal. Some questionable organizations will create fake structures to welcome volunteers, such as fraudulent orphanages that may house children who still have parents, thinking they may get better opportunities. These orphanages would rely on donations, and children would deal with poor living conditions and abuse. Those criminal organizations would willingly create issues instead of searching how to solve them. Some volunteering programs can cost several thousands of dollars. The lack of transparency may question the real motives of some organizations.

With such programs, voluntourists will get the wrong idea of volunteering. They might help with selfish motives such as only having free accommodation, travel for cheap, or even have something interesting to share on their social media. They might not fully grasp the values and stakes of such projects due to their self-centered motives. With a lack of real implication comes lower commitment and work quality. Their priority won’t be to make the project a success. Volunteers may lack understanding of the culture and the real issues of the population. While wanting to help, they might end up patronizing the locals and bring unhelpful and unsustainable ideas. Volunteers may unknowingly perpetuate the “White Saviour Complex”, thinking that developing countries need the help of the West to survive. This mindset will prevent the locals from finding long-term solutions to sustain themselves without external support. Volunteers may take local jobs for a cheaper labor cost. At the same time, locals will be dependant on the international volunteers’ work and their money. This vicious circle does more harm than good to the country.

Child with a gift
With Teach For Change, volunteers work alongside Vietnamese permanent English teachers.

How C4C fight against voluntourism?

As a non-profit social enterprise, Coins For Change disapproves of the abuses of voluntourism. We are careful about our values and our position as a hosting organization.

Transparency of our funds

Coins For Change is a non-profit structure. We reinject all revenues from our activity and all donations received into our organization’s expenses and projects, such as the Empowerment Plan, the Psychological Support Program, and the Emergency Fund. We regularly present a financial report which details the allocation of our resources. The fees or donations we may request are reasonable and directly fund our various projects.

Long-term impact

Our Women Empowerment projects are sustainable as we address the causes of the issues. Through our Psychological Support Program, women can find a safe space to heal and be empowered. By giving single mothers access to education and business support, with HerAcademy and HerCraft, we help them become independent. Through Teach For Change, we are creating a multicultural exchange while supporting women-led schools. Our projects’ goal is to develop local businesses and strengthen our communities.

Committed volunteers

We select volunteer candidates with attention, according to their motivations and their personality. Coins For Change ensures that each volunteer has the right mindset and shares our values before working at Teach For Change or any other program. We need our volunteers to understand that they are committing to a real job for several months and that their work will impact other people, so they need to act accordingly. We prefer long-term commitments, from 3 months to a year, to bring more stability to our projects and, most of all, to the children.

Volunteers can apply as English teachers without certification or prior experience. We are open to these candidates as they are not meant to replace the actual Vietnamese teachers but come as support. Regarding other positions, such as social workers and translators, we favor local volunteers who speak the language and engage deeper with our community. International volunteers are also welcome, but experience or special skills are requested.

Be open-minded and respectful towards locals

As a (future) volunteer, what can you do?

Being a good volunteer does not prevent you from enjoying the country and explore new horizons. We encourage you to discover more about Vietnam and have a memorable experience during your stay. If you are worried about becoming a voluntourist, try to be mindful of the seven following points:

Know your real motivations for volunteering before you leave

You need to understand if volunteering is meant for you and not just a cheap way to get into the country. If your priority is to travel around every week, no matter what mission you will do and what organization you will work with, you should probably think of another way to explore the country. There is nothing shameful about not having the mindset for volunteering. Just know that there are people involved in your decision.

Only choose missions you are comfortable with and a cause you are passionate about

There are many causes you can join. Don’t apply to be a teacher if you are not comfortable with children.

To stay motivated throughout your involvement, avoid committing to missions you may get tired of or not share the same values. Spend time working on yourself. What are your values? Where do you want to have an impact? Research for the mission and organization accordingly.

Research the credibility of the organization you will work with

There are as many organizations as possible to live a volunteering experience. Some have genuine intentions, but some organizations may seek profits over the actual impact on people’s lives. Look for the projects they hold and the criteria to volunteer. Most of the time, their communication strategy relies on extraordinary promises for the volunteer, similar to a vacation trip. If they only ask to pay a high price for a one-week life-changing experience, you may want to think twice.

Research about the culture and challenges of the country

Each country and province can vary in geographical, political, and cultural situations. There are manners and actions you can and cannot do depending on the place. Before coming, learn about these differences so you can lessen your culture shock and know how to be respectful towards others’ cultures and laws.

Respect the locals, especially children

Be mindful of your interaction with locals. They are honest people wanting to create genuine bonds, not charity cases. You want to work together, not above them. Regarding children, you may interact with, be sensible as they easily trust adults. Proper organizations have a Child Protection Policy that you should sign before volunteering with children. They also may feel hurt when you go back home, especially if your stay is short. Taking pictures with them and sharing them on social media is also a sensitive topic. Think twice about the type of content you will publish. Do the pictures respect the integrity of the children? Are their parents OK with these pictures?

Look for a long-term commitment

Most of the time, volunteers will take missions fitting their availabilities. It can range from a few weeks to several years. Understandably, not everyone has unlimited time to volunteer. However, volunteering for a week or two may not be as helpful as committing for several months. Volunteering may require some time to train and get acquainted with your team. The longer you stay in an organization, the more you will participate in more significant projects and have a more profound impact.

Be responsible

Taking part in a volunteering experience is a real commitment. People rely on you and your help. If you have signed a contract, follow the rules. If unexpected plans arise, talk them through with your coworkers and organization. Leaving without informing anyone beforehand can break the trust you have built with your partners and put them in a difficult position as they need your help at a specific time. The main difference between volunteers and voluntourists is that volunteers have more significant responsibilities. To be a good volunteer, you need to be a good individual.

If you are interested in volunteering, contact us.

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