By Claire Bennett, Co-Founder of Learning Service

What follows is a condensed version of sections of the book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, by Claire Bennett, Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher and Daniela Papi-Thornton. For a more detailed advice on how to find an ethical volunteer program, get hold of the book!

The Context

Volunteer travel has rapidly moved into the mainstream over the past few decades. It is presented as an increasingly accessible way of responding to the complex emotions that arise from being confronted by global issues such as poverty and environmental destruction. The new generation of travelers is looking for ways to “make a difference” and to change the situations of the countries they travel in, rather than just explore, but unlike just donating money, it is seen as a way to participate in these processes and take action. Furthermore, it is seen as a way to have a travel experience that is active and immersive, working alongside local people.

The idea of international volunteering is certainly not new. Historically its roots lie in missionary movements and even colonial expansion that started centuries ago, but the diversity of forms it takes now – from a few hours in an otherwise luxury travel itinerary, to years spent in an unpaid office job in a non-profit – has not been seen before. We are also faced with an extraordinary growth that is not showing any signs of slowing down. Although definitive numbers are hard to come by (there is no fixed definition of what qualifies as volunteer travel) the general upward trend over the last couple of decades is undisputed.

  • Benjamin J Lough in his study of overseas volunteering in the US in the years 2004-12 estimates that an average of 900,000 Americans volunteer abroad every year.[1]
  • Researcher Jason Hickel in his 2013 research paper found that in the UK “the number of participants [in “gap year” development projects] is now as high as 2.5 million each year, or 34 per cent of the country’s total population between 16 and 24 years old.”[2]
  • In 2008 it was estimated that the value of volunteer tourists was approximately $2 billion and there was an average of 1.6 million voluntourists a year.[3]
  • World Youth Student & Educational Travel Confederation in 2015 notes that “Millennials are more generous with their time, money, and donations than any other generation, according to a recent study on travel and philanthropy. New data shows that 81% volunteered, 78% donated cash and 83% gave in-kind during their most meaningful trip from the last two years.”[4]

This growth has been accompanied by some other trends, briefly explored here.

Volunteer Travel as a Required or Incentivized Practice

Increasing numbers of schools are encouraging students to undertake international service. Harvard supports every student they admit to take a gap year before matriculation and Princeton sponsors service-based “bridge-year” programs abroad for its students. The reasons cited for this support are rarely about the impact on the communities overseas, but about the impact on the future life of the student. A 2011 study at Middlebury College conducted by its former dean of admissions Robert Clagett showed how students who had taken a year off academically outperformed those who didn’t.[5]

International service is also encouraged by companies through their Corporate Social Responsibility policy. The committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy’s 2013 report ‘Giving in Numbers’ surveyed 240 companies including 60 of the largest 100 companies in the Fortune 500 list, and found that 47% have a formal international volunteer program.[6]

The Influence of the Internet

Before the use of the internet was widespread, volunteer sending organizations were essential for potential volunteers to be able to identify and organize a placement abroad. Now any overseas organization wanting to host volunteers can advertise placements and directly liaise with volunteers through the internet. Similarly, without needing to invest much time in researching, volunteers have the whole range of options at their fingertips.

With so many options, however, it is difficult to tell which organizations are better than others. The internet makes it easier for volunteer sending agencies to skip out the steps that are necessary to ensure the placement is ethical – or even exists! If an organization advertises a volunteer placement opportunity on their website a sending organization or aggregate website can just take that posting and put it on their site, without ever even speaking with someone at that organization let alone visiting them.

An Increase in Fee-Charging Volunteer Placements

International volunteer programs that originated in the 50s and 60s, like the Peace Corps, VSO, and AVI, don’t charge volunteers for placing them abroad. In fact, these programs pay the volunteers a small local living wage, blurring the lines between volunteer placement and a traditional job, with stipends often equivalent to local wages – especially the remote areas that these volunteers are often posted in. Increasing demand in the last few decades has diversified this process to the point where you can find programs with the only “qualification” required being enough money on your credit card.

The growth of programs where the traveler is the one paying the fee completely shifts the power dynamics of volunteer travel. Whereas in theory demand should be driven by the needs of the community being “served,” the introduction of fee-paying programs has resulted in many companies treating the volunteer travelers themselves as the client, putting their needs above all others. When travelers pay for their experience, some of them feel they have the right to make more demands about what type of experience they receive. While the blatant commoditization can seem distasteful, viewing them as purely “volunteer vacations” may be a more honest way to refer to these one-click volunteer opportunities.

The Rise of Short Term Volunteering and “Voluntourism”

In the past, volunteer placements were generally managed by non-profit organizations. Many of these groups already knew the communities they were working in and had long-term projects and strategic goals. The difference today is that many entities offering volunteer experiences are not experts in community development, but travel agents or even cruise liners. Though their intentions might be pure, their lack of experience, relationships, and strategic planning in the realm of development work can lead to poorly planned – and often detrimental – volunteer offerings.

Alternatively, independent travelers may feel compelled to volunteer after seeing an advertisement pinned to a guesthouse noticeboard or being handed a leaflet in a bar. Some of these experiences may only require a few hours of time. Those who choose to volunteer in these incidental ways find it hard to do significant research about the opportunity being offered or the context of their work. These volunteers are therefore much more vulnerable to falling into a pitfall and supporting a project that is ineffective, exploitative or corrupt.

Increased Attention to Ethics

As international volunteering has become more commonplace and mass-produced, it has rightfully come under increased scrutiny. Exposés of the problems in the sector and the damage caused has led to speculation on how it can be done right. With rising awareness comes a more educated and critical volunteer base, and providers striving to meet that demand by providing experiences that are both responsible and meaningful, with a proven impact. Across the world there have been efforts made to create ethical standards for volunteering, such as Comhlámh in Ireland or The International Forum for Volunteering in Development.[7]

The Potential Harms of Volunteer Travel

It is a hard truth to swallow: volunteers do not always do good. Positive intentions do not always result in beneficial outcomes. This claim may be shocking, and we certainly do not blame individual volunteers for the many structural problems we explore here. However, when repeated thousands of times, the small mistakes and oversights made by individual volunteers – such as a lack of willingness to do adequate research or prepare properly – create problems of considerable magnitude.

Wasting Organizational Resources

Volunteers are not free resources. Even if they are not paid, the costs of training, supervising, supporting, protecting, entertaining, and following up on a volunteer’s visit can often amount to more than what the volunteer has “donated” in cash or time. Local hosts frequently complain about ill-prepared short-term volunteers, as they can require the same amount of support and training as long-term volunteers, but they don’t have as much time to make that investment worthwhile. Even highly skilled volunteers often require extensive staff time and other resources, such as translators, assistants, or supervisors, for them to be able to use their skills effectively in a new context overseas. Not surprisingly, volunteers who are underprepared often take more in time and resources than they add in value.

Under-qualified and Mismatched Volunteers

Volunteers can cause serious problems when they go abroad to perform a role that they are not qualified to do at home. Often the volunteer placement organization is responsible for the mismatch. A large number of organizations advertise placements without requiring volunteers to have any qualifications or experience—often for roles such as teaching or project management, which are specialist skills that in the volunteers’ home countries require formal training.

This is not to say that only highly skilled people should volunteer. Even the youngest and most inexperienced volunteer may have something to offer in the right placement, with the right support, and with the right framing of the goals and outcomes. The issue is not the skill level; it’s the match between the job and the skill, and the level of authority and autonomy often given to these mismatched volunteers. A mismatch between skill and responsibility levels can risk causing significant harm—for instance, if a medical student is expected to provide care beyond his/her/their expertise.

Disruptions to Local Power Dynamics

Most volunteers begin their placement without understanding the power structures of the community in which they volunteer—or the shifts they can cause as outsiders. Volunteers who jump into action before they learn about these complex relationships risk upsetting local power dynamics in ways that can be problematic. For example, a volunteer hears about a community need from the volunteer coordinator and leaps in to help, but later it emerges that the person being helped was a relative of the coordinator.

Volunteers often want to act quickly and independently, before they have understood complex local realities, and their best efforts can end up making things worse. Effective volunteer engagement in social justice work, in particular, takes a lot of patience and learning. There may well be local individuals and groups already working to challenge injustices; jumping in too soon could disrupt their sensitive work. Volunteers can learn over time whether and how to support them in their mission, which may require ongoing solidarity long after volunteers have returned home.

Reinforcing Cultural Stereotypes

Offering help automatically creates a relationship: giver and receiver. This unequal relationship can be imbued with the sense that the “helpers” – the volunteers – have superiority over the people being “volunteered for.” Volunteers often arrive with their own set of assumptions about Western cultural, linguistic, and technological superiority, sometimes labeling local ways of getting things done as illogical or deficient, and in need of change.

Furthermore, due to the long legacy of colonialism some local people may buy into the attitude that “West is Best.” Volunteer placement organizations frequently reinforce these assumptions through images on their websites of Western volunteers at the chalkboard teaching English to smiling local children, which resembles all-too-closely the myth of the “white savior.” The result of perpetuating these harmful stereotypes is either local people feeling disempowered or dependent, or angry and disengaged – neither of which lead to successful volunteer outcomes

Fostering Inefficiency and Dependency

Organizations sometimes rely on a steady stream of short-term foreign volunteers to fill important roles – such as schools where the only English teachers are volunteers, and nonprofits where all donor relations are done by volunteers. In many instances, when there are no volunteers, no one fills that role. This can foster an unsustainable dependency on external support. A void is created when the volunteers leave, which can put the organization and intended beneficiaries in a precarious position or make long-term planning impossible.

In many instances, local people could probably do the job more effectively than volunteers, but the abundance and perceived status of foreign volunteers leads to a reluctance to hire local people. Skilled labor (such as teaching or housebuilding) can be devalued if there is a supply of outsiders willing to do it for free.

“Band-Aid” Approaches Instead of Addressing Root Causes

An organization may take on volunteers to do superfluous tasks chosen simply because they appeal to volunteers, are easily accomplishable, or have a “feel-good factor.” During our research for the Learning Service book, many volunteers reported that the work they were asked to do seemed designed to fit the restrictions of a short-term visit rather than to provide lasting benefit. As well as wasting time, this can actually steer local organizations’ staff and other resources away from addressing root causes. For example, increasing literacy rates is a goal that involves changes in human behavior and education systems, which usually requires long-term efforts and resources. An organization working on root causes of illiteracy through advocacy for free primary education might feel pressure to add a project that volunteers can easily work on, such as building a library. That “solution” may look impressive, but it is not necessarily a contribution to the long-term goals. Where do the books come from? In what language are the books? Who are the teachers and librarians? Who will use the library? Who will maintain it? Will staff resources be taken away from advocacy efforts? If the answers are unclear, then the volunteers may be engaged in “band-aid” tasks.

Harm to Children

The damaging effect that some forms of volunteering can have on children is one of our biggest concerns about volunteer travel and is probably the ugliest and most saddening distortion of good intentions possible. Many volunteer positions involve working with children that are extremely vulnerable – in slums, on the streets, or in orphanages, which in Western society would require specialist skills. However, the vast majority of placements with children do not require qualifications or prior experience, and often involve a job description of “care-giving” or “providing love”. By doing this, volunteers may inadvertently exacerbate trauma or attachment issues in children.

Furthermore, there is evidence that as the demand from volunteers to work with children grows, it is incentivizing the practice of separating children from their families in a process now termed “orphanage trafficking”.[8] Orphanages are attractive places for volunteers as there are more opportunities to interact with the children than in other settings. But it is estimated that 80-90% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent, and were often brought to institutions for reasons such as poverty or disability. These issues can be more compassionately and sustainably solved by offering support to families instead of separating them. But when there is a demand for volunteering with vulnerable children, a place where they are housed together can become almost a tourist attraction.[9]

When children’s homes are run as businesses, there is a profit incentive to exploit children rather than protect them. Some orphanages offer a dance show to entice tourists to donate, some even send the children out into clubs and bars in the tourist centers, late at night, to beg. Keeping the children underfed and the facilities poor ensures a steady stream of donations from tourists and volunteers.[10]

Finally, allowing tourists and short-term volunteers to visit and play with children risks exposing children to dangerous individuals. In low-income countries, few organizations have the capacity to conduct background checks, or enforce rules regarding photography. Although most foreign volunteers have no intention of harming children, when they participate in programs without proper screening, they reinforce a system that is wide open to abuse.

Harm to the Volunteer

Poorly planned volunteer experiences can also have damaging effects on the volunteers themselves and their potential to be drivers of positive change in the future. We believe this leads to what we call “the three overloads”: Poverty overload, where volunteers feel paralyzed by the poverty they are confronting; Failure overload, where volunteers are unable to meet the expectations of themselves or other to make a difference; and Savior overload, where volunteers are so convinced that they must be doing goodthat they are blind to evidence that they might not be. All these overloads can mean that volunteers disengage from the issues they are facing and not have the opportunity to learn or contribute in a way that would make the experience meaningful.

Learning Service: A Potential Solution

Highlighting the negative impacts of volunteer travel is not a way to write off the practice but is instead a call to action. Global volunteering can be a powerful expression of solidarity and a manifestation of hope in the world, and it can also contribute positively to community development. However, these benefits are not automatic, and volunteer placements need to be set up and framed intentionally and mindfully. In our years of research into this topic, we found one key factor in avoiding the pitfalls and ensuring effectiveness – putting learning at the heart of volunteering. We call this approach learning service.

Learning service is an approach to international volunteering where:

  • Learning is embraced as a primary purpose of a trip abroad, rather than a byproduct. Learning comes first and continues throughout the experience: before, during, and after volunteering overseas.
  • Service consists of humble and thoughtful action, designed to “do no harm.” This service includes the work volunteers do overseas, the unofficial daily interactions they have with people while abroad, and the long-term actions that are inspired by their experience.
  • Learning and service interact in an ongoing cycle, with each depending on the other. This loop is fueled by self-reflection – taking the time between activities to think critically about motivations, accomplishments, and challenges – and applying learning to future action.

Learning service is an inversion of the term service learning that is sometimes used in educational settings to describe volunteering. Service learning was coined to acknowledge the learning goals that are part of many volunteer projects. However, in this framing, “learning” appears to be secondary. With “learning service,” we have flipped the term to put learning front and center: it is the emphasis of the approach and a key to mitigating the negative impacts of international service and enhancing the positive ones. Learning should be a primary goal and activity in all stages of the process – from deciding whether you want to volunteer, to researching your options, to the way you engage overseas, to how you live your life in the future.

The Positive Potential of Volunteering Done Right

Two-Way Skill Sharing

When a volunteer is qualified and experienced in a certain field and commits enough time to transfer knowledge effectively, they can use their time abroad to contribute needed skills and build the capacity of others.[11] It is a reality for many countries that there are not enough trained healthcare professionals, skilled teacher trainers, or other specialists. When the needs of a host organization are well matched with the skills of a volunteer, volunteers can strengthen systems by supporting and mentoring local staff. Volunteers can also offer fresh ideas, inspiration and a new viewpoint.

Furthermore, the skill sharing can go both ways. The most effective volunteers learn skills and gain important perspectives from their hosts, and they often reflect that what they learned far outweighed what they were able to share. The beauty of viewing your learning experience as lasting well beyond your time abroad is that you can apply those experiences and skills once you return home.

Cultural Exchange

The best volunteering placements create a platform for exchange and look very different from unequal donor-recipient relationships.[12] Through their experiences abroad, volunteers often recognize the limitations in their current knowledge and perspective, and by embracing a new culture, view their own culture in a new light. These interactions often have the same impact on their hosts, both expanding their perspectives on what is “right” or “wrong” and forming new opinions about the other’s culture, replacing stereotypes and generalizations that might have shaped their prior views.


Host communities benefit not only from the work that volunteers do but also from the sense of solidarity it can bring. In researching for the Learning Service book, host organizations repeatedly mentioned the creation of strong bonds between people from diverse backgrounds as one of the most highly valued aspects of hosting foreign volunteers. The fact that volunteers care enough to show up and offer support to their cause is recognized as a benefit by activists and communities overseas—people who are often overstretched, tired, and in need of a motivation boost.

Moreover, international support can bring with it money, influence, and political leverage.[13] As such, an opportunity to maximize the potential of your time abroad is by balancing the doing of the volunteer work with your being with the community and finding ways to have a positive impact through both.

Contributing Vital Resources

Volunteers often bring with them access to money and resources. This may be through a fee paid directly to the organization to offset the costs of hosting them. Even when no money changes hands, organizations get financial benefits from volunteers who fundraise, talk to donors and connect them to opportunities. Furthermore, international volunteers can indirectly help the economy of their host country by spending money locally, which suggests that organizations think about the impact of volunteering in a broader sense than the volunteers themselves.[14]

Creating Educated Advocates

Through an experience volunteering overseas, you can connect to and learn deeply about global issues in a way that could affect the rest of your life. Learning through working abroad can lead to insights and inspiration that no amount of reading could teach you. You create life experiences rather than read textbook definitions of concepts like “poverty,” helping you move from a vague term in the media to the nuanced realities of daily living in your host community. Likewise, no amount of academic discourse on grassroots empowerment can teach you as much as meeting strong community leaders and experiencing the impacts of their work.

The vast majority of returned volunteers felt that their time overseas had an impact on their life, and many could point to specific changes they have made as a result. Furthermore, many of activists, development workers, educators, and social entrepreneurs have been deeply influenced by experiences overseas, feeling that once their eyes were opened to an issue facing the world there was no going back. Host organizations also recognize that international volunteers become advocates upon returning home.[15]

Another important role that returned volunteers play is to connect others to these global issues. Returned volunteers can bring seemingly remote issues to life for their friends and families and those who have not been able to travel abroad or experience those issues themselves. By sharing their learning, they can inspire others to take positive actions for change.

Questions to Ask Before Volunteering Abroad

Central to learning service is the idea of getting into a learning mindset. This requires being able to ask a lot of questions, both to yourself and about the potential project you will get involved with. Here are some ideas of questions you can ask to get you started.

Questions to Ask Yourself

What are your motivations?
It is important to be honest with yourself about your motivations to ensure you will have an experience that meets your goals and those of the organization that hosts you. Have you been attracted to the idea of volunteering because you think it will look good on your résumé, or be an interesting anecdote at parties? Are you drawn to it from a desire for adventure, or glossy pictures of elephant trekking in exotic locations? Although it is of course great to feel excited about the opportunity to volunteer, you still need to be ready for the level of commitment and day to day hard work required for successful volunteering.

On the other hand, if you feel mainly motivated by the thought of doing some good in the world, remember to be realistic about the amount that you can contribute with the time and the skills that you have. Even if you plan to volunteer for many months, no problems will be completely resolved and no people will be ‘saved’ by your presence alone. At best, you will make only a small contribution to bigger changes that will be led by local professionals.

What are your core skills?
The most effective volunteers offer skills in an area in which they have some expertise. There is a need for accountants, computer technicians, and nurses everywhere in the world! Even if you don’t feel that you are an expert in anything, there will always be skills that you have and can offer – such as being a whizz with social media or the ability to edit documents in English.

Alternatively, you may wish to have a stint volunteering in order to get a break from your normal work and try your hand at something new. While there is nothing wrong with that, be sure that you are clear with the volunteer organization about your limitations, and never seek to practice beyond your skill set. If you are learning a new skill try to take the position of intern or assistant, supporting qualified local staff members.

An important thing to look for in a volunteer placement is skills-matching. Do you have the skills to be able to fulfil the role to the highest quality, or would someone else be better placed to do it? If the role is something that you would not be qualified to do in your own country, then the chances are that the answer to that question is no. Even if you are highly skilled in an area remember that the local people are the real experts and they should be in charge of how to put your skills to best use.

What are your learning goals?
As well as thinking about what you can contribute, it is important that you also set learning goals for your time abroad. Is there a specific topic that you want to learn about—for example, child rights? Are there specific skills you want to learn or experience in action—such as fundraising tactics, or monitoring and evaluation practices? Your learning goals can help to keep you motivated in your volunteering and ensure that you stay engaged in the issues at hand. They can also help you stay out of your comfort zone and ensure your experience is culturally-immersive. But remember that your learning goals are your own, and they shouldn’t get in the way of your volunteer work or end up as anyone else’s responsibility.

Questions to ask a Volunteer Organization

Does the organization have a proven impact?
Volunteer companies are usually adept at using marketing language such as “change a life” or “make a difference,” but be wary of organisations that are unable to produce evidence of the impact they have made. Ask to see evaluation reports that prove the effectiveness of their programs. Ideally they would show that the organization is addressing the root causes of problems, working towards eliminating these problems in the future. If not, they may just be band-aids. Good organizations will be able to send you reports that measure the long-term sustainable changes they have made  and highlight the roles that volunteers play.

Where is your money going?
Many organizations charge a fee for volunteer placements to cover the time, capacity, and money that goes into supporting a great volunteer experience. That is entirely reasonable, but be sure to find out how the fees are used. Money may go to the sending organization to cover the costs of placing you in a volunteer role, to the local organization directly to host you, or both. The fee may include a charitable donation for the cause you are volunteering to support. It may also include a large profit margin for a company.

It is not the case that the more you pay, the better quality the service. Many volunteers pay a lot of money for their placement and end up dissatisfied, often because they assume that their money was going towards things that it was not. The bottom line is that good organizations, for a fee, can do a lot of the logistical legwork required to provide you with a positive experience, while the worst ones might take your money in profit and yet still leave you in a disorganized and poorly planned volunteer placement.

What kind of learning opportunities or training will you get?
The philosophy of learning service emphasises that learning is one of the most important aspects of a volunteer placement. Although motivated volunteers can find and plan all the learning opportunities needed by themselves, this can be a little daunting, and instead finding a volunteer provider that offers structured learning opportunities can remove the pressure. Look for organizations that offer orientation training programs, and structured opportunities for reflection.

These are just a few starting questions to think about – we have a whole lot more in our Placement Evaluation Tool in the Learning Service library.

How to Organize a Volunteer Project

Using an Agency to Organize Your Placement

Organizing your volunteer placement through an agency or sending organization may appeal if you have not traveled internationally before, or if you want support in researching, planning, or matching your placement. There are a whole range of organizations offering these services. At one end of the spectrum are those that exist only to recruit volunteers and send them to partners overseas. They may support hosting organizations to supervise and utilize volunteers, and provide in-country support to troubleshoot problems and maximize effectiveness. At the other end are companies that offer a wide range of travel products, sometimes with volunteering being just one option. The best organizations have strong, long-term relationships with the people and projects on the ground. The most “customer focused” providers tend to prioritize the choices of the volunteer over the value of the work.

In addition, there are third-party websites and marketing organizations that promote and sell volunteer programs designed and led by others. If you buy a product from one of those sites, you might not even be able to tell which organization ultimately gets your money, or where you will be giving your time. Remember that all agencies are not created equal, and you need to check whether the organization you are considering provides the services you want and does them well.

Connecting Directly to a Host Organization

You may choose not to go through an intermediary organization and instead set up a volunteer placement yourself. You may connect directly with a hosting organization from internet research, through friends, or via an advertised position. Bear in mind that if you set up a volunteer experience on your own that there is no wider system to fall back on—you will have to set up accountability structures yourself. Also remember that the opportunities you find are basically unvetted, so information-gathering, fact-checking, and evaluation is even more critical.

Volunteer-Led Projects

With the growing demand for volunteer projects abroad, impromptu volunteer programs are increasingly springing up. These are offerings organized by an individual or small group, often foreign visitors, aiming to “help local people.” While sometimes filling a need, it is difficult to evaluate and understand the implications of these projects from afar. Be very cautious of joining a DIY volunteer project organized by people who may be well-intentioned, but do not have the experience, qualifications, or accountability mechanisms to organize a sustainable project.

How to be a Responsible Volunteer Travel Provider

At Learning Service we direct much of the advice we give towards volunteers and travelers, to empower them to cultivate the right attitudes towards an experience and to choose responsible providers. Although this can play an important role in shifting demand, the industry itself can take the lead on ensuring they are applying the highest ethical standards and measuring impact. Here are a few points for an ethical volunteer travel company to consider:

Community Partnerships

One of the most fundamental aspects of a successful volunteer travel program is to have strong, well-managed and well-compensated community partnerships. Rather than requesting communities to host guests or asking them to design simple projects for travelers to participate in, this requires real investment in communities, giving them agency to identify needs and sustainable solutions. It also requires closely monitoring impact and adjusting programs accordingly. Travel companies offering volunteer experiences need to decide whether they want to diversify away from pure tourism, and assess whether they have the resources and expertise to venture into a whole new sector (community development).

Protection Vulnerable Populations

As explored previously, children and other vulnerable populations are the most at risk of being harmed by irresponsible voluntourism. Volunteer organizations need to have a robust child protection policy and methods of implementation. It is also important to ensure that your supply chain is free of human trafficking and modern slavery, which includes support of orphanages or short-term direct interaction between tourists and children.

Volunteer Matching

All potential volunteers have skills, but it is important that volunteers with the right skills are placed in the right roles. Offering short-term teaching placements to travelers without a background in teaching is likely to be more disruptive than helpful to children’s education, for example, and using unqualified volunteers in a healthcare setting may even be dangerous. People with sought-after skills such as accountancy, coding, business administration or medicine may be best-placed in a mentoring role using those skills than they would be doing manual labor or playing with children. Organizations should consider what process they have to select and match volunteers, and if and how they turn applicants down. If this seems too resource-intensive then it is unlikely your organization has the capacity to place volunteers responsibly.

Volunteer Support and Education

In order for volunteers to be useful and effective they need to be well prepared, supported and educated. Many of the best organizations have training programs for volunteers to attend before departure, cultural orientations in-country, support for both volunteers and hosts during a placement and educational opportunities both during and after an experience. If you offer any of these services it is important to be transparent about them so that volunteers know what services they are getting for their fees. For excellently curated and supported programs volunteers can be willing to pay an amount far beyond a normal tourism package, as it is also an important educational opportunity.

Ethical Marketing

Irresponsible voluntourism providers appeal to potential volunteers using images and language of either the poverty and need of the local people, or else the heroism and savior qualities of the volunteer. Ethical marketing represents local people with agency and dignity, and offers and honest and fair representation of the modest impact that international volunteers achieve.

How to be an Effective Volunteer

Volunteering effectively – that is, having the intended impact on a cause and avoiding any negative impacts – is tricky. In fact, no matter how many useful skills you bring to the table, effectiveness requires openness, humility, and a huge amount of learning. Here are some tips for volunteers to try to ensure they are being effective in their work.

Do the Work that is Needed

Even if you are highly skilled in an area, it should be up to a host organization how your skills are put to best use. Often it is “hands off” office work that your colleagues might need the most help with – such as writing reports in English or improving the website. Be patient and make sure you are supporting the overall organization’s needs, not just your own desire to feel useful in the areas that seem most interesting.

Know the Limits of Your Role

Be aware that the carefully-balanced power dynamics of an organization or community may be affected by the presence of an outsider. Very often foreigners are given respect and authority simply because of their nationality or skin color. If you feel you are being asked to make decisions beyond your remit, question this and ask for support from a permanent member of staff who can continue being in charge after you leave.

Be Culturally Sensitive

The way you dress, the way you sit, how you greet others, whether you speak directly or not – all these things have the ability to delight your local colleagues and put them at ease, or offend and upset them. Some volunteers argue that they don’t want to conform to dress codes or speak less bluntly as it makes them feel less like themselves, but you always need to remember that you are a guest in another culture. The way you dress and act might be interpreted as a lack of respect, which is a terrible basis for a volunteer to work from. Research cultural norms before you arrive in the country, and if you are ever unclear about what the most polite thing is to do in any situation – ask!

Define “Success” as Part of a Wider Plan

One of the most common mistakes we have experienced in volunteers is mis-defining “success” as “taking over full ownership of a concrete project and seeing it through to the end”. This is why so many volunteer projects involve activities like building a school or digging a well. Though taking complete ownership of a project can feel satisfying, if that project is not well integrated into a much larger system, that started before you got there and will continue long after you leave, then your efforts may have been “successful” for no-one but yourself. Rather than measuring success based on personal accomplishments, view yourself as part of a larger ecosystem, within wider systems of change.

Be committed to growth

If you are committed to effectiveness, make sure you give yourself regular opportunities to reflect on and evaluate your actions. We often leave the giving and receiving of feedback until the end of an experience, when it is too late to make adjustments or put any learning into practice. Actively seek feedback from friends, colleagues or other volunteers about how you can improve, and remain open to changing your approach.

Now What? Life After Volunteering

Rather than seeing the end of your volunteer experience as the conclusion of something, the learning service approach argues that it is in fact the beginning. Even the most successful volunteer cannot have an enormous impact in a short-term placement. However, a volunteer who becomes inspired and committed during their short time abroad can go on to make huge changes in the rest of their life.

Daily Choices

Volunteers commonly report that the time they spent overseas resulted in a heightened awareness of how they consume and a commitment to changing it. Small actions count: you do not have to dedicate your life to charity work to make a difference. Changing the food you eat, the products you buy, the energy you use and the waste you produce can lessen the harmful impacts of a consumer society.

Activism and Volunteering

Maybe your trip overseas sparked an increased awareness of global injustice. In analyzing the root causes of any issue, you can find links, influences, or stakeholders back in your own country. There are many causes to get angry about or get behind, and many new ideas to feel passionate about. There are also many forces in our world with interests in maintaining the status quo. But there is power in numbers, and if there are things you don’t like in the world that you want to challenge or things you do like and want to promote, there are ways to spread these ideas.

Career Choices

Many returnees say that one of the biggest impacts of their overseas experience is that it has crystallized, influenced, or altered their future career paths. If you are committed to living in a way that will be of benefit both to yourself and others, your career can play a big part in that. We urge you to take a learning service approach to these decisions—just like with volunteer travel, certain careers paths or job roles might market their social impact, but don’t take those claims at face value.

Learning Service Resources

Interested in learning more? The previous sections are extracts from our more thorough resources that help potential volunteers on their journeys and guide both volunteers and providers to follow the principles of learning service.

Free downloadable resources, found in the Learning Service library include:

  • Tips and Tricks for Learning Before Helping
  • The Learning Service Volunteer Charter
  • Voluntourism 101 (a self-assessment tool for tour operators)
  • Evaluating Placements: Questions to Ask

For an in depth exploration of the whole process of learning service, get hold of our book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel.

Learning Service Providers

A number of travel companies and education providers have started using and promoting the Learning Service approach. These include:

  • PEPY Tours: Provides immersive travel opportunities for school and university groups in Nepal and Cambodia, focused on improving the way groups give, travel and live.
  • Where There Be Dragons: Offers experiential learning trips for students, gap year travelers, educators and adults in countries across the globe, with learning service as a core component of all trips.
  • Ayana Journeys: Based in Cambodia, Ayana offer guided educational adventures for groups and individuals, exploring culture, lifestyles, and development issues facing the country, embodying the “learn first” approach.

Additional Information

For more information on any topics associated with ethical volunteer travel:
For more information about the book or for other downloadable tools, go to our website:
For news, perspectives, and insight on ethical volunteering, follow us on social media!

About the author:

Claire Bennett is a co-author of the book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, which has been hailed by Noam Chomsky as “a manifesto for doing good well.” She is also the co-founder of LearningService.Info, an online information and advocacy portal for potential international volunteers. She is a manager of PEPY Tours, a responsible travel organization based in Cambodia and Nepal, and helped to oversee their transition away from short-term voluntourism to immersive educational travel.

Bennet has been based in Asia for over ten years and currently lives in Kathmandu, where she has a training and consulting company. She provides consultancy to some of the biggest volunteer travel companies around shifting their models away from activities known to be damaging to local communities towards more ethical practices. She also works part time as an educator and facilitator for student travel organization Where There Be Dragons. She is passionate about global equality and social justice issues and loves her cat, her bicycle, and drinking copious amounts of tea.


[1] Lough, B. J. (2013) International Volunteering from the United States between 2004 and 2012. CSD Research Brief, (13-14). Retrieved from

[2] Hickel, J. (2013). The ‘Real’ Experience Industry: Student Development Projects and the Depoliticization of Poverty. Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences 6(2) 11-32.

[3] Volunteer tourism : a global analysis : a report by Tourism Research and Marketing.

[4] WYSE “Millenials Enjoy Tying Vacation to Philanthropy”, 2015







[11] Erin Barnhardt, “Engaging Global Service: Organizational Motivations for and Perceived Benefits of Hosting International Volunteers,” 2012.

[12] Erin Barnhardt, “Engaging Global Service: Organizational Motivations for and Perceived Benefits of Hosting International Volunteers,” 2012.

[13] Erin Barnhardt, “Engaging Global Service: Organizational Motivations for and Perceived Benefits of Hosting International Volunteers,” 2012

[14] Erin Barnhardt, “Engaging Global Service: Organizational Motivations for and Perceived Benefits of Hosting International Volunteers,” 2012.

[15] Erin Barnhardt, “Engaging Global Service: Organizational Motivations for and Perceived Benefits of Hosting International Volunteers,” 2012.

This Impact Tourism Handbook was made possible by generous financial support from Elevate Destinations, Hilton, Holbrook Travel, and Overseas Adventure Travel.