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Considering a “Volunteer Vacation” over summer? Resolve to Help, Rather than Harm When Abroad, NGO Cautions

A leading international volunteer service organization offers study abroad and other potential “vacation volunteers” important tips to avoid cultural exploitation abroad. At the top of the list: Put your personal agenda aside, advises Global Volunteers.

The number of students combining volunteerism with study abroad has grown rapidly in recent years. So too, the range of service-learning opportunities has expanded. But not all these “volunteer vacations” are helpful, the Global Volunteers web site,, claims.

“Students are idealistic and generous people. However, in their zeal to help, some may join hastily contrived volunteer projects and unintentionally reinforce the “Ugly American” stereotype abroad,” warns Global Volunteers co- founder, Michele Gran.

Prospective international volunteers must carefully choose programs structured for the ultimate benefit of the host community, and avoid any projects that looks exploitive, Gran stressed. Global Volunteers offers these insights:

1. Trust local leaders. Help the community through the projects they request, not in the manner you believe is helpful. Don’t let your own ideas get in the way of truly serving.

2. Resist the urge to give money or personal gifts directly to local people, as this can generate inequities between community members and make recipients targets of jealousies, and worse. Ethical organizations channel volunteers’ contributions through community leaders and local institutions.

3. Remember you’re a guest in the local community, even as a volunteer. Observe local customs, adhere to local laws, and respect traditions. Err on the side of caution.

4. Choose volunteer programs that are firmly rooted in the long-term development of the host community and commit sufficient time to truly contribute to development work. Avoid service “add-ons” that are designed to generate revenue for the sending organization and offer minor, if any, assistance to local people.

Global Volunteers also points out that service programs which don’t commit a full day to volunteering don’t conform to IRS requirements and may have very marginal benefit to the community. “The IRS guidelines are very clear and serve as a good rule of thumb for evaluating ethical programs,” says Bud Philbrook, Global Volunteers co-founder and an attorney. “Genuine international service with a credible non-profit organization engages volunteers in full-time work projects, five days per week and is tax-deductible for U.S. tax-payers.”

First coined in 1993 by travel guide author Bill McMillan, the broad term “volunteer vacation” now describes some 2,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as for-profit companies. But only a few non profits offer genuine human and economic development assistance to the people they claim to serve. Most well intentioned volunteers may not understand this important difference, Gran says, and therefore they could unknowingly contribute to grossly unfavorable impressions in host countries.

“Some part-time volunteer itineraries clearly fall short. 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 unbalanced toward the ‘do-gooder’ at the expense of local people,” Gran said.

Be careful that the volunteer project agenda doesn’t cost local people more effort than the volunteer contribution merits. NGOs that have worked for decades abroad focus on ongoing local investment, and engage team members in work projects that support local leaders’ vision, commitment and contributions.

“Emergent ‘voluntourism’ offerings—with their implied emphasis on tourism in place of service—erode the foundation supporting true development programs which slowly emerged over more than three decades. We encourage prospective volunteers to select options which channel their efforts through work projects over well-constructed weeks … not just a few hours. If uninformed, volunteers can find themselves part of something far different from what they intend,” says Philbrook.

Global Volunteers pioneered short-term international service programs in 1984 to engage American volunteers in sustainable development projects abroad. Some 180 American teams work alongside local people on English teaching, child care, labor and health-care projects in ninteen countries annually.

Volunteers pay a service program fee ranging from $795 to $2,895, after an internet discount, to cover their on-site costs and program materials for work projects.

Learn more at or 800-487-1074

Originally published on Tango Diva


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