Dangers of Voluntourism: Avoiding Scams and Pitfalls

There are sooo many ways to volunteer/voluntour out there, but for those without 6 months to a year of commitment in mind, the choices can be outrageously pricey. Rahabbing gorillas in Zambia? $3281 for 4 weeks. Helping at an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia?  $1000 a week. Forget lions in South Africa ($1850 for 2 weeks), and helping in the Galapagos ($1200 for 4 weeks).

It’s been shown over and over again that the more expensive a voluntouring stint is, the less responsible and sustainable it is.

For many, it’s become a fashionable thing. A way to show friends back home how great you are/how giving you were, giving your free time to play with baby lions, scrape out an elephant stall. When, in reality, the hidden costs behind these expensive trips may be hidden for a reason. Organizations that hide where their money goes, are often covering for a scam. Dr. Xavier Font, of Leeds Metropolitan University conducted research on this very topic.

“It’s not entirely unsurprising that the most responsible organisations price responsibly, as they are transparent about their cost structure and income. The less responsible organisations tend to hide the origin of their costs, which can also hide excessive profit margins”.

“We found that companies choose to communicate not what are arguably the most important aspects of volunteer tourism but what is easiest and most attractive. Some organisations were good in responsible tourism policies and conservation projects but were poor in communicating issues such as responsibility in childcare and other projects requiring the most sensitivity.”

Day tours to rehab centers are better options to get up close and personal.

For an in-depth investigation into Nepal scam voluntouring, Barbara Weibel wrote a great piece here.

This problem isn’t limited to animal volunteering. Most often, when students, volunteers, or missionaries travel to far-flung places to ‘build an orphanage/school/library/hospital’ etc., they end up doing more harm than good. At night, often local workers dismantle the work done and rebuild it, making the structure sound and safe, as oppose to, you know, something built by someone who has no idea what they’re doing.

How to keep yourself safe from scams? Keep the following in mind:

1) Excessive fees disproportionate to what you’re getting in return. ($2000 a week to cover “food housing and training” is not considered proportionate).

2) They don’t ask for any information about you, just your money. Legitimate organizations will want a CV, background info, and possibly references/police reports, depending on if you’re working with children or not. Fake orphanages in Cambodia, Nepal, and Cameroon and all over often have fake orphanages and pocket the funds.

3) Time commitment matters. If the organization lets you volunteer for just a couple of days, it’s likely that you’re not giving your money to a legitimate cause. Aim for something 2-4 weeks or longer, to actually make any sort of impact.

4) Do your research. This should be an obvious one, but it never hurts to read all the reviews you can about people’s experiences. That’s what blogs are for! If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

5) Who are you doing this for? If the answer is ‘me’, then, by all means, spend the money to do exactly what you want, for as much or as little time as you want. For those interested in ‘doing good’, there are thousands of places to start looking for sustainable, legitimate, and lower-cost volunteering. Feeling good and doing good go hand in hand!

The more research you do, the more you’ll find that the thing you’re most passionate about, is worth volunteering for.

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