Photo by Rodolfo Quirós from Pexels
This week I published a podcast episode speaking with author Jeff Blumenfeld about voluntourism. When Jeff reached out to request an interview on the topic of voluntourism I must admit, I was hesitant to accept the invitation. This single word has received so much media attention over the years, and not always for the right reasons.
I reflected on this for a short while. Why was I hesitant to talk about an act of kindness; one that makes a huge difference to the lives of so many people? I realised it was because I had developed a negativity bias against this single word. I had let the negative media influence my thoughts on voluntourism. Yes, voluntourism has a dark side, but volunteering as a whole is an incredible way to give back and I think it’s worth celebrating this selfless act and how it can influence the lives of so many.
In this post, I highlight some of the insights and resources Jeff shared in the podcast interview, as well as revisit what voluntourism means in this new world of ours.
Listen to the full interview on the link below:
What is Voluntourism?
Voluntourism comes in many forms, but the word itself (as it suggests) originated from the combination of volunteering and tourism. Volunteering is a way of donating your time and skills to others. It is the opportunity to help others achieve their goals without asking for anything in exchange – except perhaps the feel-good emotions that arise from generosity itself.
What to consider before volunteering
Below is a checklist of things to consider before volunteering.
As Jeff emphasizes in the interview, “It’s not about you [the volunteer]”, it’s about the people who are asking for assistance and the act itself. When the volunteer narrative is centered around the individual and not the impact itself, it can result in what the industry now calls ‘the saviour complex’. That is, when we situate ourselves as the ‘saviour’, it can imply a subconscious hierarchy as if to say they [the person assisted] ‘needs us’ – and this can perpetuate inequality.
In the podcast, Jeff refers to some valuable resources to understand the saviour complex and how to recognise the unconscious bias we may have regarding our place in the world.
Related reading: Navigating Personal Perspective and Bias in Travel-Related Storytelling
Types of volunteer opportunities
As Jeff mentions in our interview, volunteering can come in many forms. “I realized voluntourism didn’t have to be a heavy lift. Travellers can volunteer for an hour, an afternoon, or a full week at their destination. Or simply pack extra medical or school supplies in their baggage for distribution upon arrival. To research the book, I volunteered in Antarctica as a high school chaperone, worked at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and bagged apples and onions at a Las Vegas food bank. I also pursued the Swedish art of “plogging” – picking up trash while enjoying the outdoors.”
Below is a variety of volunteering options to consider while travelling:
- Exchange skills using WorkAway or HelpX
- Volunteer as a citizen scientist with Adventure Scientists or Biosphere Expeditions
- Volunteer with locals while on a cruise holiday with Hope Floats
- Search volunteer opportunities with a Volunteer Matching Program like Volunteer Match or Nomads Giving Back!
The dark side of Voluntourism
The dark side of Voluntourism comes from a history of unregulated volunteer opportunities exploiting vulnerable people for money. One prime example is unethical orphanage volunteering where, in some developing countries like Nepal and Cambodia, scammers would traffic children from poor families into ‘fake orphanages’ and launder unsuspecting volunteers’ money.
There are many resources available for volunteers to educate themselves on ethical volunteering, and Jeff goes into this in much detail in his book – ‘Travel With Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism’. As Jeff mentions in the podcast interview, “Do your research. Google organisations before you volunteer. Check for reviews, check for scams. There is a lot of information available.“
Related Reading: How To Be A Responsible Volunteer
The benefits of volunteering
Volunteering provides opportunities for some of the most valuable human traits including connection, compassion, and kindness. Volunteering enables a community mindset and brings people together for the greater good.
Other benefits of volunteering can include:
- An opportunity to learn new skills
- An increased feeling of connection to others
- A sense of acheivement
- A chance to meet new people
- An increased sense of purpose
Who is Jeff Blumenfeld?
Jeff Blumenfeld is the author of ‘Get Sponsored: A Funding Guide for Explorers, Adventurers, and Would-be World Travellers’, – and the more recent book – ‘Travel With Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism‘.
Jeff’s interest in volunteering took him to Nepal in 2013 and 2017 where he served as communications director for the Dooley Intermed Foundation’s “Gift of Sight” Expedition – an effort to bring quality eye care to 700 impoverished villagers. Prior to that, he volunteered as a chaperone on a high school trip to Antarctica, which he speaks about in the interview.
In August 2020 he was honored with the Iceland Exploration Museum’s Leif Erikson Award for Exploration History and is currently an adjunct lecturer at CU’s College of Media, Communication, and Information.
Purchase Jeff’s book ‘Travel With Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism’
Purchase Jeff’s book with insights from almost a lifetime of selfless work – Travel with Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism.