Ethical-VolsInternational Volunteering Briefing

Volunteering overseas on development projects is rapidly growing in popularity and increasing numbers of adventure tour operators are offering ‘voluntourism’ packages.  But serious questions are now being asked about how some such projects are managed and how the benefits are being shared. And for prospective volunteers, it’s a daunting challenge to work out which organisations have really embraced best practice.

People who volunteer overseas generally hope to do something they will find interesting, something they will learn from and something that will help other people. However, it’s become clear that some volunteering opportunities bring few real benefits to host communities and others may even exploit the good intentions of well-meaning volunteers.

The potential problems are many: placements can fail to achieve meaningful results; volunteers can have unfulfilling and disappointing experiences; and volunteers may prevent perfectly capable local workers from getting much-needed work. Many of the volunteering placements being offered by commercial operators are little more than expensive holidays. Even when programmes of work are well-conceived, volunteers sometimes have misplaced idealism, misconceived attitudes and unrealistic expectations of what they can offer local communities.

So, if you’re considering volunteering overseas, do think carefully about your motives and whether volunteering is really the right solution for you. Remember that there are many worthwhile and well-supported opportunities to volunteer in your local community, without the need to pay a tour operator for the privilege. If you choose to volunteer further afield, make sure you ask searching questions of potential placements and the organisations who are offering them.

How do I choose a volunteering organisation?

There are some very good organisations sending volunteers overseas and Tourism Concern is working with many of them via our Ethical Volunteering Group. However, it is worth doing some research before signing up and there are some essential questions you should ask in order to be sure that the organisation you choose has a well-conceived and supported local programme of work, and is offering you a worthwhile, fair and reasonably-priced placement. Volunteer organisations can charge a lot of money and you will want to be clear where this goes and how it is spent. Don’t lose sight of the fact you are volunteering to bring benefits to the local community, so look for organisations that have a long-term commitment to the community, employ local staff and engage with local people. Some key questions are given overleaf. If you would like to explore the issues in more detail, our International Volunteering Briefing.


  • Do you understand the values and objectives of your chosen organisation? Are your own values and objectives compatible?
  • What type of organisation are they? (charitable, NGO, profit-making, etc). Does this affect the way they design programmes of work and individual projects?
  • How do they work with the community?
  • Do they work in collaboration with a local partner organisation? Find out who that partner is and find out about the relationship. l
  • What work will you actually be doing? A good organisation with well-run programmes should be able to let you know several months before you travel where you will be going and what exactly you will be doing.
  • What pre-departure training will there be and how much training and support once you arrive overseas?
  • Can you talk to (or contact via social media) previous volunteers with this project and/or organisation? l Has there been assessment (evaluation) of previous work by which you can both judge short term and long term impacts?[/yes_list]