Ethical Volunteer Vacations: Choose Wisely to Ensure You Help, Not Hurt

ethical volunteer vacations

Ethical volunteer vacations combine purposeful service with cultural travel – to the ultimate benefit of local children and families.  Global Volunteers structures programs to respect and assist the people who invite volunteers into their communities. 


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.  Within a decade, more than 2,000 NGOs as well as for-profit companies branded themselves “volunteer vacations.” And the field continues to grow.  But not all programs offer genuine human and economic development assistance to the people they claim to serve.  Most well-intentioned volunteers may not realize that hastily contrived or mis-directed 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.

caring for children india

Volunteers help children reach their full potential by providing essential services and sharing their skills and compassion.

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.

volunteer labor projects in Cuba

Helping repair and upgrade community buildings invests in partner communities’ development vision.

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.

teaching english in china

Teaching English to the future leaders of China in the classrooms of Kunming builds a bridge of support and respect.

Global Volunteers has invested over three 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.

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.

Learn more about Global Volunteers’ Philosophy of Service and our development-based service programs.

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