The Pros and Cons of Voluntourism

Also called “volunteer tourism” or “volunteer travel,” voluntourism is a popular trend that keeps on growing. Voluntourism has seen a massive spike in growth since its inception more than half a century ago. Voluntourism can be a great way to travel the world while also doing charitable work for impoverished areas. However, there are ethical considerations that should be taken into account before heading out on a voluntourism trip

Using your skills to help others

Young Filipino boy and mother. Voluntourism
Young Filipino boy and mother on Mactan Island in the Philippines

Travel and vacations are inherently enjoyable on their own. But vacationing for a good cause can give travelers a sense of accomplishment as well. Voluntourism is a fantastic way to help others using whatever skills you have. If you’re a nurse or doctor, you can provide vital medical attention to those in need. Even if you don’t have special skills you can still help in other ways, such as cleaning up after natural disasters.

Nurses can work with well-established organizations to put their skills to use. The Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross all use nurses. Traveling to areas that have a high need for healthcare practitioners is great practice for nurses. More importantly, it helps impoverished communities obtain the often life-saving help they need. Furthermore, working with well-known institutions bolsters career prospects and reduces the likelihood they will be working alongside unqualified individuals.

However, many programs do not properly vet their applicants before acceptance. This is possibly the biggest con for voluntourism from a skills-based view. Those with the proper skills may end up having to pick up the slack where their fellow volunteers lag behind. Worse, improperly vetted volunteers affect the communities they serve. A lack of proper vetting leads to reduced effectiveness and opens avenues for harmful activities.

Gaining cultural competence and awareness

Happy school children in Nagaseke, Uganda. Voluntourism
Happy school children in Nagaseke, Uganda

One of the greatest benefits of international travel is the opportunity to experience other cultures in a face-to-face setting. Voluntourism increases this by allowing travelers a hands-on experience. Volunteers directly interact with the local culture in a way that regular tourism can’t provide. This creates a level of understanding and empathy for a foreign culture that would otherwise be incredibly hard to cultivate.

This cultural immersion is especially helpful to those in the healthcare field, especially nurses. Nurses require at least a modicum of cultural awareness in their profession. This helps them better connect with their patients and allows the patient to be more comfortable discussing potentially sensitive topics. Voluntourism gives nurses and other medical professionals the perfect opportunity to raise their cultural awareness and competence.

The opportunity to immerse oneself in a different culture and expand one’s outlook on life has always been popular. However, negative effects such as ego-stroking and the development of a savior complex can undo the good of cultural immersion. Additionally, when individuals volunteer in downtrodden areas, it can result in a jaded outlook on life. This is often due to witnessing the darker side of things.

How voluntourism can affect your career

Volunteers walking arm in arm. Voluntourism

Voluntourism, while it is a great experience, has varying impacts on your chosen career field. Going abroad for an extended period can result in increased instances of burnout. You can be left listless and reticent to continue to pursue your field. Conversely, as previously discussed, voluntourism can provide great benefits to those working in specific fields. It provides a great opportunity for expansion of your skill set and a decent amount of hands-on practice.

Volunteering always looks great on a resume. It shows that you’re willing to go above and beyond in order to make a difference in the world. This is incredibly attractive to potential employers. It also does wonders for expanding your own view of the world at large. However, while you are spending a significant amount of time abroad helping others, you’re also missing out on career opportunities that might be available at home.

A major con of voluntourism is that most volunteer projects run for several months at a time. This means you are essentially taking yourself out of the running for an extended period of time. This not only impacts your immediate ability to start your chosen profession; it also cuts into any earnings you could be making while voluntouring. Voluntouring is also not an inexpensive activity. Most programs require that you pay your own way. Because they are charitable organizations, they don’t have the funds to provide travel accommodations.

Is voluntourism for you?

While voluntourism has the potential to change your outlook on life, give you the opportunity to help others, and might make you more appealing to potential employers, it isn’t an entirely worry-free activity. People will directly depend on you and your ability to make a change in their lives. You may experience burn out from the whole situation, and you may miss out on various opportunities back home. Participating in voluntourism is a big decision and shouldn’t be made lightly. Go in with as much knowledge as you can.

About Jori Hamilton


Jori Hamilton is a writer from the pacific northwest who covers travel, social issues, and technology. You can follow her on twitter @hamiltonjori

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