When Volunteering becomes Big Business


There are some huge companies involved in the field of volunteer placement. I alluded to one in my last post. Today I was looking at the website of another and found the following text.

"Between 30 and 60 volunteers start on our program in Cambodia each month. What does this mean for you? More people to socialize and travel with, more people to meet from different cultures, more people to volunteer with, more projects to work on, more staff support, better infrastructure for volunteers and lower fees!"

Really? This is a plus? It depends on what you're looking for when you go abroad. I've become less and less interested in spending time with other travelers and more interested in spending time with locals. When I was in Phnom Penh, I ran into a volunteer from another organization who said she was living in volunteer housing with 60 volunteers. She wasn't complaning or praising though, just stating a fact. Here's the problem: when traveling becomes too easy, you might as well stay home. By hanging out with a large group of like-minded people, you are, in effect, clinging to the familiar, clinging to home. I've written about this in the past, but not in the context of the different types of volunteer organizations and companies out there. We have a few programs that have a little bit of this group setting, though not on the level of the ones I've mentioned! Here in our office, we think of these as good destinations for young, inexperienced, or timid travelers. Nothing wrong with that.

So big business volunteering can have a downside for some travelers, but for others it may provide a sense of security and a level of comfort that makes travel possible for those who aren't ready a more independent, immersion experience. There is, however, another serious pitfall to big business volunteering: artificial projects. When volunteering models itself after McDonald's, you have to make compromises to meet market demand. You also need to streamline the operation, controlling the product and eliminating unknowns. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about fake orphanages. They have always existed. You can find them in Dickens (see Nicholas Nickleby)! Formerly they were created to get money from donors or government agencies, but there is a new source of revenue: the unsuspecting volunteer. I was reading a volunteer horror story about an orphanage in Uganda that seems to fit this mold. The placement company (one of the biggest) says that they send about 300 volunteers a year to this destination. Many are there for orphanages. Supply and demand. Are there enough orphans? I'd give the link to this blog post that talks about it, but I can't be sure that the observations are legitimate and I don't want to spread falsehoods about a particular organization. Still, this is happening. We've seen fakes - one in Uganda in fact. We've had to discontinue working with some orphanages and children's homes because of questionable practices. Children are recruited by these homes. The more children they have, the more money they can make off donations, volunteers, and funding organizations.

I doubt that any of these corporate volunteer programs knowingly work with scam outfits, but demand creates this sort of thing. Orphanage homes are the most egregious example, but virtually all types of volunteering are suscptible to similar problems. We will never have the numbers that these big companies have, but we still need to monitor all of our programs to maintain their quality and legitimacy.

By Kevin O'Neill


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