Volunteer Tourism and Altruism

“T he belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-beingof others” is the definition of altruism, according to the Oxford Dictionaries; but there is no such thing as pure altruism, in my opinion.

Think about it: if someone were to give totally of himself or herself to help someone else, that person benefits from the satisfaction and pride of being able to make a difference. If the person got absolutely nothing out of being of assistance to a fellow human being — not even a thank-you or a good feeling — and in fact actually suffered from the experience, then why would that person voluntarily be helpful in the first place?

I had that experience for greater than a year recently where I gave all of myself to another human being — a relative of mine which resulted from an unexpected unfortunate accident where no one else was willing to help — and those invaluable efforts which drained me were not even appreciated despite the fact that that person completely recovered.

I would be out of my mind to want to go through that experience ever again — but if I did, that would be pure altruism. It got to the point where I loathed every minute of it and wanted it to be over already. I could write a tome about suddenly becoming a full-time caregiver and how it is arguably one of the most unfair and thankless jobs in the world — but I digress.

The reason why I briefly delved into that dark era of my life is to start off with the premise — from which I am more convinced than ever — that there is no such thing as pure altruism.

Volunteer Tourism and Altruism

For the past several years, volunteer tourism — or voluntourism, as it is also known — has exploded in popularity, leading to it becoming a major business for travel providers. Tourists from wealthier countries pay to travel to an area where native people live in poverty, suffer from illness, and live in squalor — hoping to be the “white knights” who have come to the rescue and make a difference after working for a short period of time building houses or serving porridge. In return, they would get a more personal experience instead of traveling to some tourist attraction, experiencing activities in which no resident would even dream of engaging; and purchasing tchotchkes which are manufactured in some other country where labor rates are even lower — only to have the item collect dust or hide as just another item in a box somewhere in th attic or basement, hoping to see the light of day once again.

Is that altruistic?

I have been on trips where the main purpose was not to help local people; but a day was arranged and set aside by a person who lives in that country where an activity — such as a visit to young children in a local school to take them on a field trip in Romania, for example, of which I have photographs that I intend to post in a future article — was designed to brighten the day of local people who are not necessarily down and out. In Romania, it was a nice feeling to know that I helped to give some children a nice experience which they will hopefully remember fondly for the rest of their lives.

An Idea Which I Have Considered For Years…

An idea with which I had been considering for years was based on a thought indicative of a frequent flier: I was attempting to think of ways to travel enough within a year — one million miles, as a round number although I do not need that many; and it can be done — so that I may achieve a certain level of lifetime elite status in the frequent flier loyalty program of a particular airline but was hundreds of thousands of miles from achieving that goal. The idea would be to spend an entire year traveling to different places around the world and personally assist those people in need. Everyone to whom I expressed that idea seemed to like it.

Unfortunately, there is a major cost: I estimate that airfare alone could be between $75,000.00 and $100,000.00 — and then there is still lodging, food, ground transportation and costs for other incidentals. I thought about perhaps soliciting sponsors to help fund the trip. I even thought about raising money through “crowd funding” Internet web sites — which I had never done before and still have not tried — but I put that idea on an indefinite hold when I witnessed what happened last year to Ben Schlappig of One Mile at a Time with his campaign of using Kickstarter for funding a flight while seated in The Residence aboard Etihad Airways, which can cost as much as $80,000.00 to experience.

Volunteer Tourism: Good — or Harmful?

Volunteer tourism can be disruptive and even do far more harm than good. “There was an orphanage down the street from where I used to live in Ghana”, recalled FlyerTalk member B747-437B. “They used to have a full-time staff member whose role was to manage incoming donations of clothes, etc… She would sort, clean, mend, assign and follow-up with thank you notes. Then along came a church group from the USA who decided to ‘adopt’ the orphanage. They showered it with gifts, volunteers, etc.. Wonderful? No. With all these extra bodies on hand, the orphanage management decided that they could do without the staff member managing the donations and let a volunteer handle that instead. So they laid off the local lady and replaced her with a teenaged American volunteer. The lady eventually had to resort to prostitution to make ends meet. Did this really help the local community? I’m not entirely convinced.”

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In my opinion, that proverb should be a significant part of the basis of volunteer tourism which would help prevent occurrences such as the aforementioned one as told by B747-437B.

“…in Cambodia, as in other parts of the globe, orphanages are a booming business trading on guilt”, according to this article by Ian Birrell of The Guardian. “Some are even said to be kept deliberately squalid. Westerners take pity on the children and end up creating a grotesque market that capitalises on their concerns. This is the dark side of our desire to help the developing world.

“Look again at those cute children. Those ‘orphans’ might have been bought from impoverished parents, coerced from loving families or simply rented for the night. An official study found just a quarter of children in these so-called orphanages have actually lost both parents. And these private ventures are proliferating fast: the numbers increased by 65% in just three years.”

There is an even darker aspect of volunteer tourism, according to this article written by Richard Stupart for CNN International: “many voluntourism outfits that offer the chance to interact with children perform little to no screening of prospective applicants. The voluntourism dollars of the pedophile are as indistinguishable as those of the legitimate well-wisher — a poorly thought-out commercial relationship with terrible potential consequences to those being volunteered upon.”

Charity Begins at Home?

Although her original intent is to point out that the dignity of those who suffer in exotic places around the world should be protected, a second interpretation by me of what Rafia Zakaria wrote as one of the debaters on this topic for The New York Times is that if you really want to help other people, you might want to look no further than within your own country: “Shelters across the United States, including ones at which I have worked, take great pains to champion the practice of assistance with dignity; single mothers do not have to meet the school kids that donate canned goods to food pantries; and survivors of domestic violence do not have to parade their scars before donors to access shelters.”

Finding the Right Volunteer Tourism Project

The general concept of volunteer tourism seems like a great idea; but as with charities, I have read that you have to be really careful about which companies and organizations are reputable. Some of them are indeed legitimate; while others are nothing more than profitable business.

So what is the answer?

Will Coldwell of The Guardian offers some suggestions on how to find the right project in this article:

  • Ask your volunteer organisation to break down where the money you pay will go
  • Ask for evidence of how previous volunteers have made a difference
  • If you are not qualified to do it in the UK, don’t do it abroad
  • Be wary of the length of the project
  • The community needs come ahead of yours


“There isn’t an accreditation body and the industry is completely unregulated but the International Ecotourism Society has published guidelines for voluntourism operators”, wrote Coldwell. “While they are not aimed at the consumer, it is recommended that you read them to get a good impression of what best practice is and what you should be checking for. Again, transparency is important. Organisations should have open links to their social media sites, where you can get an idea of past volunteers’ experiences; try to contact people who have already been involved.”


As for my idea of voluntourisming — I just made up a new word — my way towards lifetime elite level status: that thought is still in the back of my head; but I would think that rounding up support for that idea would be quite difficult. I personally think it would be an amazing experience — and I would certainly invite people to join me on it.

Perhaps one of those people could be you?

If I decided to take action and move forward with going through on converting that idea to reality, would you support me?

Randy Petersen — the founder of BoardingArea — and I have had a little “debate” of sorts for years: he keeps telling me about how he wants to return the favor for all I have done for him over the years; and I keep telling him about how I want to return the favor for all he has done for me over the years. It is difficult for me to think of someone more generous than Randy Petersen, as he has given of himself over the greater than ten years since I have known him — such as seen in this video as one of countless examples of his philanthropy:

While I do enjoy the satisfaction of helping people — even if it is through what I write here at The Gate — I have always favored win-win-win situations where all parties benefit from an action, scenario or situation. This is the main reason to me why Randy Petersen and I have been having that “debate” of sorts: while I greatly appreciate when people do favors which benefit me — especially when they are not solicited by me — I have this determination to give back however I can. That is difficult to do with someone like Randy Petersen who is proud of what he does and thrives off of the spirit of giving — and does it all with a big smile.

Traveling to help people around the world would be amazing, I would think — as well as give me the opportunity to enjoy rewarding experiences not found in typical tourism. However — if that happened for me — I want to do it right, as I certainly do not want to erroneously believe that I am helping someone when I am actually obliviously harming him or her…

“Once again, clumsy attempts to do good end up harming communities we want to help. We have seen it with foreign aid, corrosive in so many countries by propping up despots, fostering corruption and destroying local enterprises. We have seen it with the dumping of cheap food and clothes, devastating industries and encouraging a dependency culture. And now we see it with ‘voluntourism’, the fastest-growing sector of one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet.”

— Ian Birrell of The Guardian

…and I would like to see the day where travel becomes even more meaningful to everyone. Who knows — perhaps true mutually beneficial travel where all parties benefit could even lead to world peace because everyone better understands each other instead of reading about some sensationalistic media blurb about some distant location which serves little more than to feed an unfair stereotype?

I am interested in reading of your thoughts, opinions and experiences. Please share them in the Comments section below.

  1. I think this idea has some potential and love hearing about unique long term travel plans like this. My first volunteering attempt was at schools near Cape Town in the summer of 2010. I went intending to teach math to primary schoolers and found the situation to be extremely difficult. The first week, the school was out of session so I was basically babysitting and cleaning up after preschoolers instead. The next 2 weeks of teaching was near pointless as most students couldn’t understand English and the teacher herself seemed quite poor at basic fractions, making it a disappointing and frustrating situation.

    My lesson was that (a) shorter term programs don’t seem that serious, (b) expertise in a subject does not necessarily translate to being able to teach it well, and (c) volunteering conditions can be much trickier than expected.

    In terms having the best effect, maybe a more comprehensive and long-term program like http://www.worldteach.org/ or http://www.kiva.org would be ideal, but that wouldn’t be so conducive to flying around a lot.

    So perhaps a few short term opportunities in different areas of the world with the grand finale being a longer term one would be a nice way to do it.

  2. It’s sad but true, that you have to be careful in vetting any opportunities, especially after hearing stories like the ones above. I’ve thought about doing some “voluntourism” but never really knew how to make sure it was (a) legit and (b) going to actually do more harm than good.

    I suppose I should start by looking more locally first – the charity begins at home thing as you mentioned. I would imagine it’s easier to find out what’s really happening and the legitimacy of opportunities when it’s down the street.

  3. Some folks from my church went on HEFY (Humanitarian Especially for Youth) – https://www.hefy.org/

    A girl and her dad were among 20 or so youth and chaperones that went down to Ecuador. They had a good time, worked hard and came back reporting that they were able to help people down there (it escapes me what exactly they were doing there – I wasn’t there 😀 )

  4. I appreciate your balanced take on this. I work for a nonprofit that frequently fields inquiries from those wanting to help with our work in different parts of the world. My first inclination is to agree with Chisness and The Guardian’s recommendation to carefully consider the length of the project.

    In most cases, a business doesn’t want to hire someone for a week or two unless there’s a very specific job that’s easy to train for. I think the same is true for many nonprofits. This is because it can actually detract from the work a nonprofit is doing because someone has to take care of communication, finding an appropriate placement, setting expectations, training, introductions, etc. And this is a worthwhile investment for a new employee or hire but only because there is a longer-term view in mind. I think one of the unfortunate things about the nonprofit space is that it’s easy to overlook that many of the operational functions can be very similar to those required by a for-profit business. But there can be this disconnect, almost a belief that these things just magically happen.

    I don’t say that to discourage your pursuit — I think it’s great and if you found the right opportunity it would be so worth it. I just think it would be very challenging to try to meet both objectives at the same time: of truly helping, not hurting the organization or people you want to serve, and of building up a big base of frequent flier miles.

    After a while, even when you’re helping others, work (whether paid or not) starts to actually feel like… well, work. So I think taking the time to be honest about your hopes and expectations for this (as you seem to be doing) is really wise. Serving overseas can be really exciting, but as you noted there are easy traps to fall into if you go in blind.

  5. I think pure altruism exists. Those who choose to donate money anonymously with asking nothing in return (no free membership benefits or no free points or no recognition stuff or not even a thank you) shows pure altruism, in my opinion.
    The only voluntourism i have done is volunteering for Mother House for 2 weeks in Kolkata, India. It was a good experience overall but I am not sure if I was really effective in helping them.

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