Does Voluntourism Make a Positive Social Impact?

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Thoughts on the good and bad of the current voluntourism trend
as I prepare for my own experience with Fathom Impact Travel

Would you spend money on a vacation to a far-away place where you dig in the dirt, build a school, haul water or do some other form of work? A current vacation trend known as voluntourism offers these types of experiences. Travellers participate in volunteer work to help in needy areas. Samples of the type of work include teaching English, helping to build schools and houses, and working to develop clean water supplies. More traditional tourist activities may take place in between periods of work.

Why do people spend precious vacation dollars and time on a volunteer trip? There are probably as many answers as there are travellers, but there is usually a sincere desire to improve the lives of others. Travel is a luxury. Many of those privileged enough to travel are disturbed by the poverty they’ve witnessed and want to make a difference. The desire to “travel deep” and become more immersed in a culture is also a factor.

The Good and the Bad

The movement has its critics, suggesting it accomplishes little more than make the volunteer feel smug and self-satisfied. One of the complaints is that “episodic” one-time efforts leave no lasting impact or improvement. They may even make things worse. Volunteers may be mismatched to the task at hand or have such a poor initial understanding of the culture they become condescending. Traveller inexperience and activities geared to provide the traveller with information may slow down real work done by long-time workers on the ground.

The criticisms likely developed from real situations and as such have some merit, but I believe there is more to the story. When properly partnered with established aid programs, voluntourism brings a labour force which would not otherwise have been available. Sometimes a few helping hands can accomplish a lot. Interaction with other cultures and connecting on an one-to-one basis leads to greater understanding and fosters tolerance. Anything which breaks down walls and misunderstandings between people leads to a better world. Volunteers bring new insights back home with them. In sharing these they help others gain new understanding. They may even help bring more aid to the problems by shedding a light on the need.

There are two particular criticisms I discount as irrelevant. One is that the focus on volunteer activities in a far-away place diverts attention from needs closer to home. We are citizens of the world. Helping address the needs of others is a worthwhile activity, wherever those needs are. Helping far away from home does not preclude also helping closer to home. The other criticism is that companies make money from voluntourism. While many organizations involved in voluntourism are non-profit, there are also for-profit companies. Both are capable of providing the type of experiences which have lead to the criticisms or providing programs which do real good. There is a risk that for-profit companies pull out when profits fall or the current trend is no longer popular. But there is a similar risk to programs with non-profit organizations should their funding dry up. The best aid programs in both cases aim to make a lasting impact and do work which lives on beyond the specific volunteer activity.

Opportunity to Check It Out for Myself

I’ve often wondered about the effectiveness of volunteerism but it is more on my mind these days because I’ve been offered the opportunity to experience it first-hand with Fathom. Fathom is a new company offering what it calls “impact travel.” It’s about travel with purpose, becoming immersed in another culture, and working alongside its people to create an enduring social impact.

Later this month, I will sail on the Adonia with Fathom from Miami to the Dominican Republic. While docked at Amber Cove for three days, I and other cruisers will participate in volunteer activities. Fathom has partnered with two local organizations to provide these experiences. Entrena, specializing in training, education and social enterprising, has run initiatives in the Dominican Republic for over twenty-five years. The objective of IDDI, a non-profit organization created in 1984, is to contribute to the transformation of the human being, families, and the communities in which they live, concentrating on supporting the low-income population in rural and urban areas of the Dominican Republic and the border areas of Haiti.

Each cruise passenger has the opportunity to participate in three volunteer activities. My husband and I will participate in a community English conversation and learning program, and help in a women’s cacao and chocolate cooperative. I will work at a women’s entrepreneurship association with recycled paper and crafts while my husband helps build a concrete floor in a community home. Others on board will help build water filtration systems and plant trees as part of a local reforestation program. During our days at sea, we can take part in programs to learn more about the Dominican culture, the activities we will participate in, and even a bit of Spanish.

The Dominican Republic

Does Voluntourism Make a Positive Social Impact
Assorted images from vacations in the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic is a popular tourist destination, with beautiful beaches, sea life, diverse natural landscapes, a rich history, and lively night life. In spite of having one of the fastest growing economies in the Americas, poverty levels remain high.

I have visited the Dominican Republic twice on vacation, staying both times in the wind-surfing tourist town of Cabarete. My experience was a typcial tourist one – time lying in the sun, fun at the beach, great dining, dancing to merengue music. I saw a bit of beautiful landscape through short jaunts outside of Cabarete and on a day-long bus trip from Sosua to the resort community of Punta Cana. I gained only cursory insights into its culture and had brief but disturbing glimpses into its poverty and need.  I expect to bring back quite different images on this trip.


There is some irony in the fact that we will help and learn more about Dominican culture from the luxury of a cruise ship, where we will have access to ample food, a pool, a spa and entertainment. The experience combines vacation elements (including opportunities for tourist shore excursions) with volunteer work. This combination is a good mix for someone who needs to use limited vacation time for rest and downtime, the original purpose of company allotted vacation days, but would also like the opportunity to volunteer. I wonder if the contrast between our privileged surroundings and the areas in which we volunteer will sharpen our insights or numb the impact. I thank Fathom for the opportunity to gain a deeper insight into the Dominican culture and the world of voluntourism.

Some of you may notice I haven’t definitely answered the question I posed in the title of this post. Does voluntourism make a positive social impact? I believe the answer can be yes and truly hope that it is the case in most situations. I look forward to getting a better handle on this question and sharing what I learn in future posts.

Have you participated in any voluntourism activities? What was your experience?

Update After Travel

I have now returned from my Fathom experience and found it to be fun, inspirational and transforming. I believe the programs are making positive differences. Read about my experiences at Fathom Travel: Making a Difference in the Dominican Republic.

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  1. I’ll be interested to hear about your experience, Donna. I expect the contrast between your volunteer setting and your cruise setting will feel a bit jarring, but I think that’s a good thing. Really that just reflects the disparity of our living situations every day — the only difference is that it is starkly displayed in this case. It’s a good reminder of our extreme privilege and the responsibility that goes with it.

    1. Deb, the contrast may be jarring but you’re right in that it will be a good reminder of our privilege and responsibility.

  2. My church has a team of about 12 going to Guayabal, also in the Dominican Republic again this year. I’ve never gone although the experience we hear about always lets us know they contribute immensely to this impoverished area. I can hardly wait to you about your volunteerism work!

    1. Pat, it’s nice to hear about your church’s work. What types of things do they do in the Dominican Republic>

  3. I have participated in several Citizen Science/Volunteer Travel trips, all of mine have been in service to the ocean. Why do I do it? Certainly not to feel smug or self satisfied. It is however, thrilling to feel like one is a part of something larger, that one is taking one’s own time and giving back in whatever way possible. I do fish surveys, reef surveys, fish identification photography, and behavioral photography. Another important part of it? My tribe. I meet incredible people who are passionate about the same things I am passionate about. I’m heading off to Komodo in 3 weeks to do work with the Marine Megafauna Foundation. I love doing it.

    1. Tam, how great that you are doing the Citizen Science/Volunteer Travel trips! I think the volunteer work is so much more effective when you’re working in an area you feel passionate about.

  4. I’ve heard about Fathom, Donna. It sounds like an interesting way of traveling and if you have the desire to help other people I think this will give you an opportunity to try that. However, three days won’t probably be enough to give you a feel for it. People usually go for at least two weeks to volunteer. I’d be curious to see what you think about it.

    1. Anda, I agree three days is just a glimpse and doesn’t accomplish what a full two-week effort would. The concept of this tour combines volunteer work with a more traditional vacation situation.The volunteer efforts are effective largely by building on the work of previous travellers. It will be interesting to see if the experience prompts me or others to seek out more volunteer opportunities.

    1. Sabrina, I’m sure I have lots to say when I return. I’m hoping to write about it as soon as possible, but sometimes I need a bit of time to process the experience before I can properly express my feelings about it.

  5. Generally speaking I believe that form of tourism is a good idea. Having said that the tourists who teach should have studied the topics in question at university. It’s also essential that the people in the developing countries learn how to apply what’s being taught when the tourists leave.

    1. Catarina, I so agree that the people need to learn how to apply what’s being taught. The best programs work toward that.

  6. I’m most eager to read your thoughts when you return from this trip, Donna. I’ve not done anything like this and wonder, too, if going for a short time can make an impact. That said, some years ago my nephew and his dad went to Chile for just over a week to help build a community building. The team made it happen and the whole thing went up in a week! I found that fascinating. Good luck to good experiences that help others!

    1. Rose Mary, it is often amazing what a few people can do in a short period of time. The activities on this cruise are short but the bigger picture impact is a cumulative effort from the travellers before me and the travellers after me.

  7. No, I have not volunteered abroad and would have liked the opportunity, even if just for a few months. I was too busy studying then pursuing a career.

    I have volunteered here in the UK via church ministry; youth ministry, packing and supplying Christmas hampers for people on lower incomes, arranging activities for the local community which provided free activities and food to children who are in low income families.

    I understand your point that people will have different motives. The main factor is they are choosing to give up their time, time that could be spent doing many other activities.

    I can imagine going to a developing country and seeing the poverty with your own eyes must be a truly humbling experience. I have seen poverty in parts of the Caribbean; Dominican Republic and Jamaica. They are absolutely beautiful countries and despite their challenges, most of the citizens are cheerful.

    1. Phoenicia, volunteer work is important where ever it is done. Kudos to you for all you do. And I do think most people volunteer out of a genuine desire to help people.

  8. Good discussion of the issues surrounding voluntourism, positive and negative. I’ve always hated to go somewhere where you stay in a resort which is all but surrounded by barbed wire. Not that uncommon in the Caribbean. Look forward to hearing about your experiences in the DR.

    1. Ken, I’m glad you liked the discussion. There are a lot of facets to consider around voluntourism.

  9. I would tend to agree with you Donna about the value of voluntourism. There are several organizations here in the islands that provide opportunities to work in the field in national parks and one I’m aware of that is working on re-establishing ancient fish ponds. I think your trip sounds like it’s going to be quite an adventure and I look forward to reading about it.

    1. Marquita, when you start to look around a bit there are so many different and worthwhile volunteer opportunities. It would be interesting to follow the progress of the re-establishment of ancient fish ponds.

  10. Will be looking forward to your post(s) about your experience. I have a good friend who has done several volunteer trips with her church… each to a different location, none from a cruise ship… but she has found them very rewarding in that she truly feels that they have made a great difference.

  11. Volunteering as a tourist has always appealed to me. Sometimes we go places and merely observe, but the way to truly get to know a place is to interact with the people and culture. Even with the stark contrast between your lodging and the locals, it’s still closer to an authentic experience than some other travel opportunities would be, plus you are seeing a place and giving back at the same time. What a way to create memories.

    1. Jeri, this will definitely be a different interaction with the people and culture than my previous vacations in the Dominican Republic.

  12. Found this post by accident. Glad l did.. We have just returned from our Fathom cruise and l have just written about it. I was impressed by what we ( the cruisers) were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. It is quite obvious that a lot of thought has gone into planning this. Helping has to start somewhere. I look forward to reading your thoughts afterwards. Happy sailing

    1. I just read what you wrote about the Fathom experience. It sounds great and I am really looking forward to my trip. Glad you stumbled across my post.

  13. I do not want to open up a can of worms, but here I go. I think we must look at and separate proper Volunteerism and improper charity. Some people will simply give money, which is fine, but it may not be the best solution, and this goes with volunteering.
    I believe we must examine the “giving a man a fish, and teaching him how to fish” solution. Giving time and effort in helping someone become self sufficient is wonderful, and more productive in the long run. Charity works for putting food on the table, but this is only short time, hunger always returns.
    As long as we look at what we do, as building a foundation for future self sufficiency, there is nothing more rewarding than volunteering. Help digging a well, as you described, is one way of making sure that those you help, are indeed better off then when you first arrived.

    1. William, I agree with you efforts must be focused on self-sufficiency and lasting impact. I think we still need some of the short term charity efforts to help people through crisis situations but they should be viewed that way – stopgap measures. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  14. Donna, this is wonderful and I hope many people read this post to learn about this terrific opportunity. In my view the critics don’t really count – even if it’s a one-time effort on the part of the volunteer, some needed activity will have been completed and that’s the important thing.
    I wish you all the best in your voluntourism trip and look forward to reading your posts about the experience.

  15. Donna — congratulations on volunteering in the Dominican Republic. I believe this kind of volunteerism is to be admired and is much needed. I, myself, haven’t done it, but I have a very good friend who is a nurse. Every year she volunteers for one week to accompany surgeons to a South American country where they perform surgeries on people who need it but can’t afford. She finds the experience very rewarding and there is no doubt that it benefits the individuals who would otherwise go untreated.

    1. Jeannette, thank you. It’s great when health care professionals do the type of thing your friend does. My dental hygienist and eye doctor do something similar. Their days are long days of working, not combined with some luxury aspects of vacation as mine will be. Still it will be nice to be able to help a little.

  16. I really appreciate your statement that, “We are citizens of the world” and I think volunteering at home and internationally is a terrific way to contribute. We’ve had two international volunteer experiences (we’re certified to teach ESL) each lasting several months in Guatemala and Nicaragua and found that we received so much more than we gave! However, my feelings about “voluntourism” are mixed after our experience with a very reputable company because I felt that a lot of the money (and make no mistake, this was not a cheap experience!) at the paid volunteer gig funded social gatherings for the volunteers, frivolous expenditures, unnecessary staff positions and expensive outings for volunteers rather than going into the areas where we had expected to see the funds directed. Our second experience was much more satisfying where we researched several NGO’s in Granada, Nicaragua and visited them before deciding where our time and money would be best spent. Our three months teaching left a lasting impression and we still support the school with annual donations. With all this said Donna, have a great time and I’ll look forward to learning about your experience! Anita

    1. Anita, it’s too bad one of your experiences turned out the way it did. It is that type of situation which has prompted criticism about voluntourism. It’s too bad because I think there is opportunity here to do some good if done right.

  17. I think voluntourism is a great idea, especially for retired people. A lot of retired people I’ve known in my lifetime have wanted to see the world, but also have a desire to have purpose. And this combines the two. And yes, whether you’re making a difference in just a few days would take some study. I believe my Aunt and Uncle did things like that in their retirement.

    1. Erica, combining pure vacation elements with the volunteering is also a good option for working people with limited vacation time.