How do I know if I’m adding value at my volunteer placement?

A great post from Ms. Daniela Papi on her blog lessonsilearned, she’s asked me to share it with everyone - let’s see if we can start some dialogue.

As for your second question, what can YOU do, a nearly-17-year-old, intelligent, worldly, education-seeking, student?  Well, there is a LOT you can do.  I just don’t think that these “pay to teach English in an orphanage” programs are it.  First off, my advice is:

a) Start off by volunteering at home. There is a quote that says something like “We go abroad to stare at the same people we ignore at home.”  We have homeless shelters at home, big brother/big sister type programs where you can mentor a younger child who might not have someone as loving and intelligent as you to believe in them, refugee service programs where you can be matched with a refugee family coming in from South East Asia (if that is where your interest lies) and you can help show them the compassion and welcoming feelings you received when you were in Cambodia.  There are a LOT of ways to do great things every week at home (libraries to read to young kids in, fundraising projects at school, writing online about the lessons you learned on your travels to share with others, etc).

b) Look into NGOs to volunteer abroad where your skills are needed and/or you can provide support to programs you believe in without going through a profiteering middle-man. At PEPY, we take volunteers for 6 months, but the difference from the typical “Volunteer Abroad” programs is, they usually work in our OFFICE, not with students, not building things, not teaching English in orphanages.  Hence, the work seems a lot more “boring” than the “go abroad and change a child’s life” ads some volunteer programs are using.  BUT, there are indeed things that someone with your skills could help do at PEPY or elsewhere – and they might be similar to things you would do interning at home in an office such as editing copy in English, reading through and sorting data and English information that our Khmer staff might have difficulties with, donor relations and thank yous, etc. No, not glamorous, but yes, a chance to learn. 

When evaluating a volunteer placement I would consider:

1) Do my skills match the stated need? Are you being sent out as a Peace Corps volunteer in “Guatemalan Small Business Development Planning” when you majored in English and have never been to Guatemala?  Hmm…. maybe it’s not a great fit?

2) Does the stated volunteer position seem like I will be adding to the sustainability of the organizations overall work? If the core problem the program claims to be solving is English language education, does your short term visit seem like it is a good long-term solution?  If instead, you are teaching TEACHERS English to improve their native pronunciation so that they can be more effective teachers in the long-term, that would seem to me to be a slightly better fit.

3) Does the job seem like one fit for a short-term outsider? An organization based in a foreign country and working in a different language than your own will hopefully not place you in a program management position in a community.  If they are, you should go back to a) and analyze if your skills match the need.  If they are placing you in an administrative or support position, see if yours is a role that would make sense for an outsider to do.  Could a local person fill your role?  If your role is editing English copy in grant writing proposals, perhaps it is a good fit because you are able to add value through a skill you have, you would have the chance to teach the long-term staff how to improve their work, and if there is no one there to fill your role once you leave it is still possible for the organization to continue on and be successful, with perhaps slightly less editing support.

4) Where is your money going? If you are paying a “fee” to volunteer, whose salaries are you paying?  Are you paying for a UK office of a volunteer sending program?  If so, consider if the value they have provided is worth the fee you are paying.  Do they seem like they are “selling” you something or are they taking the time to honestly answer your questions and guide you to a fit that is best for you?  Is the local partner paying to have you there?  If so, do you think the value you are able to provide is worth the money they are paying to have you, or would their funds be better spent on their programs? These are questions you will need to answer based on each individual case.

I hope this is helpful!  If there are others out there reading this, I’d love to see comments with additional thoughts or other advice you would give a young person looking to volunteer!

Mother Teresa and Voluntourism? Seriously?

An article came out in the CS Monitor recently that was brought to my attention by the awesome folks at In the article the author says, “Mother Teresa faced criticism over the years from those who said the work did little to address the root causes of grinding poverty” and then links this to voluntourism and the debates that rage about whether or not we are doing good.

Another part of the article said, “Mother Teresa’s program was a precursor to VolunTourism,” says David Clemmons, founder of, by e-mail. “There was no grand, long-term commitment. The program was crafted to allow for movement and flow of volunteers. And if individuals wished to volunteer for a day or two and then go sightseeing elsewhere in Calcutta … they were free to do so. In this way, Mother Teresa was ahead of her time.”

Is having volunteers volunteer for a day or two and then go sight see as Mr. Clemmons suggests really helping anyone but travelers feel better about themselves? Is it OK to NOT have a ‘grand, long-term commitment’???

Do you think this is all a little far fetched and reaching or does it have some realism in it???

Read the full article:

Share Your Mistakes – Who’s Game?

I’d love to run a series on biggest mistakes – who’s brave enough to share? The best way to learn it seems to me is often to fail and then take away from the situation some real knowledge on improvement. So here’s my challenge to you all: Share a mistake, a blunder and what you learned from it in the comments section.

If we want to improve the industry we have to start be admitting our faults and learning from them.

My bet? PEPY and Geovisions will be among the first to share.

Teaching English Projects – Realistic in the Short Term?

Michael Kaye, CEO & Founder of Costa Rica Expeditions & Nicaragua Expeditions sent me a note about his recent blog entry, he brings up interesting points about teaching English projects that we all have heard but never address.

- Can teachers be trained in a short time and be effective teachers?

- Must there be a set curriculum they follow to keep progress moving throughout a long string of volunteers?

- Will volunteers want to spend a week of their vacation teaching?

- How short is too short and useless for the child?

(OK, some of these are my questions not his but…)

Read his full blog post here – let’s get the discussion started! Below is a snippet.

“So that’s the background.  Here’s the question:  If there were a very fast and easy to learn teaching method that after 20-30 minutes of reading would allow new teachers to jump in and pick up where former teachers have left off share knowledge of English with a child and indicate the child’s proficiency level to the next teacher, do you think you find rewarding spending at least two hours on your next vacation to the non-English speaking world sharing your knowledge with a local child?  Do you think other people would?”

Slumdog Promotes Voluntourism in Orphanages: Good or Bad?

See below, a recent article came out in Travel News about a TV program on the slums of India that has increased the number of volunteers wanting to help in orphanages, is this good or bad? It’s probably good for volunteer companies and their bottom line and working with kids has always sold really well BUT is it in fact good for the kids?

We send volunteers to orphanages to paint rooms or play with kids or help ‘educate’ but really who is benefiting the most? The volunteer or the kids? Have there been any studies saying that placing strangers with orphans that only stay for one week help or hinder the abandonment issues that orphans anyway carry with them?

As all of this promotion and encouragement of volunteering with orphans continues I’d love to hear proof from someone that the kids are truly the ones benefiting. The orphanages I have talked to in country always tell me they think teh volunteers’ efforts hurt the kids but they need to smile and make nice with volunteer companies because they are reliant on the funds.

Let the debate begin!

Slumdog TV Promotes Voluntourism

British organisations which offer volunteering opportunities overseas have seen a marked increase in the number of people wishing to travel to India to work in orphanages. Travel industry leaders believe the rise in enquiries for this sort of overseas expedition is as a result of Channel 4’s recent India Winter season.

The series, which drew in record level audience figures, featured programmes including Slumming It, The Slumdog Children of Mumbai and the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Spokesperson Marcus Watts, from the independent gap year association The Year Out Group, said he believes the rise in interest from people wanting to carry out voluntary work in India shows just how influential TV programming is. He said: “Channel 4’s India Winter season was something which has captured the minds of many people. Lots of viewers saw the way thousands of young children live on India’s streets and have felt inspired to do something to help them.

Volunteers working overseas really can make a small difference to the lives of kids who have been abandoned or orphaned.” Greenforce, which is a not for profit organisation, and a branch of Gapforce, sends a different group of British volunteers twice a month to India. The average trip ranges from two to five weeks. Volunteers range in age from 17 to 70. Upon arrival in India, Gapforce trains its volunteers to speak basic Hindi before allowing them to work in the orphanage. Volunteers can choose between working in a residential orphanage in Jaipur or assisting in a day centre for orphans and homeless children in Delhi.

Director of Operations Daniella Noykova, from Gapforce, who has herself volunteered in India, said: “Words cannot express how much these children enjoy meeting our volunteers. These orphanages are incredibly stretched when it comes to resourcing so having additional support is always welcome. “ The work which volunteers carry out in the orphanages is varied. It can range from helping building the children’s confidence and integrating them into the community, tutoring in home work, teaching vocational skills, organizing games and recreational activities and most importantly providing much needed individualised attention. For more information about Gapforce’s volunteering opportunities, visit http://www.gapforce.or

Mistakes to Avoid when Training Volunteers

The folks at Volunteer Teacher Thailand offered up this great blog post about mistakes they’ve seen made when training volunteers. I think its a great list to start with, what would you add from your experience??

1. Fail to explain the problems volunteers are addressing within the specific cultural environment. It is vital to give volunteers – caring, intelligent people but probably lacking local knowledge – a clear understanding of the local culture and how they fit into it. They need to know the root causes of the problem, how it is being tackled, how they are helping and what difference they are making to the local people, animals or environment.

2. Fail to explain local cultural etiquette, acceptable ways to dress and the kind of behaviour that local people will find respectful and will, in turn, respect. This extends, importantly, into conveying that volunteers are serving the local people and need to adapt to the culture.

3. Fail to explain in detail what the volunteer work involves and how to do it. Getting the best from volunteers and leaving them satisfied with their experience is a skill that should include carefully and kindly making sure everyone knows: a) the work and how to do it; b) the structure of the work, when and where, and the time off; and c) the respect felt by the organisers for people giving their time, within or outside their professional skills, to improve the chances, say, of 500 poor children a week learning English.

4. Fail to balance work demands. Too little work for volunteers is as bad as too much; and the tasks need to take into account the volunteer’s ability and suitability to undertake them.

5. Fail to give constant onsite supervision, help and training. This needs to be done lightly, with tact and with the understanding that the volunteer is a person of value who just has not come across this kind of situation before. The worst mistake is to let anyone take this coordinating/training role who thinks it is a personal ego trip. Post-service help should include a certificate and an open invitation to ask for an employment reference.


This list of training mistakes was compiled by staff volunteers at Volunteer Teacher Thailand, which gives English lessons in schools and among adults in the tsunami-hit areas of southern Thailand. Further details on VTT’s website at

Thirteen Tips for the Accidental Ambassador

Just back from an amazing Adventure Travel World Summit, fantastic travel folks and some great brainstorming, what a week! If you didn’t go this year I highly recommend trying to make it to Scotland next year.

One of the key people I met was Jeff Greenwald of Ethical Traveler, a really inspiring guy who is trying to make a huge difference through his website. Jeff’s team created “Thirteen Tips for the Accidental Ambassador” a quick reading to prepare those traveling abroad to do so responsibly.

I recommend sharing this, or something like it, with all of your clients – the more education they can have before they go in country the better experience is for both them and the communities. Jeff has some great bookmarks printed with this info on it that would make great pre-departure gifts, and no he is not a client – I just think this is a great idea.

At Ethical Traveler, our focus is on the positive impact travelers can have by being open, informed, and willing to immerse themselves in other cultures. In creating these following suggestions, we’ve drawn inspiration from our own journeys—with an emphasis on the person-to-person aspects of travel.
1) BE AWARE OF WHERE YOUR MONEY IS GOING, and patronize locally-owned inns, restaurants, and shops. Try to keep your cash within the local economy, so the people you are visiting can benefit directly from your visit.

2) NEVER GIVE GIFTS TO CHILDREN, only to their parents or teachers. When giving gifts to local communities – from schoolbooks to balloons, from pens to pharmaceuticals – first find out what’s really needed, and who can best distribute these items.
[See: "A Fistful of Rupees: Coping With Begging on Third World Trails"]

3) Before visiting any foreign land, TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN BASIC COURTESY PHRASES: greetings, “please” & “thank you,” and as many numbers as you can handle (those endless hours in airport waiting lounges, or aboard trains and boats, are all opportunities for this). It’s astonishing how far a little language goes toward creating a feeling of goodwill.

Click to view slide show.
Photos by Sebastian Copeland
Click the photo to view the slide show.
photo © Sebastian Copeland
4) REMEMBER THE ECONOMIC REALITIES OF YOUR NEW CURRENCY. A few rupees, baht or pesos one way or another is not going to ruin you. Don’t get all bent out of shape over the fact that a visitor who earns 100 times a local’s salary might be expected to pay a few cents more for a ferry ride, a museum entrance, or an egg.

5) BARGAIN FAIRLY, and with respect for the seller. Again, remember the economic realities of where you are. The final transaction should leave both buyer and seller satisfied and pleased. Haggling for a taxi or carpet is part of many cultures; but it’s not a bargain if either person feels exploited, diminished, or ripped-off.

6) LEARN AND RESPECT THE TRADITIONS AND TABOOS OF YOUR HOST COUNTRY. Each culture has its own mores, and they’re often taken very seriously. Never, for example, pat a Thai child on the head, enter a traditional Brahmin’s kitchen, or refuse a cup of kava in Fiji!

7) CURB YOUR ANGER, AND CULTIVATE YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. Anger is a real issue for westerners—even the Dalai Lama remarks on this. It’s perversely satisfying, but it never earns the respect of locals, or defuses a bad situation. A light touch—and a sense of cosmic perspective—are infinitely more useful. As former Merry Prankster Wavy Gravy says: “When you lose your sense of humor, it’s just not funny anymore.”

8) It makes an enormous difference if you ARRIVE WITH A SENSE OF THE SOCIAL, POLITICAL, AND ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES faced by the people you are visiting. Our site will direct you to good profiles of most travel destinations; we also recommend you read the political and historic sections of your guidebook (Lonely Planet, Moon Publications, and Rough Guides are especially good for this). Many countries offer English-language newspapers, as well.

9) LEARN TO LISTEN. The ability to listen is the essence of diplomacy, on both the personal and international levels. Many of the world’s conflicts arise when people feel marginalized. Travelers from the USA in particular should be aware that many people—especially in developing countries—believe that having the ear of an American is tantamount to having the ear of America. So wherever you’re from, listen well—and with respect—to all points of view.

10) LEARN TO SPEAK. People from wealthy and powerful countries often express their opinions as if they are the absolute truth. Such preaching invites anger and resentment. We suggest tempering conversations with phrases like “I believe,” or “My view is,” rather than, “Everybody knows….”

11) The single most useful phrase any traveler can learn: “CAN YOU PLEASE HELP ME?” Rarely, in any country or situation, will another human being refuse a direct request for help. Being of service, and inviting others to reciprocate, is what the phrase global community is all about.

12) LEAVE YOUR PRECONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE WORLD AT HOME. The inhabitants of planet Earth will continually amaze you with their generosity, hospitality and wisdom. Be open to their friendship, and aware of our common humanity, delights, and hardships.

13) NEVER FORGET KURT VONNEGUT JR’S BEST LINE: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” In other words: go with the flow, and give free rein to your sense of adventure!

(Note: Colorful bookmarks featuring the “13 Tips” are available from Ethical Traveler for a reasonable price. Minimum order = 500. Please contact us to inquire.)

Please visit for another good list of cultural and moral considerations.

Voluntourism – the high road or the low road?

Great thought provoking article written by the folks at Voluntours in South Africa.

“Is it just a matter of time before

South Africa features as one of

these ‘irresponsible’ volunteer destinations?”

Although it is ultimately the volunteer who decides with which organisation they want to volunteer with and who will receive their hard earned money, it is vital that organisations provide responsible and ethical programmes. It is disturbing to see more and more articles online in which volunteers are over-promised and under-delivered. Is it just a matter of time before South Africa features as one of these “irresponsible” volunteer destinations?

UK volunteers have been scammed time and again, read about some of their experiences at the Telegraph and at The Times Online


Admittedly there is a growing awareness from consumers that they should do their homework properly. But even then, many websites look “responsible and ethical” – they use all the right terminology, are picked out by search engines looking for these key words or phrases. “Green washing” is difficult to see through and many websites promote themselves as ethical and responsible organisations.

Voluntourism in South Africa is booming! Every day we come across another operator starting up. Some plagiarising material from our own website without even attempting to change the wording. On face-value these websites looks good and say all the right things. But look a bit deeper and the cracks start to emerge. Some of them are not registered companies, some do not list their company registration number, some operate without a physical address, some only have a mobile number to contact them on …. and the list goes on.


The global trend of large wholesale tour operators offering voluntourism products has come to South Africa. A potential shortcoming in a lot of voluntourism models is that they operate their programmes like a normal retail travel booking – your community placement or should I rather say “booking” is automatically guaranteed and your money is taken. Importantly no screening or matching of skill takes place. What this means in practice is that the receiving community – in some cases vulnerable communities, with little rights and influence, often with OVC (Orphans and/or Vulnerable Children) in their midst – has no say on who comes into their community or what they will be doing. This “push” approach to volunteering does not always take into account the needs of the community and brings its own set of risks. In a worse-case scenario these operators could be sending paedophiles to work with children.

Voluntourism has many risks that communities themselves may not be aware of. Despite these risks, they often “buy-in” to voluntourism because of the promise of a monetary donation. One of the risks being that dependency is created and/or increased. And in some cases, the community often does not have the capacity to effectively utilize the large number of volunteers sent to them. If voluntourism is to make a sustainable contribution to communities then it is important that they do not replace local labour, but rather should work with local labour. Much of the “work” that volunteers are asked to do can and should be done by employing local labour. Should volunteer programmes be geared more at passing on higher-order skills than doing basic maintenance and repair work?


Volunteers should look beyond marketing-speak when selecting their volunteer organisation. Look at the way the organisation presents and markets itself, and what’s in it for the community. Some volunteer placement companies offer very short-term placements – this can range from a few half-days to a day or two where they are told they can make a difference. While others, offer a day or two in the community to “pass-on-skills” before driving their tour-bus onto the next waiting community. How best can the needs of the community be served? Are volunteers really able to pass on skills in a day or two? Should operators be educating their clients on the pitfalls of short-term volunteering or are they meeting a demand?

South Africa’s voluntourism market needs to look at the real issues before offering a community-based project. As a voluntourist destination, South Africa should be providing an ethical product and not placing our communities at unnecessary risk. As an operator you need to ask yourself, have you thought through the implications and risks of offering a community-based volunteer programme?


Should there be an independent body to “accredit” or certify responsible operators or programmes working with minors? Should we looking at best practice in the UK and the US where it is mandatory for anyone wanting to volunteer with children / minors to have a police clearance issued? Do you see the voluntourism industry regulating itself or will government step-in?

VOLUNTOURS published a Code of Good Practice: Volunteering in South Africa and we encourage other organisations to join us and adopt this Code thereby making South Africa more of a responsible volunteering destination.

Scholarships and Voluntourism – How Can They Work Effectively?

David Weindling of the Farther Foundation talks about how they select students to support and travel providers to partner with in order to have the best shot at good outcomes.

At Farther Foundation, we provide deserving, low-income high school students opportunities to learn, grow and succeed by participating in educational travel programs. We believe travel is singular in its ability to open the eyes and unbind the aspirations of students whose experiences rarely escape the boundaries of their own neighborhoods. Inspired by experience students become active and engaged learners, full of potential and more fully aware of the world and its opportunities. More and more these days, educational travel incorporates service as a key part of its itinerary.

Farther Foundation scholarship students are currently traveling and volunteering in Vietnam, Ghana, El Salvador, Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica and Hawaii. We do not require applicants for our support to choose a program that includes service learning, but our scholarship selection committee knows that such experiences can be particularly rewarding, inspiring and enlightening.

To ensure that the students we support have the best experience possible we look to work with the best possible partners.

The travel programs and providers we work with have established relationships with organizations that provide service opportunities that are designed and well supervised as appropriate for our high school aged participants. Our travel partners also make it a priority to reach out to underserved, minority and low-income students. They have developed an expertise in successfully integrating individuals of disparate backgrounds into a cohesive group that reaps benefits from its diversity. Travel providers our scholarship recipients are traveling with this year include: The Road Less Traveled, Putney Student Travel, Visions Service Adventures and AFS.

A successful outcome is not just contingent on the experience provided however, it is also dependent on the experiences and expectations each student participant brings to the program. We require all candidates for scholarship support to submit an application in conjunction with an “Education Partner”. Education Partners are schools and community based organizations that provide students with extra-curricular support such as; tutoring, mentoring, internships, after-school programming, leadership training, and college preparatory activities.  These partnerships ensure that our applicants are students who have been proactive in seeking opportunities and that they are receiving ongoing support to help them succeed.

It is neither simple nor easy to overcome negative influences and years of lost opportunity.  But, at Farther Foundation we believe that by building strong partnerships and augmenting existing networks of support with unique, inspirational and transformational travel experiences we can make a real and lasting difference in the lives of deserving students.

Farther Foundation is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization providing scholarships to low-income students to inspire them to reach their highest aspirations through educational travel experiences.