What Type Of Volunteer Are You?

What you should consider before volunteering on your gap year

Are you a voluntourist or a volunteer? Many travellers dreaming of giving back on their gap year don’t even realise there is a difference, but there is, and it is a very important one, so which type of volunteer are you?

Volunteering has become a huge part of the gap year industry in recent years with a huge array of volunteer opportunities being offered up in neat little pre paid packages, from working with children or wildlife, to helping some form of community project or even supposed conservation research.

The people who volunteer are as varied as the opportunities available to them, with a huge array of people from all walks of life and with a vast range of motivations and reasons for volunteering.

Yet despite this you can always boil it down to two specific and distinct types of volunteer, and for those of you who are thinking of volunteering on your gap year, it is up to you which one you would prefer to be.

The Volunteer.

The first are the genuine volunteers. These people work with genuine organisations alongside genuine projects and local communities, and work hard to utilise their own skills to supplement and help the community or cause they are volunteering with.

Many have specific professional skills and qualifications and work with genuine NGOs and organisations to utilise those skills where they are needed most. Others may have wider skill sets from construction to crisis management to bring to the table.

Whatever their professional, academic or trade skill set, all of them find a way to use those talents for the benefit of the organisation.

This form of volunteer doesn’t assume that their western volunteer status gives them any actual rights or privileges in the project or organisation they are working with. They understand that the locals are the experts and that they know and understand the needs of their own community or the cause better than anyone.

These volunteers know that the project can benefit from their skills, but they are only there to supplement the skill and culture of the local population so that the project will eventually become self sustaining. They understand that they as a volunteer stand to learn and gain as much from the experience as they have to give. They respect and empower the locals, the community and the volunteer opportunity.

These type of volunteer epitomise what volunteering is supposed to be about.

The Voluntourist.

The second type of person – the one that is becoming increasingly more common in the gap year voluntourism industry – is the lord and saviour personified. This person can do no wrong and must constantly be lauded for their actions over social media.

As a citizen of a Western society and therefore obviously superior to the entire developing world, they leap into volunteering with a god complex so big it can barely be contained in the superman costume they are inevitably wearing under their tiger beer singlets.

Make no mistake, these people are here to save the world and make sure everyone back home knows it with a snazzy new Facebook profile photo and Instagram page dedicated to their selfless actions!

After paying thousands of pounds for the privilege of volunteering – most, if not all, of which goes into the profit margins of a voluntourism company and not the local population – they set off with grand dreams of helping all the poor people in the world or to fix all the worlds problems (provided of course they have a nice place to sleep with mod cons and a bar nearby), completely self assured in the knowledge that all it will take to solve any issue in a poor developing country is a western presence there.

Whether they are digging a well or building a school, these voluntourists ensure that they get their priorities right, that ‘it is the most profound, life changing thing they have ever done’.

It is all about them, how they have ‘given something back’, how they can later boast of their time ‘helping out in a poor orphanage in a distant land’ to all their obviously impressed mates back home. Cue a ton of Facebook profile pictures of them hugging local children or crouching near an endangered animal.

Yet if you suggested to these people that they give up their weekends for a volunteer project back home with the homeless, they would probably look at you like the Antichrist and run a mile.

It doesn’t really matter that the local community these voluntourists are sent to doesn’t really need a badly built shack with a nicely painted ‘school’ sign above the door, or a hole in the ground tentatively labelled a well.

What really matters – to the voluntourism company at least – is that whatever they happen to be doing is meaningless enough to be nothing more than a little project for the conveyor belt of voluntourists to come and work on for a few days or a week before moving on.

It doesn’t matter one bit that these voluntourists don’t have the qualification, skill or experience to do the jobs they want to do, it doesn’t matter that they don’t speak the language or understand the culture or community they are visiting. It doesn’t even matter that they may be causing vast amounts of harm in the long term. The companies make a shed load of profit and the voluntourists know with absolute certainty that after it is all done that all the little poor people will be eternally grateful and they can fly away back home with a chest full of pride!

That is what is important, right?

These voluntourists get sent on masse to aid projects, medical centres or animal sanctuaries, convinced in their naive little minds that they will be directing vast relief efforts, immunising little children from ravaging disease or nursing a small baby orang-utan back to health. They are completely oblivious to the fact that they have absolutely zero experience or knowledge of project management or aid, nor any professional skill or qualification in medicine, nursing, veterinary practice or conservation management. They expect to teach entire classrooms of wide eyed little poor children, despite having no formal qualification, education, training or knowledge themselves.

But no matter. They are western volunteers after all so the children will benefit. Right?

I mean seriously, think about it for a minute. If this was happening in the UK, would an untrained, unqualified volunteer with absolutely no criminal or background checks be allowed to go into any school and look after and teach kids for the day? Would a hospital allow any untrained volunteer without numerous checks and balances to come in and perform the duties of a qualified nurse?

Of course not!

You Have The Power To Choose What Type You Want To Be.

Volunteering abroad is not about what you want. It is not about appeasing some sort of western guilt neurosis or massaging some hero complex you may have. It is about understanding the culture of the country you are visiting, learning about how your skills can work in partnership with locals to support, empower and nurture each other. It is about working together to improve a situation, not imposing some sort of benevolent superiority.

Unfortunately in the profit making factory line that is the voluntourism industry, this is what volunteering is becoming in the modern gap year travel sector. It is a business, plain and simple, and the eager volunteers – regardless of their motivations or intent – are more often than not becoming a disruptive force to the very communities and causes they want to help.

The good news is each and every volunteer has the power to change this, to ensure this recent status quo doesn’t continue.

As you prepare for your gap year or backpacking trip and look into volunteering, ask yourself very carefully what your motivations are for doing so. Look very closely at what skills and qualifications you have and how they could be useful to the type of organisation you want to volunteer with, and most of all, look very carefully at the type of organisation you want to volunteer with.

Then you can ask yourself which type of volunteer do you want to be?

*Note to the more sensitive out there, heavy doses of sarcasm were used liberally throughout this article to make a point, and was not meant to offend. If you did get offended by this you need to take a long, hard look at yourself now don’t you?

What’s your take on the voluntourism industry? Have you ever volunteered abroad? What were your opinions of it? 

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

A Day Of Giving Back In Finger Lakes, New York.

Should You Pay To Volunteer On Your Gap Year?

Spotlight On BAWA, Volunteering In Bali.

The Big Voluntourism Lie.

The Dark Truth About Orphanage Volunteering.


What You Need To Consider Before Volunteering On Your Gap Year.

Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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Posted in Volunteering
10 comments on “What Type Of Volunteer Are You?
  1. Rachel says:

    Great article. It really concerns me that the voluntourism industry is booming, especially in regards to wildlife and conservation as people can go so much more harm than good in the long run.

    I haven’t volunteered abroad… yet. I volunteer often here in Kent, whether it is helping with the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme or helping a local nature reserve to clear scrub or pick up littler. I like volunteering because of the things you learn and the people you meet, and yes, I like giving something back that isn’t a result of working as a professional ecologist.

    I would love to volunteer abroad, but it is very hard to filter out the true local organisations that give a damn about what they are doing as the main search page is full of voluntourism organisations that charge £1500 for two weeks for a ‘marine expedition’ or £1200 for a week of ‘helping wild mustangs’.

    However, I have found a few genuine conservation groups that I am hoping to help with over the next few years – a conservation research station in Namibia that is run by locals and allows students, researchers and just plain interested people to come along for a month or more to help with habitat management and research into ecosystems and ecological interactions; a sea turtle charity in Greece and another in Costa Rica where they charge you $20 a day to help cover food and accommodation while you help with beach cleans, go with teachers into local schools to assist them with presentations to kids, and help protect nesting beaches during the night.

    If you know of any other genuine conservation and wildlife volunteer projects around the world, I would love to hear about them 🙂

    • Thank you so much for the comment Rachel. I have those same concerns about large parts of the voluntourism industry.

      I think there are many fantastic volunteer organisations and groups out there with amazing opportunities for volunteers to do real good, but increasingly often now these are being overshadowed by the profit making companies in the gap year and tourism industries.

      You are right, it is quite difficult for people to filter out the good from the bad, that is why the RIGHT tourism campaign and education are so important.

      I also think it is really important to distinguish between genuine organisations that ask you to pay for your own upkeep (a fair request) and those profit making companies huge fees. Too often people lump them together and get confused but there is a huge difference.

      Those organisations sound great. One truly great NGO that I have personally worked with is BAWA in Bali https://bemusedbackpacker.com/2013/06/10/spotlight-on-bawa-volunteering-in-bali/ who do great work with dogs and cats and preventing the spread of rabies on the island.

  2. simonhare says:

    I know an NGO in SE Asia who refused Western First Aid training because they felt that traditional healing practised (with a very low success rate) by the locals was more appropriate and teaching them Western ways would be culturally insensitive. It was an excuse to do nothing really. I’m just saying, it can be very dangerous to have a blanket belief that the locals are always the experts when in many cases they are clearly not. If they were, there were be no need for any Western intervention at all and developing countries would not be in need of outside help. And the fact is they do need help. What is more important is to know when “West is best”, and to have the tact, diplomacy and skills to sensitively pass such help on when and where it is genuinely needed.

    • No one is saying that western intervention isn’t important Simon, of course it is or the NGOs wouldn’t exist. What I’m saying is it is important to not take that to the extreme and change that important need into a domineering paternalism. I agree with your statement at the end, but would add and also know when it is not needed and can cause more harm than good. Thanks for the reply. 🙂

  3. Charlie Marchant says:

    I’ve been reading/thinking/hearing a lot about this over the past year or so, and I think that also a lot of people sign up and pay thousands of pounds actually with the best intentions (not necessarily a ‘superhero’ complex) but just don’t know what they’re really getting themselves into. I think it’s also really hard for people to know what they can do on their gap year if they are unskilled. Even when it comes to WorkAways, many of them are asking for skilled labour, not just people who are happy to learn and try their best to help out and muck in.

    • There is definitely a place for unskilled labour when volunteering, the problem is when many people go with unrealistic expectations of ‘saving endangered species’, ‘cuddling bay animals’, ‘working with underprivileged kids’ or any of the other fantasies sold by people in the voluntourism industry who frankly should know better. Instead of paying thousands of pounds to for profit companies and getting no benefit, people should be shown how to utilise what skills they do have in a relevant sector in a manner that is mutually beneficial not only to the host community but the volunteer themselves.

  4. Zosia says:

    I know this was meant tongue in cheek but it really makes an important point about backpackers who want to volunteer abroad. Well written and well done! Keep up the good work!

  5. Chris says:

    You are so on point with this! I love it!

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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