by Judy Strobel

Resolve to Help, Rather than Harm When Abroad, NGO Cautions

A leading international volunteer service organization offers study abroad and
other potential “vacation volunteers” important tips to avoid cultural
exploitation abroad. At the top of the list: Put your personal agenda aside,
advises Global Volunteers.

The number of students combining volunteerism with study abroad has grown
rapidly in recent years. So too, the range of service-learning opportunities
has expanded. But not all these “volunteer vacations” are helpful, the Global
Volunteers web site,, claims.

“Students are idealistic and generous people. However, in their zeal to help,
some may join hastily contrived volunteer projects and unintentionally
reinforce the “Ugly American” stereotype abroad,” warns Global Volunteers co-
founder, Michele Gran.

Prospective international volunteers must carefully choose programs
structured for the ultimate benefit of the host community, and avoid any
projects that looks exploitive, Gran stressed. Global Volunteers offers these

1. Trust local leaders. Help the community through the projects they
request, not in the manner you believe is helpful. Don’t let your own ideas get
in the way of truly serving.

2. Resist the urge to give money or personal
gifts directly to local people, as
this can generate inequities between community members and make
recipients targets of jealousies, and worse. Ethical organizations channel
volunteers’ contributions through community leaders and local institutions.

3. Remember you’re a guest in the local community, even as a volunteer.
Observe local customs, adhere to local laws, and respect traditions. Err on
the side of caution.

4. Choose volunteer programs that are firmly rooted in the long-term
development of the host community and commit sufficient time to truly
contribute to development work. Avoid service “add-ons” that are designed
to generate revenue for the sending organization and offer minor, if any,
assistance to local people.

Global Volunteers also points out that service programs which don’t commit a
full day to volunteering don’t conform to IRS requirements and may have very
marginal benefit to the community. “The IRS guidelines are very clear and
serve as a good rule of thumb for evaluating ethical programs,” says Bud
Philbrook, Global Volunteers co-founder and an attorney. “Genuine
international service with a credible non-profit organization engages
volunteers in full-time work projects, five days per week and is tax-deductible
for U.S. tax-payers.”

First coined in 1993 by travel guide author Bill McMillan, the broad
term “volunteer vacation” now describes some 2,000 non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) as well as for-profit companies. But only a few non
profits offer genuine human and economic development assistance to the
people they claim to serve. Most well-intentioned volunteers may not
understand this important difference, Gran says, and therefore they could
unknowingly contribute to grossly unfavorable impressions in host countries.

“Some part-time volunteer itineraries clearly fall short. Those that feature a
day or two touring orphanages or a few hours a day working in a school can
give the feeling of connecting with local people, but in fact, may be
unbalanced toward the ‘do-gooder’ at the expense of local people,” Gran said.

Be careful that the volunteer project agenda doesn’t cost local people more
effort than the volunteer contribution merits. NGOs that have worked for
decades abroad focus on ongoing local investment, and engage team
members in work projects that support local leaders’ vision, commitment and

“Emergent ‘voluntourism’ offerings – with their implied emphasis on tourism in
place of service – erode the foundation supporting true development
programs which slowly emerged over more than three decades. We encourage
prospective volunteers to select options which channel their efforts through
work projects over well-constructed weeks… not just a few hours. If
uninformed, volunteers can find themselves part of something far different
from what they intend,” says Philbrook.

Global Volunteers pioneered short-term international service programs in 1984
to engage American volunteers in sustainable development projects abroad.
Some 180 American teams work alongside local people on English teaching,
child care, labor and health-care projects in 19 countries annually.

Volunteers pay a service program fee ranging from $795 to $2,895, after an
internet discount, to cover their on-site costs and program materials for work

Learn more at or 800-487-1074