Voluntourism Versus Volunteerism: Ethical Volunteering

By: Vivian Wang 

Society’s perception of volunteering manifests in the stereotypical image of high schoolers cleaning up trash at the beach or planting vegetables in a community garden. As the concept of volunteerism has evolved over the past decade, many high schoolers have opted in embarking on month-long mission trips in hopes of leaving a lasting impression on a third world country. Coined as the term “voluntourism” for its volunteering and tourism characteristics, voluntourism is one of society’s greatest yet most disguised misconceptions: a form of tourism infused with volunteering in order to aid a specific community.

Common stories of voluntourism trips include mission trips in which high school students pay anywhere from $2,000-$10,000 for a month-long experience in Kenya or another third-world country to build wells for local communities. The volunteer spends thousands of dollars on transportation, accommodations, and meals and concludes the trip with a group photo with the locals.

While many high schoolers see voluntourism as a beneficial and altruistic activity, a majority of those who participate in these trips do not recognize the ethical implications of voluntourism.

The million dollar question: where does the $10,000 payment go? Companies that host volunteer mission trips typically benefit the most from the voluntourism trip as a large portion of the payment lands directly in the pockets of the company rather than the community that that volunteer chooses to serve.

Additionally, mission trips cause the local community to lack self-sufficiency since a constant stream of eager volunteers continue to visit their local communities for a short period of time. With a constant flow of volunteers entering and exiting the community, the locals become reliant on the volunteers and cannot function as efficiently without the support from foreigners. 

After considering the ethical and unethical aspects of voluntourism, many aspiring volunteers turn towards other ways to volunteer effectively and ethically to avoid the pitfalls of voluntourism. These profound social issues are not widely covered in mainstream media; mainstream media idealizes volunteer trips as a form of self-validation and self-affirmation for the individual who completes a volunteer trip to a third-world country.

At Valencia High School, many clubs and student organizations focus on volunteerism rather than voluntourism. Contrary to voluntourism, volunteerism at Valencia High School encompasses meaningful volunteering activities ranging from women empowerment to environmental sustainability. The most prominent student organizations at Valencia High School include Best Buddies, Girl Up, Habitat for Humanity, Operation Smile, and Linens N Love. In each of these student organizations, student board members and volunteers have faced setbacks due to COVID-19 restrictions but they are still working towards creating meaningful volunteering activities. Volunteers in these student-led organizations accumulate volunteer hours that exceed the 40 hours graduation requirement because there is a genuine interest in the communities that they serve and a tangible impact that resonates with the community.

When considering the broad term of “volunteerism”, how can volunteerism become as meaningful as possible? Effective altruism sets high standards for volunteerism as effective altruism calls for volunteers to make rational decisions about how to maximize their impact in a given time period with a set amount of resources. The concept of effective altruism transcends beyond a beach clean up or a community garden; effective altruism prompts volunteers to consider the “why?” of their actions and services and sparks conversation amongst passionate volunteers, with the main focus on considering how to maximize one’s altruism.

Volunteering has become a nuanced topic as the term volunteering has become washed out over the past few years. With the rise of voluntourism, students find it harder and harder to genuinely volunteer as volunteering becomes more and more performative.