Voluntourism or Exploitation?

Voluntourism is an increasingly popular option in travel.

A lot of the programs feature a week or two abroad, helping out in an impoverished orphanage or school. It seems like fun, a lot of good karma points, and some unbeatable selfie opportunities. Amiright?

Hell no!

In reality – involving the word “volunteer” is at best misleading, especially for any potential “voluntourists” with pure intentions.

Because the truth is:

Unless you have very specific and in-demand skills, going to a developing country for a week and “volunteering” with children isn’t going to help isn’t going to help them… actually, more likely the opposite.

So, PLEASE, stop calling it volunteering, voluntourism, or whatever latest splashy word looks nice on facebook – in most cases it is at best simply tourism.

If you’re considering a voluntourism program, stop and think for a moment about your motivations. Do you truly want to help the children or are you “volunteering” as a bucket list item, something cool to add to your resume, or to try something new on your weeklong vacation?

If you actually want to help, there are a million ways to put your skills and passions to good use. Do something in your home community and do it for an extended period of time. And if you find it in your heart to help an overseas organization, look at the bottom of the post for some responsible ways to do it, or commit to an extended period of time in a foreign community (3 months bare minimum but 6 months is best).

True volunteering isn’t spending just a few days doing orphanage tours and taking selfies with cute kids in actual need.

Because, at its core, who does that really serve? What does it accomplish?

I’d argue that not only isn’t volunteering, that isn’t voluntourism, and that isn’t even tourism in general.

Call it what it is – exploitation.

Voluntourism or Exploitation

Visiting orphanages does worse than nothing, it actually hurts the children you’re supposedly wanting to help. When round after round of foreign tourists pay to visit and tour an orphanage, it perpetuates a vicious cycle. By putting money in the pockets of the tour operators, it’s actually in their best interest NOT to truly help those children. The children themselves see voluntourists entering and exiting through a never ending revolving door of instability and change.

Kids need stability and compassion and love. Not cameras in their face and the unintelligible words of a foreigner who doesn’t understand their problems or really even care to learn about anything that can’t be used as a caption on Instagram.

Before you sign up for a voluntourist trip: ask yourself – what am I truly trying to accomplish?

And if you find it in your heart that you actually want to help,

Try one of these:

  1. Have a fundraiser at home or online, and donate the funds to an organization that is actually helping.
  2. Collect donations. Used books, clothing, and art supplies are popular, but ask the organization what it in specific needs.
  3. Volunteer your skills in the most helpful way to the organization. Maybe they could use help with sharing projects on social media, blogging, or web design.
  4. Raise awareness for the cause. Contact bloggers, news organizations, write on your own Facebook, do a YouTube Video.
  5. Provide support to actual skilled volunteers. Depending on your skills and experience, you may be able to help create lesson plans, correct worksheets, or organize activities.
  6. Ask not what the organization can do for you (or your social media accounts), but rather what you can do to help the organization and its cause.
  7. Commit to spending an extended period of time (bare minimum 3 months, but minimum 6 months is better) helping the organization that you believe in. At the better organizations, you’ll need to undergo training first before even working with the kids, and local language skills will be extremely helpful if not required.

Have you ever volunteered or been a “voluntourist”? What did you think of the experience?



A short vacation in Thailand turned into a life abroad with a canceled ticket home. Nearly a decade later and after living in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Puebla, and Puerto Vallarta, Steph is on to her next adventure and living back in beautiful, cosmopolitan Mexico City. She is living, traveling, and working (both as an expat therapist and an international health insurance representative) around the world to find the beautiful, inspirational, and interesting while sharing it with you!

Find me on: Web | Instagram | Facebook

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