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Voluntourism: Black Sheep or White Knight?

Travelers’ interest in devoting vacation time to volunteer in distant communities has surged in recent years. In a 2008 poll, found that 38% of travelers planned on volunteering during their upcoming vacations. According to a survey by MSNBC and Condé Nast Traveler more than half of Americans want to take a volunteer vacation. The result is a booming yet highly unregulated voluntourism industry that boasts both heavy criticisms and abundant praise.

Harlan Hatfield of Utah is one such volunteer who came away singing the praises of his volunteer vacation, according to Kiwi Magazine. After taking his family to Guatemala to help repair houses he said, “You leave thinking you’re helping those in poverty, but you come away realizing that you’ve also nourished yourself.”

David Clemmons founded the non-profit, which offers advice on the industry. Clemmons agrees that Hatfield has hit on one key benefit of voluntourism. It is about “social capital,” Clemmons told Condé Nast Traveler in an interview posted on “For the traveler it can help you retool and rethink your life philosophy, and the local people end up with a different image of foreigners.”

“Social capital” is a positive side effect of voluntourism done right, not the end goal. Sustainability or eventual complete community control need to be the driving force behind all voluntourism endeavors according to Richard Edwards, director of Planeterra, a non-profit committed to helping travelers give back to local communities. Edwards challenged the voluntourism community with a series of questions and concerns voiced on He hits on the biggest criticism of voluntourism: can voluntourists contribute to local communities in lasting and permanent ways?

Edwards believes with the right volunteers and the right project the answer is yes. Volunteers need to evaluate their motivations and have realistic expectations. They aren’t going to change the world in a few short days or weeks. Projects need to be “ongoing and sustainable,” says Edwards. “This being said, many of the activities would be taking place without travelers present, but it is because of the voluntourists that these tasks are able to be completed.” With the aim being greater community control over time the projects are working to run themselves out of business.

A regulatory body may be necessary to ensure that voices of sustainability and ethical practice are heeded in the voluntourism sector. Clemmons discussed in the blog whether or not an oath will become necessary to outline standards of responsible voluntourism practices. In the UK, Tourism Concern, whose tagline is “Fighting Exploitation in Tourism,” has begun creating a code of ethics for the voluntary tourist sector.

Clemmon’s advises those in search of a sustainable project that, “It’s all about due diligence.”

For the full article outlining the questions and concern’s raised by Planeterra’s director, Richard Edwards, click here:

For advice on becoming a voluntourist see David Clemmons’ “10 Tips from a Voluntourism Master,” here:

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