Ethical volunteer vacations combine purposeful service with cultural travel – to the ultimate benefit of local children and families. Global Volunteers meets 10 of 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in structuring programs respecting and assisting local people who invite our volunteers into their communities. Our philosophy of service requires serving where we’ve been invited, working under local leadership, on priority projects defined by the community, side-by-side with local children and adults. Read more below.
The term “volunteer vacations” was coined by travel guide author Bill McMillan in 1993, in “Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, “ listing Global Volunteers and some 100 other non-profit organizations in a seminal field. In the decade following, more than 2,000 NGOs as well as for-profit companies branded themselves “volunteer vacations.” That term has now become the ultimate keyword for those looking online to find volunteer service organizations (VSOs). Not all programs offer genuine human and economic development assistance to the people they claim to serve, however. Most well-intentioned volunteers may not realize that hastily contrived or misdirected projects riding the “voluntourism” trend can in fact, leave grossly unfavorable impressions in host countries – and risk the wholesale reputation (and tax-deductibility) of American volunteer efforts abroad.
Many volunteers on international service programs rightfully don’t regard their service as “vacations.” Mutually beneficial international volunteer opportunities are full-time programs, and prepare volunteers to serve ethically and sensitively in the host country. Global Volunteers programs, for instance, are grounded in long-term, sustainable community development, and contribute volunteer labor in a manner to maximize outcome. Ethical volunteer vacations put the community’s vision above all other agendas. Anything less potentially reinforces “Ugly American” stereotypes by simply dressing “do-gooder” programs in humanitarian clothes.
We pioneered short-term international service programs in 1984 to ensure volunteers could be engaged in meaningful projects abroad. Foremost is a focus on ongoing international partnerships, and knowledgeable volunteer preparation and management. Further, we share a common commitment and best practices with the development community: To encourage and support local self-reliance. Global Volunteers’ local host partners strive to engage volunteers fully in the day-to-day life of their communities, employing their professional skills and unique talents, without exploiting local people for the volunteers’ benefit. By working together, team members are fulfilled while addressing important community needs.
Where many part-time volunteer itineraries fall short is in their intention. Those that feature a day or two touring orphanages or a few hours a day working in a school can give the feeling of connecting with local people, but in fact, may be unethically structured for the volunteers’ benefit. These ‘hit-and-run’ agendas cost local people more effort than the volunteer contribution merits. By contrast, true international partnerships focus on ongoing local investment, and engage team members in work projects that support local leaders’ vision, commitment and contributions.
Global Volunteers has invested nearly four decades in helping children reach their full potential by working with parents, teachers, health-care professionals and local leaders to provide essential services addressing health, nutrition and cognition. The needs in our host communities are vast, and so are the opportunities to make a genuine difference. Volunteers on our Reaching Children’s Potential Program (RCP) participate on the ground floor of human and economic development in two or three weeks by contributing their skills to long-term, comprehensive work projects identified by local leaders. The RCP Program is a child-focused, parent-driven, family-centered, and community-led comprehensive effort. It begins with pregnancy, and continues through the 18th birthday, with a focus on the first 1,000 days of life. Read more about how Global Volunteers contributes to the UN SDGs.
Be wary of “voluntourism” offerings with an emphasis on tourism rather than service. Choose ethical volunteer vacation options which channel your efforts through work projects over well-constructed weeks… not mere hours or days.