Ethical Volunteering Conference

2015-10-24 14.34.44This years Ethical Volunteering Conference was a great success – over 80 people registered with more than 60 attending on the day.


Mark Watson, Tourism Concerns Executive Director welcomed everyone and introduced the charity and why Tourism Concern had become involved. He stated “The desire to travel and experience new cultures around the globe is commendable, as is the desire to volunteer; people who volunteer hope to do something they will find interesting, something they will learn from and something that will help other people.

But it is debatable whether many voluntourism opportunities bring real benefits to host communities and some exploit the good intentions of well-meaning volunteers.”

Mark stated that the purpose of event was to enable people to understand the issues, recognise best practice and pick up the questions to ask.

He went on to say that UK volunteers can pay thousands of pounds (most going to the tour operator) to undertake short volunteering placements overseas; that volunteers often have unfulfilling and disappointing experiences; that volunteer placements can prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs; that hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; that abused or abandoned children often form emotional attachments to the volunteers, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home after a few weeks.

For many people volunteering is often a once in a lifetime opportunity so it is important that people get it right – the first step is to understand your motivations for wanting to volunteer.

Motivations for want to volunteer

One of the common frustrations that returning volunteers express is the mismatch between their own motivations and those of the organisation with whom they volunteered. This can be because they had an unrealistic expectations of what they would achieve, often because placements have been sold on the premise that a volunteer is going to ‘make a difference’… irrespective of their skills or the nature of the placement. Equally though it may be because the volunteers were not completely clear about their motivations when they signed up.

A breakout session allowed participants to discuss their motivations for wanting to volunteer, which included:

  • To make a difference
  • To engage with a particular culture
  • To learn something
  • To further career / CV
  • To have something to put on Facebook
  • To have fun
  • To help other people

The session concluded that many volunteers have unrealistic expectations on what they can achieved and that volunteers were likely to have a better experience if they took some time to understand what they wanted and what they were likely to be able to achieve.

Film- The Voluntourist

The group then moved to the cinema where a the Chloé Sanguinetti introduced her film the Voluntourist.

Alternatives to voluntourism

After coffee Karen Chilman from Croydon Voluntary Action gave an inspiring talk on the number and variety of volunteering opportunities locally. Whether supporting older people, suffering social isolation, to local environemnalt projects to being an Appropriate Adult for vulnerable adults or young people. Most projects would pay travel expenses and provide training – and people could make a real difference to their local community.

Mark Watson also pointed out that if you wanted to help out in developing countries volunteering was not the only way – by travelling and staying in paces listed in the online Ethical Travel Guide people could bring real benefits to local communities.

Peter Bishop talked through the Toursim Concern briefing – Filling the GapsBest Practice in International Volunteering. He also listed some of the questions to ask

  1. Who is organising it? Are they a genuine registered UK charity or a business that contributes a small portion of your fee towards a charity fund?
  2. What is their motivation? Are they primarily a business or were they set up to achieve a specific and worthwhile goal?
  3. Has the volunteer organiser a written policy on ethics and responsibilities? What level of evidence is provided to demonstrate how they implement stated good intentions?
  4. Is a wildlife project designed with specifc conservation goals or is it just a dressed up safari or opportunity to pet captured wildlife?
  5. What have they achieved so far? This is the clincher. There are many examples of volunteers painting the same school again and again, counting the same sea turtles week after week and ‘orphanages’ renting village children to create work for volunteers. Is a reputable NGO or government agency involved? What’s the evidence, where are tangible achievements publicly acknowledged?
  6. Don’t be fobbed of with PR fuf such as – ‘we’ve sent thousands of people’, ‘thousands of volunteer pounds has aided the local economy’, ‘our volunteers have a life-changing experience’ etc
  7. If ‘no knowledge or experience is required’ why don’t they use local people? Is it because they just want your money?

The conference was delighted that the next speaker, Reiner had travelled from the Netherlands to present what Volunteer Correct, a similar  organisation to Tourism Concern, were doing.

Volunteer Correct is of the opinion that a good volunteer cannot improve the world. At least not by doing unskilled volunteer work in a developing country for a short period.  Reiner acknowledged that there a number of campaigns that criticize volunteering abroad. In response to these statements in the media a heated debate emerged. Frequently asked questions are “Can we no longer help?” and “Are volunteers really going to help or for their own fun and development?” The result is ‘the altruism vs. self-interest’-debate. This debate revolves around the question whether volunteer tourism is a form of development, or simply a new form of tourism. In the latter case, the trip is less about the development of the host society, and more about the development or the entertainment of the volunteer. But this debate misses the key point of the discussion.

Research indicates that any difference between volunteers going for altruistic or self-serving reasons, does not determine whether a volunteer delivered good work. In fact, altruistic feelings can be the cause of unequal relations between the volunteers and the host society. Young, unskilled volunteers often think they can make a meaningful contribution to a local project in a few weeks time. These thoughts are ingrained in our Eurocentrism: the feeling that modern Europe knows best what is good for the rest of the world. It is a difficult bias to get around.

It is therefore important that volunteering is seen as a cultural exchange and not as a development tool. Development aid is very complex, has been studied extensively and still does not always give the desired result. A young, unskilled volunteer will not make the difference and it is important that they are aware of this to prevent disappointment and unequal relations. However, this is not a reason to decide not to go abroad and volunteer at all. It is an interesting way to experience a different culture and to see first hand how things are working in another country and learn from them. The local community can in turn learn from you, creating a cultural exchange and an equal relationship. It is therefore important that you act flexible and have an open mind. You can observe the different culture, but try not to judge.

  • A panel discussion followed form the presentation, which included:
  • Simon Hare  (Globalteer)
  • Peter Bishop
  • Reinier Vriend, Volunteer Correct
  • Chloé Sanguinetti
  • Paul Winter, Volunteer Action for Peace

“It was so good to see so many people who are committed as much to promoting truly responsible, ethical volunteering as they are to exposing the companies and organisations that get it badly wrong. It’s very sad that we have got to a stage where the act of doing something good for those who need help has become so mired in negativity. As a charity that has invested a lot of time and effort into making sure that meaningful, safe and impactful volunteering is something that more people can participate in, Globalteer is committed to effectively harnessing the goodwill of ordinary people who want to help out and we are delighted to have been part of this year’s Ethical Volunteering conference.” Simon Hare

Best practice in International volunteering

After lunch the conference heard from three exemplary volunteering organisations:

  • VSO, the world’s leading international development organisation that uses volunteers to fight poverty and reduce inequality.
  • Blue Ventures – an award winning conservation volunteering organisations
  • Seaver Foundation – a charity that has adopted the very best practice fro volunteering with children

The final panel discussion included returned volunteers who shared their experiences, some positive and others less so.

Sarah discussed her volunteering experience in South Africa with lions and talked about how volunteers are being misled into believing that they are working on conservation projects.  In fact the truth is that they are working at commercial enterprises that breed lions in captivity to be sold later on into the canned lion hunting industry.  For further information please go to

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