#StopOrphanTrips: How will volunteer tourism organisations respond?

In 2013, I completed a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management with a thesis on the online marketing of volunteer tourism. I questioned, when faced with the hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities, can a potential volunteer tell from a website which are responsible, and if so, how?

The answer (‘yes you can tell, if you’re discerning enough’ for most and an easy ‘yes’ if featuring volountourism with orphans) spawned this paper published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, “Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory” (2014, Smith & Font) which for the first time (as far as I know) attributed quantitative data to qualitative positioning of volunteer organisations’ level of responsibility. It gained great press coverage and gave rise to blogs such as the popular how to be SMARTER in how you choose volunteer tourism trips and my contribution to the “Adventures Less Ordinary” ebook. But it also got me threatened with litigation by one of the biggest volunteer tourism organisations in the world should I expose their marketing greenwashing. Hence, the researched organisations were anonymised in the public domain but the practices exposed: Often unrealistic, demand-led, customer-centric, organisation-profit-based marketing largely inconsiderate of host community environmental and social costs, but particularly damaging in childcare and orphanage voluntourism.

The market supply: Why do organisations facilitate orphan trips?

The negative impacts of orphanage volunteering and/or tourism is well researched and documented and clearly not in the best interests of children. A summary is available in Better Volunteering Better Care’s “Orphanage Volunteering – Why to Say No” article.

However, many organisations facilitate such tourism for a variety of reasons. Some non-profit organisations, faced with public sector austerity, declining international development aid and intense competition for support have partnered with tourism operations and media in more recent years to help increase awareness and income generation through volunteer travel. It was the relative lack of experience of not-for-profit development organisations in such a marketing approach that enabled innovative commercial tour operators to first gain their foothold and develop the voluntourism market in the 1990s. Other organisations understand the brand value of being a non-profit or charitable organization is great, and value capitalist profits above impacts and use altruistic marketing messages to mask increasingly commercial operations. At other times local community members may be led into exploitation of children and tourists by facilitating these money-making markets, rather than considering actual needs and impacts. Some are emotionally driven by wanting to help, believe it’s the right thing to do, and don’t understand or accept that not only are they not positively contributing, but in actual fact they are likely causing more harm than good.

The market demand: Why do people want to visit or volunteer in orphanages?
Quite simply, most volunteer tourists want to help – and believe they will be doing so.

What they often don’t know is that children in orphanages may be bought or rented from impoverished parents, brought to (often unregistered and illegal) deliberately squalid orphanages to lure funding, of which little if any goes to the children’s care. Possibly already neglected and abused in life, the children may experience abandonment and trauma as short term emotional attachments are formed and dissolved, again and again, creating long term psychosocial vulnerability, and in which the lack of regulation in tourism may lead to unscreened, unmonitored sex offenders in their midst. If consumers truly knew, understood and accepted this as true in volunteer tourism operations, then demand might significantly drop.

Unfortunately, even those who are made aware of negative impacts are often in denial that their demand is contributing to, if not creating, the problem. Their personal philanthropic concerns, Western guilt of relative inequality, ‘altruistic’ humanitarian desires and genuine priority to have a positive impact on a less developed community, to do something good, be useful and make a difference is so strong it can create a challenging cognitive dissonance between their desires and reality, often more comfortably siding with the former rather than truly challenge their own beliefs.

It is hard to admit when we are wrong – but some who do are amongst the most vociferous voices to want to #StopOrphanTrips today, precisely because of what they have personally witnessed in the sector  – see the Articles & Resources section on Better Volunteering Better Care website.

My market research

In order to objectively assess organisations’ communications of responsibility, there needs to be criteria against which assessment and analysis is consistently made, which come down to what is and what is not responsible – best practice marketing necessitates responsible operations. A purposive sample of eight volunteer tourism organisations’ web pages were scored across 19 responsible voluntourism criteria, where one of the three ‘product’ areas included was childcare.

The results were supplied to each organisation included in the research, informing them how they had been assessed, and providing not only their audited positioning and analysis of all criteria, but also the blue print for ‘best practice’; gap analysis provided their specifics to improve. The purpose was to understand the use of Responsibility as a competitive differentiator and influence industry improvement, for more positive destination impacts and customer experiences.

In 2015, a follow-up study was therefore undertaken (Marketing and communication of responsibility in volunteer tourism: Free on domain-changing open source Sci-Hub or pay-to-view via Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes). The results were compared to the original research to consider whether and how, when presented with evidence, organisations are prepared to learn from feedback and choose to improve for a more responsible voluntourism offer, and whether a spotlight of increased criticism for negative and damaging impacts – including in the press – can influence market improvement.

What did the research demonstrate?

The initial research showed, in comparison to community development and conservation volunteer tourism products, Responsibility in childcare was on average the lowest, whilst price levels were the highest, especially with the largest of voluntourism operators. Consumers would be paying the most for the seeming least positive, if not negative, impacts by placements organised through some of the most known worldwide brands.

Big brands and higher prices are no guarantee of responsible action or positive impact.

The data compiled two years later showed the organisations had significantly improved their web communication of responsibility in general, including in the area of childcare. The following graph shows the eight organisations and how their responsibility in communications changed over time:

2012-2014 Childcare-voluntourism-temporal

Graph: Childcare Africa responsibility vs price, 2012 vs 2014

Organisation 1_SocEnt, which came out as the most responsible in both research pieces, for example demonstrated excellent best practice by offering an alternative to orphanage voluntourism, “This project offers a responsible alternative to the volunteer who would like to work in childcare but is rightly concerned about the ethics of short term volunteer work abroad in an orphanage”, with supportive contextual links and recommended reading to e.g. the UN’s Residential Care in Cambodia research. Let us celebrate these great organisations by not having others’ gagging tactics prevent talking of them – this responsible organisation is People and Places.

Organisation 7_Com/Char’s project pages redirected to tour pages, a more commercial holiday sell, with the childcare aspect of the trip removed: Interestingly, they elevated themselves in responsible positioning not by communicating better but by dropping irresponsible childcare practices. Pulling away from childcare tourism was a responsible move to not offering irresponsible placements.

On the downside, while organisation 5_Com’s demonstrated responsibility increased, childcare projects were still “bookable”, and with only a 3-day lead-time – insufficient for police checks, skills assessments to match needs and placement etc. And organisation 8_Com was a concern with its statements, “Whatever your age, abilities or level of experience”, “all we ask is that you have enthusiasm for and a commitment to the work” required as “Local staff are often highly overworked, and do not have the time to give the children much one-on-one attention” – so volunteers may have to “make sure the children are fed, washed and dressed”.

Clearly, while improvement was shown over two years, there is still much to do in the industry to encourage organisations to drop orphanage volunteer tourism. Where some did, others merely became much more careful in communicating negatively perceived market issues around orphanage tourism by avoiding maligned keywords and using terminology which relates to child care rather than orphans, whilst describing the same projects.

So how does this relate to #StopOrphanTrips?

The research showed, over time, that international volunteer tourism organisations may be prepared to learn from feedback, and that analysis and communication of these issues may influence market improvement, especially when highlighted in the press.

But it also shows it doesn’t need to be about naming and shaming, but rather, educating about positive principles and practices. That orphan tourism, including volunteering, does more damage than good and is not in the best interests of the children – is important to highlight: In the press (academic, trade and consumer), to raise awareness of the issues; to tour operators to encourage withdrawal from offering orphanage trips from which they may make significant revenue but facilitate damage; and to influence the consumer public, to remove their desire to want to undertake such trips in the belief they will do good.

This post is part of a month-long spread of articles aimed at raising awareness around the issues of orphanage volunteering #StopOrphanTrips. To this end, this daily blogging blitz in May features a range of writers from different backgrounds, all of whom come in touch with orphanage tourism in different ways from different perspectives. The campaign ends on June 1st, International Children’s Day, with a call to volunteer travel organisations to remove orphanage trips from their product offerings.

What can you do to help?

  • If everyone who reads this can share at least one blog in the month (if not more!) – if something shocks you, if you learn something, if something’s interesting or appalling… – then just one share to your networks (which takes seconds!) can raise awareness across sectors across the world and bring about the change required to #StopOrphanTrips. Don’t forget to include the hashtag.
  • If you’re a volunteer tourism operator who is happy to #StopOrphanTrips, then let us know on Twitter @vickysmith @bettrvolunteer @bettercarenet– we’d love to highlight your support of the campaign.
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How To Make Smarter Choices for Volunteer Tourism

This post is part of my contribution to Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, a free guide to impactful adventures. Drawing on the combined expertise of two dozen leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference, it is a guide for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure – one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get. To order your copy, click through from the Adventures Less Ordinary webpage to register.

Make SMARTER Choices By Victoria Smith

To be a great volunteer, be SMARTER with your Search, Motivations, Assessing, Relationship-building, Transparency, Evidence and Reviews.

Think about it. If you’re not skilled, qualified or legally allowed to do something at home, what makes you think communities abroad should accept you doing it there? If it was the other way round, what would you think? Would your parents, or you as a parent, be happy welcoming a teacher with no skills, no qualifications, no experience and no ability to speak your language, let alone no police checks?

Be SMARTER about what volunteer tourism you pursue, and you’ll truly have a much more valuable experience. If the process is more like booking a holiday than applying for a job, do you really think you’re going to be using or contributing any skills?

S – Search specifics

If you search the web for vague undifferentiated phrases like “volunteer projects abroad”, don’t be surprised when you get vague undifferentiated organisations or projects returned, or those that can buy their way to the top of search engine results through paid advertising or investment in the optimisation of competitive search terms. Specialist volunteer tourism organisations that do not take financial advantage of their clients are unlikely to have enough budget to compete. It’s easy for big organisations to use the right words and be found for the right phrases, but if ethics are not completely integral to operations, it will show through. You have a personal responsibility for being objective and discerning on the specifics about what you want to achieve.

M – Motivations

Be honest about recognising what your motivations are. If you really want to help, as most volunteers do, then look for concrete information about what it means to help, what has helped and what will help. If you wish to be part of a sociable group of volunteers, equally let it be known so that the right organisation can match you to the right opportunity, or your expectations will not be met.

A – Assessing

Appraise any stated project objectives against your real motivations. To find an appropriate match, assess the skills required against those you can honestly offer. Also assess the project information against the organisation’s responsible tourism policy. Make a quick audit of what’s included and what’s not on different organisations’ policies. Do price comparisons between organisations and look for value. Ask about anything that’s not clearly stated and then make organisations answerable to gaps and hold them accountable to their claims.

R – Relationships

Build relationships. They are the foundation of volunteer tourism. Get to know the sending organisations (so they can help match you well), reach out to previous volunteers (so you know what it’s like and what you are likely to be doing) and, preferably in advance, make contact with the community or the project you are going to support. Nurturing relationships connects stakeholders in the interest of mutually beneficial and longer-term positive results, which is especially important when people are coming together in a place with different motivations and needs. Remember that relationships require communication and respect, and that every communication has the ability to cultivate or damage.

T – Transparency

Transparency is about open and honest communication, something around which all good relationships are built. A sending organization should issue clear, specific, unquestionable, factual, consistent, congruent, aligned information that enables all involved to set realistic expectations about what each party brings to the table and what the outcomes will be. Transparency builds trust, creates expectations that can be delivered and differences that can be made. No one should feel let down, and longer-term reputations for the organisations and communities are built.

E – Evidence

If an operator makes a claim, ask if there is evidence. There should be no hesitation to offer supporting materials and explanations of needs, skills, objectives, cost breakdown etc. If there’s nothing to support a claim about positive impacts achieved, the need for supporting project work to be done, where your money goes… then you are fully right to question whether those claims are true.

R – Reviews

Read reviews when planning. Write reviews when you return. Write a blog post, add comments to the Better Volunteering and Negative Volunteer Reviews Facebook groups, send Tweets, contribute to operator and review sites. Shout about the great organisations that deliver positive impacts. And shout about the ones that don’t. Hopefully you won’t have to do the latter if you’ve done your research properly. Keep in mind that all organisations have a hiccup once in a while. Let them address it. The good ones will, as any ethical business’ ethos is to truly make things better. The questionable ones may just try and shut you up, but don’t let them!

Here’s a presentation I did on the theme at the World Travel Market in London:

And here’s the accompanying video – make sure you watch the other excellent presentations from Sallie Grayson (People & Places), Dave Coles (Kickstart Ghana) and Nikki White (ABTA).

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Adventures Less Ordinary: Distinguishing Responsible from Greenwashing

This post is part of my contribution to Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, a free guide to impactful adventures. Drawing on the combined expertise of two dozen leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference, it is a guide for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure – one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get. To order your copy, click through from the Adventures Less Ordinary webpage to register.

How to Distinguish Between Responsible Organizations and Those Using “Greenwashing” By Victoria Smith

I first volunteered abroad in the mid 2000s. After extensive independent travel, and then work in tourism for a decade, I had decided I wanted to “do something different” and “‘make a difference” in travel. So first I embarked on a life-changing six months in Southern Africa during which I found my life purpose and then I launched a decade-long career transition of immense experiences. I’ve moved from web-strategy development, e-commerce and marketing for big brands involved in mass tourism to a focus on specialists in responsible tourism. Along the way, I qualified as a field guide (ranger) in South Africa to better understand conservation standards and operations, worked at home and abroad for a voluntourism and charity-challenge tour operator, and gained a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management, all the while keeping tabs on the burgeoning volunteer-tourism market.

When it came to my Masters thesis, I always knew I wanted to address the online marketing of volunteer tourism and the increasingly problematic issue of if – and how – a volunteer can distinguish between truly responsible organisations and those using “greenwashing,” all based solely on web communications in a market with hundreds, if not now thousands, of charity and commercial options.

The somewhat controversial conclusion from my cross-sector research and thousands of data points was yes, it is possible, but you really have to do your homework. More importantly, you have to be honest with yourself about what you really want in order to find it. (Download a free copy of my published academic paper on Volunteer Tourism and Greenwashing.)

My findings, based entirely on legitimate publicly available information, included the following key concerns:

  • Ethics in volunteer tourism are inconsistently communicated by organisations.
  • Inconsistency between policies and projects can highlight “greenwashing” and other PR “spin” on ethics.
  • Conservation sustainability tends to be better communicated due to supporting scientific evidence.
  • Responsibility was least well communicated in childcare; few organisations do this well.
  • Ethical practice and operations are not guaranteed by the status of an organisation, regardless of whether it is an NGO, social enterprise or commercial entity.
  • Program prices and the level of responsibility often display an inverse relationship on comparable trips: the more expensive the per-day prices are, the less responsible the organisation often was; the most responsible organisations price responsibly too.

Lots of organisations make unsubstantiated claims about the ethics and sustainability of their operations. That the public publishing of my paper prompted one well-known organisation to communicate its intent to litigate hopefully demonstrates that this industry is not all “nicey-nicey” charity. While I acknowledge that every organisation needs to strive for financial sustainability, it’s often more about running business at a profit, where public reputations are key to market value.

Some organisations really are great. They are, however, too few and far between. As it is difficult to reach any industry consensus given the different requirements of places, projects and purposes, there are no agreed-upon industry standards. It is, therefore, up to the volunteers themselves to step up and make smarter choices.

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“Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good” New Ebook

Adventures Less Ordinary ebookI was lucky enough to be asked to contribute to a new book, “Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good“, edited by Ethan Gelber.

I am honoured to be counted amongst the “expertise of leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference” who have contributed.

The first paragraph of the description certainly describes me!

“A new generation of free-spirited, adventure-minded explorers is no longer content with just seeing; they want to be doing. When they step out of their familiar routines, they don’t want just to drift through foreign lands as outsiders looking in. They want to interact, they want to learn and they want to impact the communities they visit.”

The list of other contributors and the scale and scope of their respective backgrounds is amazing, I’m very much looking forward to reading their inclusions.

Hitting the virtual shelves this month (Jan 2015), this is the definitive handbook for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure – one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get.

You can read more about the book and pre-register here to be the first to know and receive an exclusive advance edition: http://bit.ly/1wvCUDS

Posted in Responsible Tourism, Responsible Volunteer Tourism, Volunteer tourism | 5 Comments

Can We Mend Not End Voluntourism?

In September, Outbounding launched this fantastic “Can we Mend Not End Voluntourism?” forum debate.

There’s an awful lot of information in the 100+ comments and it’s a little tricky to follow chronologically now as the comments are ordered by their popularity on the upvoting system, but you can read interesting perspectives from key voices from the sector on a variety of issues which voluntourism throws up.

The popularity of this forum debate equally led to Outbounding organising this ‘Can We Mend Not End Voluntourism?’ hangout.


I was asked to participate on the hangout, but unfortunately I was travelling in Nepal at the time and not able to access at the required time. However host Ethan Gelber did kindly involve me indirectly by including (at 15 mins 30 secs) as a starting point for discussion a comment I made on the original forum debate:

“The downside is that enough people are not educated in the negative impacts that irresponsible volunteer tourism can have. There is the absolute assumption that it is all positive. There is the absolute assumption that if intent is good, impact is good. We know from studies around the world that these absolutes are not true. “

Watch the hangout for a fantastic response from Anna McKeon regarding how we can help  people better understand what they are doing, by separating the ‘how’ they are trying to help from the ‘why’ they are trying to help: separating the mission from the method, the emotion from practice. As Sallie Grayson points out, most volunteers are on a mission and want to do good, but few understanding or researching the complexity of the work and issues, with even universities and schools failing young people in that regard currently.

Further topics discussed include definitions on voluntourism versus volunteer tourism and volunteering, skilled and unskilled work (if you can’t do it in your own country, why do you expect to be able to do it abroad?), duration of programmes, whether voluntourism devalues volunteering and what the future holds.

Further to the debate, a #MendNotEnd Outbounding forum group has been created which breaks down questions and issues of voluntourism into sections.

You can also check out at the hangout’s parallel Twitter stream for #MendNotEnd for contributors and comments.

As mentioned at the end of the hangout, the debate and hangout have also contributed to a ebook which Ethan has put together, to which I have contributed, to look at where the industry is today, to share the questions that people can and should ask, and to provide  perspectives on the opportunities that are available: “Adventures Less Ordinary – How to Travel and Do Good“.

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Tourism Concern Conference October 2014

Tourism Concern kindly invited me to present at their recent conference on Volunteer Tourism.

It was a great day, meeting tour operators, NGOs and potential volunteers and discussing the positives – and all too often sadly still negatives – and what can be done to improve the sector.

Chloé Sanguinetti introduced the trailer to her documentary The Volunteer’s Journey; Pippa Biddle spoke of her voluntourism experience and involvement in the sector since publishing “The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism” and Felipe Zalamea of Sumak Travel explained the benefits of Community-Based Tourism as a positive alternative to volunteer tourism, which still puts the tourist at the heart of local people and places for amazing authentic experiences and often better supports local economic, social and environmental sustainability.

I really enjoyed hearing from Ruth Taylor, International Development Manager for Student Hubs, about how they are connecting students with responsible volunteering opportunities; Quinn Meyer of CREES about designing projects; Martina Gant from KOP (Kenyan Orphan Project) about training; Tegan Jones from Azafady about Engaging Local Communities; and Daniela Papy on childcare issues and rethinking volunteer travel at Learning Service.

It’s always a pleasure and privilege to be amongst so many experienced, knowledgeable and passionate people making volunteer tourism more positive for communities and volunteers alike.

Below is a quick run down of the first half of my presentation – more to follow when the data from my research is published in a journal paper shortly!

In January 2014, the Journal of Sustainable Tourism published my edited Masters thesis, “Volunteer tourism, greenwashing & understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory (free download), in which I posed the question, from the hundreds if not thousands of volunteer tourism options out there, can the difference in ethics demonstrated by organisations be perceived from websites? And can organisations use communication of responsibility and sustainability as a marketing differential, and if so, how?

The quick answer was yes, responsible differences can be communicated, it’s not always easy as a potential volunteer to perceive those differences but it is possible if you do your homework and know what to look for: Best practice can be delineated into criteria and content reviewed on a worst/best practice scale. A number of UK sending organisations’ web pages were sampled, comparing and contrasting popular projects and destinations (Community Development in Asia, Childcare in Africa and Conservation in Latin America), as well as their responsible tourism policies and home pages. The data was analysed, displayed on perceptual maps to demonstrate relative sector positioning, and various findings became apparent. By publishing the report, the sector could see how to improve, although the organisations were not publicly named in order to focus on the principles of best practice (and avoid an intent of litigation – the value of the perception of charity in this sector is strong but sometimes incorrect, realistically it is largely business).

The Changing Market

The research was featured in academic press like the Voluntourism Institute, industry press like Travelmole, Tourism Concern’s website and newsletter, national consumer press such as the Guardian and Telegraph and international travel media like National Geographic. Since then, the market has continued to display poverty marketing, clear publication of belittling or degrading content for the communities involved, but importantly we’ve also seen growing criticism of it and cynicism in consumer press, in websites such as Humanitarians of Tinder and in satirical articles like “6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture” and “The Four Cutest Ways to Photograph Yourself Hugging Third World Children”. Consumers like Pippa Biddle are speaking out about their disappointments as never before, whistleblowing irresponsible organisations and projects such as “God’s Grace Orphanage in Uganda”, and calling organisations to account on Social Media, for example Facebook pages “Better Volunteering”, “Negative Volunteer Reviews”, and for conservation, “Volunteers in Africa Beware”.

Positive Developments

Thankfully it’s not all negative: great new organisations like Learning Service are rethinking volunteer travel and taking up the responsibility of making it a better and more positive experience for all; Existing organisations like ResponsibleTravel.com are evolving with the market and responsibly removing all orphanage tourism, others volunteer teachers to better empower local staff, protect children, ensure consistency and support sustainability.

Two years on from the original data research, the organisations studied demonstrate some interesting evolutions; importantly all are improving in their responsibility levels. Previously price and responsibility displayed an inverse relationship, concluding Price was not a Responsibility quality signal (as more Responsible products would have resulted in more premium prices). This still holds true with the 2014 data, although to a less exaggerated extent as prices have remained as wide ranging as previously, but overall Responsibility has increased. This suggests that Responsibility is indeed moving to become a quality signal in the market, and that a market advantage can be achieved by better marketing Responsible volunteer tourism: responsible volunteering practices can act as quality assurance and trust for a marketing advantage.

The new data and research will be published shortly and this article updated with further discussion.

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Press Coverage of my Study, ‘Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing’

Further to the publication of my study ‘Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory‘ in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, the following press coverage and articles were prompted:

10 February, 2014.
Tourism Concern Newsletter + Article: Volunteer tourism: ‘the more expensive, the less responsible’ study concludes (now unavailable on new TC site).
“Volunteering continues to be in the news and research published today by Leeds Metropolitan University found that volunteer tourism organizations that offer the most expensive products are likely to be the least responsible”. “The study, published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, led by Victoria Smith and Dr Xavier Font, suggests that price and responsibility display an inverse relationship when considering comparable volunteer tourism products, on a price-per-day basis. The product or content that communicated the least how it was responsible tended to be the most expensive. In the study, the researchers also suggest that volunteer tourism organisations should be taking their responsibility more seriously especially in marketing their programs to potential volunteers”. “Tour companies market themselves to potential volunteers with slick websites and compelling imagery so it comes as no surprise that price and responsibility have an inverse relationship. Equally price is no guarantee that volunteers will have a rewarding experience – many of the volunteering placements being offered by commercial operators are little more than expensive holidays.”

11 February, 2014
Travelmole Industry News: “Most Expensive Volunteer Trips, Least Responsible
Volunteer tourism organisations that offer the most expensive products are likely to be the least responsible, claim researchers from Leeds Metropolitan University who urged tour operators not to package volunteer trips like holidays.

11 February, 2014
The Telegraph: ‘Expensive voluntourism trips ‘the least responsible’
Volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism”, is promoted as a meaningful and ethical holiday choice which offers authentic experiences conferring benefits on local communities. But a new study carried out by Leeds Metropolitan University has sounding a warning to those considering such a project for their gap year this summer. Researchers analysed the websites of comparable volunteer tourism projects and found it was those who said the least about being responsible that cost the most, on a price-per-day basis. The results were obtained using a web content analysis tool which rated a company’s stated commitment to ensuring its projects were responsible.

13 February, 2014
The Voluntourism Institute: VolunTourism: Addressing The Responsibility-Profitability Paradox
“The main point of this post is to honor the research findings presented by Smith & Font in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism while emphasizing the learning that can come from them. Rather than focusing on merely the “fears” that could manifest in the media & social media sphere around voluntourism profitability, we could see this as a real opportunity to learn about managing a core polarity: Profitability AND Responsibility. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is that we are looking at voluntourism as something that needs to be solved, a problem in our world. More likely what is true is that voluntourism is a polarity to be managed.”

17 February, 2014
The Guardian: Volunteer holidays: how to find an ethical project
There are hundreds of ‘voluntourism’ projects available, but a new report claims few of them are doing as much good as they claim. So how do you find an experience that genuinely makes a difference? Two experts in responsible tourism give their tips

18 February, 2014
Tourism Concern article: Volunteer tourism marketing is in trouble
Voluntourism is often promoted as a way to experience authenticity within the context of responsible tourism beneficial to destinations, with the expectation of creating “better places for people to live in, and better places to visit”. Yet recent research from Leeds Metropolitan University found that the marketing of voluntourism isn’t sufficiently transparent.

12 March, 2014
VISION on Sustainable Tourism Newsletter + Article: ‘Voluntourism – the more you pay the less they get

12 March, 2014
Tourism Concern Newsletter: ‘Volunteer tourism marketing is in trouble

13 March, 2014
Wall Street Journal: ‘Animal-Centric Voluntourism Trips
You don’t need to be a zoo veterinarian or have a Ph.D. in marine biology to interact with exotic animals. Volunteer vacations offer critter-loving travelers opportunities to get up close with wildlife—on these trips, you can coddle elephants, study wild chimp populations or tag baby penguins. But don’t be seduced by a photo of a bottle-fed lion cub or orphaned orangutan plastered across the Internet; too many operations misrepresent their volunteer experiences and charitable credentials. “Volunteer tourism has grown hugely from the early 2000s, and the industry has gotten away with being quite vague,” said Victoria Smith, a responsible-tourism marketing consultant. “You have to really know what you’re looking for in order to be able to evaluate [the options] online.”

April 2014
National Geographic Traveller Magazine:Voluntourism: Every Little Helps?
“A recent report by Leeds Metropolitan University showed a direct correlation between cost and quality, noting the volunteer tourism organisations offering the most expensive products are likely to be the least responsible…”.

Tbc, March 2014

Posted in Volunteer tourism | 26 Comments

Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory

My paper with Xavier Font entitled ‘Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory‘, was published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism in January 2014. Click the link to download a copy from the Taylor & Francis website.

This was based on my MSc Professional Report (“An Analysis of Online Positioning of Responsible Volunteer Tourism“)

Leeds Metropolitan University, which housed the International Centre of Responsible Tourism, where I studied and submitted my MSc, released this press release: “Volunteer tourism: ‘the more expensive, the less responsible’, study concludes“.

The paper and study suggest that price and responsibility display an inverse relationship when considering comparable volunteer tourism products, on a price-per-day basis. The product or content that communicated the least how it was responsible tended to be the most expensive. Comparable products’ prices were demonstrated to vary widely from £48 per day for the overall most responsible organisation to £110 per day for the least overall responsible organisation in the study. Using the results, I introduced the concept of ‘Responsibility Value’ as a bond of quality. As volunteers’ priority factor for choosing projects is price, if they focus on price per day comparisons this is good news for the more responsible organisations. It’s not entirely unsurprising that the most responsible organisations price responsibly, as they are transparent about their cost structure and income. The less responsible organisations tend to hide the origin of their costs, which can also hide excessive profit margins.

The status of an organisation is no guarantee of responsible practice – it cannot be assumed that a charity automatically demonstrates responsible practice better, or for-profit commercial business demonstrates responsible practice less well. The credibility that being an ethical business can bring in this market is strong, so organisations like to portray themselves that way, but it cannot be assumed they actually are.

Volunteer tourism organisations should be taking their responsibility more seriously. Just because a product is volunteer tourism, does not mean it has positive impacts. In fact, due to the community integration that they can offer, it can merely act to magnify mass tourism’s negative impacts. These organisations have a responsibility to ensure their programmes have positive and not negative impacts and should offer financial transparency. It should not be sold like a holiday: this is affecting host communities’ lives and livelihoods. This means proper needs assessments, appropriately recruited, matched and skilled volunteers working with locals, with clear objectives, sustainable programme management, reporting and lasting impact and respect.

Online, volunteer tourism organisations must clearly demonstrate with evidence any claims they make, they must be transparent about their pricing structures and attribution and I urge them to review their web content regularly to ensure it is correctly communicating their level of responsibility, and is consistent across their web sites and congruent with their stated policies.

Xavier Font and I found that organisations choose to communicate not what are arguably the most important aspects of volunteer tourism but what is easiest and most attractive. Some organisations were good in responsible tourism policies and conservation projects but were poor in communicating issues such as responsibility in childcare and other projects requiring the most sensitivity.

Speaking about the study, Gavin Bate at the AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators) Sustainable Tourism Committee, said: “At long last, a hard-hitting study that provides empirical evidence of the link between the marketing of volunteer tourism products and the ‘responsibility value’ that this type of tourism demands. There is a wealth of anecdotal information on the internet, much of it highly emotive and few people would disagree with the moral imperative surrounding the concept of volunteering. But this study authored by Dr Xavier Font and Victoria Louise Smith has used market signalling theory to determine how responsible marketing is used by a selection of volunteer tourism companies; the findings are both surprising and worrying.

“The Association for Independent Tour Operators needs to send a clear message to both the industry and the public about the integrity of its members and this involves educating people at the decision-making level about the importance of responsible marketing and embedding sustainability into their products. Being open to progressive studies such as this, and adapting to an evolving world of sustainable tourism, is key to our future. We welcome the work of Xavier and Victoria and thank them both for highlighting such an important issue regarding a controversial subject.”

See my next blog for press coverage of my ‘Volunteer Tourism, Greenwashing & Understanding Responsible Marketing’ paper.

Posted in Online, Responsible Tourism, Volunteer tourism | 4 Comments

MSc Professional Report: An Analysis of Online Positioning of Responsible Volunteer Tourism

In January 2013, I submitted my MSc Professional Report (dissertation/thesis) entitled “An Analysis of Online Positioning of Responsible Volunteer Tourism”.
I haven’t published it here because, for the remainder of the year, I worked with my supervisor Xavier Font to submit the paper to be published by the Journal of Sustainable Tourism.

It involved a peer review process which means it’s sent out to professional qualified members of a relevant field to determine suitability for publication. We don’t know who these reviewing peers are, we just receive their anonymous comments and questions which we then have to address and edit with additions and revisions, and re-submit for acceptability for publication. So they could have been professionals from tourism, volunteering, international development, or specialists within the online or content analysis fields.

The Journal of Sustainable Tourism is probably the highest level publication we could have aimed for, thus the process was very thorough and we went through a number of revisions and versions. This included making the organisations in the research anonymous, partly because the lowest performing company had indicated intent of litigation over commercial and reputation concern, but also because the Journal felt the study, methodology and data spoke for themselves theoretically, not just for volunteer tourism, but responsible tourism as a whole, and better without the distraction of “naming and shaming”. I was quite happy with this: If organisations are named, I would much prefer the focus to be on those interested in bettering their responsibility and performance; the danger of naming those who are not is that even negative PR can lead to additional exposure and marketing awareness which can conversely support their business.

The peer review process and revisions took the best part of a year (anonymizing the organisations and focusing the content on theory also addressed my personal concerns over web page content which can change over time thus apparent validity of data taken at a snapshot in time) and was published in January 2014 under the title, “Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory“.

Posted in Volunteer tourism | 3 Comments

What is the size of the voluntourism market?

Whilst often cited as one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism [1][2], no comparable statistics really exist to determine the exact size of the voluntourism market. This is partly due to differences of definition in what constitutes voluntourism, versus volunteerism or tourism[3], and partly due to immeasurability of its activity [4].

Various (incomparable) market statistics include:

  • In 2004, there were more than 800 organisations providing overseas volunteering in 200 countries. [5]
  • In 2006, voluntourism was estimated to be worth US$150 million.[6]
  • In 2008, a Tourism and Research Marketing survey of 300 organisations estimated the market size to be 1.6 million volunteer tourists per year worth £1.3 billion [7].
  • In 2008, the market was estimated to have grown 5-10% in Western Europe over the course of five years [8].
  • In 2009, GeckoGo’s survey of more than two thousand voluntourists worldwide found the UK to be the third largest originating market.
  • In 2012, 35% of adults said they would like to try a holiday involving a voluntourism component, in addition to the 6% who had already done so [9].
  • [updated] In 2015 Nancy Gard McGehee(Virginia Tech) estimated 10 million volunteers a year spending up to $2 billion[12].
  • [updated] By the end of the 2010s, it is estimated voluntourism could represent 25 – 30 million worldwide, with the US market alone adding around 1 million additional voluntourists per year since 2007 to reach 10 to 15 million. [13].

GeckoGo’s 2009 survey also revealed voluntourists’ preferences, although not UK specific include:

  • Duration: 44% prefer trips longer than one month, 42% between two weeks and a month.
  • Destinations: Peru (23%) and Brazil (14%) topped the polls (though an US respondents skew to shorter distances/cheaper opportunities could be responsible).
  • Project types: 62% would like to undertake humanitarian voluntourism, 56% conservation, 56% teaching, 53% community development and 28% construction.

However, without being able to define the scope and extent of the market, it is difficult to determine the best approach for regulation and auditing. Without regulation, negative impacts which may outweigh positive benefits warrant the critical scrutiny of much media coverage, potentially adding greater value to the industry through debating the multi-lateral collaborative stakeholder approach required than any market statistics would [10][11]..

Have you seen further statistics on the volunteer tourism market size?
Please do contribute them in the comments below!


1. Rogers, M. (2007) Voluntourism is on the Rise. Travel Agent, 17 September, pp.20-24.
2. Birrell, I. (2010) Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do. Guardian.co.uk [Internet], 14 November. Accessed [04 September 2012].
3. Morgan, J (2010) Volunteer Tourism: What Are The Benefits For International Development?. The Voluntourist Newsletter [Internet], 6 (2) n.d., Accessed [10 September 2012].
4. Center for Civil Society Studies (n.d.) About Volunteer Measurement [Internet] Maryland, USA, John Hopkins University. Accessed [05 September 2012].
5. Johnson, 2005, cited in Mdee, A. & Emmott, R. (2008) Social enterprise with international impact: the case for Fair Trade certification of volunteer tourism. Education, Knowledge and Economy, 2 (3) November, pp.191-201.
6. Mintel (2008) Volunteer Tourism – International. London, UK, Mintel International Group Limited.
7. Stein, N. (2012a) Is 2012 the year of the volunteer tourist?. Travelmole [Internet], 17 January. Accessed [05 January 2013].
8. Leigh, R. (2011) State of the World’s Volunteerism Report. New York, USA, United Nations Volunteers.
9. Mintel, 2012
10. Clemmons, D. (2011) VolunTourism 2011: What Does It Mean To Be A ‘Top Travel Trend’?. Voluntourism.org [Internet Blog].[Accessed 04 September 2012].
11. Clemmons, D. (2011) What Can VolunTourism Learn from the Debate on “Gamification”?. Voluntourism.org [Internet Blog].[Accessed 04 September 2012].
12. Thomson Reuters Foundation (2015) Boom in ‘voluntourism’ sparks concerns over whether the industry is doing good [Internet Blog].[Accessed 08 August 2017].
13. Voluntourism Institute(2014) 20 Million U.S. Voluntourists by 2020? [Internet Blog].[Accessed 08 August 2017].

Posted in Volunteer tourism | Tagged | 8 Comments