Volunteering while overseas is a popular way to ‘give something back’ to the world.

Intrepid Travel provides fun, affordable and sustainable travel that is beneficial to local communities. We are committed to responsible travel principles – to operate and travel in a way that is culturally, economically and environmentally responsible. We receive many enquiries from people interested in combining their travels with an opportunity to help others, possibly through volunteering. This is often called ‘voluntourism’. But what is it, and how can you tell if you're being a responsible traveller?

The problem with short-term voluntourism

Most travelling volunteers just want to help, but worthwhile short-term volunteering opportunities are hard to find. It can be difficult to achieve the above in very short volunteer placements (those under two weeks), unless the volunteer is doing a really specific task that doesn’t take away a paid job from a local person – such as elephant research or counting wildlife.

Expectations should be modest. Motivated volunteers might bring new ideas and solutions together with a fresh perspective, reinvigorating and inspiring those around them, but change takes time. The reasons why things are done in certain ways may be steeped in hundreds of years of history and tradition.

Some experts have even warned that short-term volunteering isn’t always helpful. This can be for a variety of reasons:

  • Increasingly, organisations are becoming dependent on the money that short-term voluntourists bring with them, leading to projects that address the wrong needs, manufacture new needs, or place the safety of children and communities at risk.
  • It can be difficult to match the skills of a mixed group of travellers with the requirements of a local organisation.
  • Language barriers can add to the challenge.
  • If the local culture is vastly different to that of the volunteers, it can take some months before a volunteer adequately understands enough about that culture to move on from their own steep learning curve and bring real benefit.
  • Unprepared and untrained volunteers can do more harm than good – especially when dealing with children who often have complex needs and histories of abuse.
  • Children can be harmed. Many studies show that a constant stream of new visitors and volunteers, who often form close bonds of attachment with children in a very short period of time, can negatively affect early childhood development. This can cause learning delays, attachment disorders and difficulty forming healthy relationships – effects that can be lifelong and intergenerational.
  • A steady stream of volunteers results in a loss of jobs for locals, which impacts the health of the local economy and places families at risk.

Our position on voluntourism

Intrepid Travel is primarily a travel operator, and we believe that’s our strength. While we have some very long-standing and rich relationships with local communities, we believe communities seeking volunteers are best served by specialist agencies.

There are many excellent agencies around the world that recruit and place skilled volunteers in communities requesting assistance. One of these agencies is AVI. For the past 65 years, AVI has been in the business of connecting people to share skills and experience and achieve change across the world. 

To be effective, agencies need a range of specialised skills, plus the resources to ensure volunteers undergo a thorough recruitment process and are supported throughout their assignment. They prioritise the needs of the hosting communities and place the most suitable candidates in volunteer roles.

Again, Intrepid’s strength is as a travel operator, so we do not offer volunteering or voluntourism opportunities. We do, however, encourage you to consider the following alternative ways to give back to local communities, both when travelling and at home:  

• Support projects through The Intrepid Foundation. Established in 2002, our Foundation supports a range of community based projects in developing countries around the world. All our projects need and welcome your support. Learning about and fundraising for their activities in the weeks prior to your trip can bring an added positive dimension to your pre-trip preparation. 

• Stay in homestays/community stays. We offer homestays on many of our trips. Staying with a family or in a community can give you an interactive experience with local people. On top of that, you bring your hosts direct income and your purchase of goods and services brings flow-on benefits to others in the community.

• Invest in fair trade enterprises. Choose to spend your time and money at local restaurants and community enterprises that directly support community development.

• Think global, act local. If you do want to volunteer, there may be opportunities with development agencies and issues-based NGOs working on projects relating to your travel destination – but close to home. Many Western countries have peak bodies for volunteering or non-profit organisations; check out their websites for suggestions. For example, you could volunteer in administration, helping agencies reduce their overheads and maximise the percentage of revenue that is put to work overseas.

• Advocate. Poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, exploitation of the vulnerable, poor health services, discrimination, climate change…the world is full of problems we need to address. A very important way you can help is by spreading your understanding of the issues, and standing up for those who have less of a voice. Signing petitions, supporting or starting campaigns, attending or organising rallies, writing letters, calling your local parliamentarian, purchasing products and services from organisations with a strong social and environmental conscience – all these actions can make a real difference.

How can you identify a worthwhile volunteering project?

A worthwhile volunteering project is one that:

  • Brings real benefit to the host community and the volunteer.
  • Doesn’t take away a paid job from a local person.
  • Is working with a local partner organisation or community, rather than being imposed on the community
  • Takes skilled volunteers to specific areas that the community actually needs help with.
  • Is not a ‘one hit wonder’, but rather is contributing to a structured, longer term program.
  • Offers support and training to the volunteer, so their contribution is appropriate and relevant.
  • Empowers the local community, enabling skill sharing and capacity development.
  • Engenders the right attitude: the focus should be on what the volunteer can learn from the local hosts and experience, rather than the other way round.

Other ways you can be a better traveller