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How to volunteer, not ‘voluntour’

4 November 2019 at 7:00 am
The pitfalls of orphanage volunteering are well-known but there are many other ways international volunteer experiences can unwittingly do more harm than good. 

Contributor | 4 November 2019 at 7:00 am


How to volunteer, not ‘voluntour’
4 November 2019 at 7:00 am

The pitfalls of orphanage volunteering are well-known but there are many other ways international volunteer experiences can unwittingly do more harm than good. 

When considering whether to volunteer overseas, there are some steps you can take to avoid the traps of voluntouring.

1. Do your research

It sounds simple, but the first step is to do your research. Avoid making any quick decisions based on marketing messages on glossy websites, or recommendations from well-meaning friends. Instead, consider the following questions:

Where do I want to volunteer? Research the country you’re considering and be aware of any requirements or restrictions on volunteering activities. Also, learn about the culture, the weather and all aspects of the region to better understand if it is the best fit for you. The Australian government’s Smartraveller website is a great place to start.

Who will I volunteer for? Your volunteer activities should aim to first “do no harm” and help address a genuine need that has been identified by the local community – not external organisations. Research who you’re thinking of volunteering with, and have a clear understanding of what you will be expected to do and how it will make a positive contribution to the local community.

How will I be supported? If you are using a third party to organise your volunteer experience, research them thoroughly and interrogate their motives. Consider choosing a reputable program, such as the Australian government’s Australian Volunteers Program, which is linked to Australia’s aid initiatives and includes thorough checks and balances.

2. Be child safe

Photos of children in need are often used as an emotional lure to trap well-intentioned people to spend their money on short-term voluntour experiences. 

Short-term and unskilled volunteering in schools or childcare is often not in the best interests of children. A child’s developmental and safety needs are better met through ensuring consistency and experience in the adults who teach or care for them, rather than forming attachments with volunteers who leave within a few weeks. 

This type of volunteering can take jobs away from locally trained professional teachers, and children deserve teachers who are qualified, screened and regulated under their own country’s requirements. You should also undertake a thorough assessment of your skills and consider if you would be permitted to undertake the same role in a school, kindergarten or child care centre at home? 

With any volunteering experience, you should consider whether it will involve contact with children and check to see whether the organisation has a Child Protection Policy and standards that safeguard children against the risk of abuse or exploitation. Visit the ReThink Orphanages website for a great checklist on how to be a responsible volunteer.

“Not all volunteers work with children or animals,” says Lesley Vick, who volunteered in Bali to assist with mosquito control. Her experience shows there are plenty of ways you can have a positive impact without volunteering with children.

3. Use your skills wisely

“Not all volunteer work is unskilled, I’m a multimedia specialist and advisor,” says Virginia Stein, who volunteered with the Department of Forests in Vanuatu. 

Unskilled volunteer opportunities can have minimal impact on long-term development needs. You are more likely to have a greater impact by sharing your qualifications and professional experience to build capacity in new areas.

Look for volunteer opportunities where the local organisation has identified a need for your particular set of skills, and consider how you can work with that organisation to foster and grow their capabilities. 

Also, think critically about whether you are the right person for the role, and make sure there is no risk your volunteer assignment is being used in place of local employment.

4. Be respectful

It is important that local communities lead the change they want to see, and volunteers should be working behind the scenes and taking a support role – not the lead role. You need to be ready to respect, to listen to and learn from your local colleagues and understand better how you can help them to deliver their goals.

International volunteering is all about relationships. By respecting the colleagues, the community, and the culture of the country you volunteer within, not only will you be able to provide better support, you will also reap your own rewards.

“Skilled volunteering isn’t just about the expertise you bring. Without a doubt, I have received more than I have given,” says Fiona Healy, who volunteered as a fundraising officer.

“I’ve made a wonderful group of new friends who have shared their world with me.”

5. Stay a little longer

“Not all volunteers come for two weeks to build one school. I’m working with the Samoan government for two years with their building inspectors so all buildings are safe, now and in the future,” Matt Whitwell says.

Change takes time. While it might be easier to fit a two- or four-week holiday into your everyday life, this may not be best for the communities you wish to help. 

Volunteers that are prepared to make a longer commitment of six months, a year, or even two years, find that they are better placed to develop strong connections within the community. This connection and deeper understanding enables them to have a better impact on the long-term goals of these communities.

These five steps are just the start! International volunteering is a big commitment, visit the Australian government’s Smart Volunteering website for more information on what to consider before you take the plunge. 

The quotes in this article come from Australian volunteers who are currently volunteering on the Australian Volunteers Program. For more information on the program, visit

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