Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0

The ongoing debate on poverty tourism got a paroxysm of blogger attention following the recent NYT op-ed by Kennedy Odede, whose personal experience gave him harsh words for what he called Slumdog Tourism. A good assemblage of recent blogs and articles related to the poverty tourism debate is posted at Good Intentions Are Not Enough. As I followed the debate, I realized that the nebulous meaning of “poverty tourism” had many bloggers and commenters talking past each other. A couple of weeks ago I posted my contribution to the debate as a taxonomy of the terms used. The intention of that first post – “Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance” – was that with linguistic clarity, the debate could be more productive and less shrill. The post became my popular and the word tree graphic was reproduced and discussed on a number of blogs and websites, which provided ample feedback leading to this Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0. To avoid a rerun, I’m only providing a few update notes here; for a more complete explanation of the taxonomy, please refer back to the original post.

The Poverty Tourism Family of Travel Terms

Although it sounds straightforward enough, the term poverty tourism has been used to describe a range of travel types involving distinct types of travelers and purposes. The term is most often used disparagingly. An alternative term used more by those highlighting positive aspects is “development tourism.” Both terms are used to discuss three quite different genus-level travel types: education travel, tourism, and volunteerism. Each of these implies a distinct purpose: learning, leisure, and labor, respectively. These are not mutually exclusive, of course; many people travel with mixed motives. The distinction is useful, however, because the primary travel motive informs the way the travel is designed and conducted. For example, a university designing a study abroad trip might include volunteer work, but the primary motive is student learning. This informs the focus the of the travel and defines in large part what a “successful” trip will look like. Likewise, a non-profit organization hosting a group of voluntourists may be mindful of both the learning and leisure motives of the travelers, but they will have a primary focus on the labor that is to be done. Dotted lines in the graphic make explicit some travel types where mixed motives are integral the travel design.

Species-level Update

The only change from the first version is the splitting of voluntourism between commercial and non-profit providers. Commercial voluntourism operators tend to be customer-centric, and primarily profit-driven. Their history and core competencies are focused on responding to the leisure motives of tourism. Non-profit providers of voluntours tend to be more community-centric, and primarily project-driven. Their history and core competencies are focused on responding to the labor motives of volunteerism. In one of my very first posts as a blogger, “The Future of Voluntourism” I provide a more detailed explanation of this difference and its implications for development and vulnerable communities.

Again, to avoid a rerun, I’m not going to describe the meaning of each of these species-level travel types here, but rather refer you back to the original post, “Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance.


The list of “also known as” terms is by no means comprehensive. I’m getting introduced to new terms almost daily, including “pet-the-orphan tours”, “cultural zoo trips”, and any number of creative, mostly disparaging terms. The purpose of listing any of these is to show how the taxonomy can help us sort such terms into a linguistic system that facilitates greater clarity. So, although done, one shouldn’t use the term “poverty safari” to talk about a non-profit voluntour. It’s true that a voluntourist may gawk at the locals and snap inappropriate photos, but the type of travel he is doing is not defined by these behaviors, but rather the purpose of the travel as designed by the host. Likewise, you shouldn’t use “missionary safari” to talk about a group of donors from a Christian non-profit that are visiting the projects they help fund. These are just fundamentally different types of travel. Its fun to invent and throw around deprecating terms at people traveling through poor communities, but without at least some care to use terms that actually link back to the intention of the trip, it makes debating the merits or dangers of such travel difficult.

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53 Comments on “Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0”

  1. Joel
    August 27, 2010 at 2:07 pm #

    This is a great insight. So, the question for me would be, How do we develop the communities we serve responsibly? How do we share the realities we finde on a day to day basis honoring the pain and suffering, but without exploiting our people? There is no need to answer this questions, it’s just something I have been thinking about in the last couple years, because I want people to know about the situations I have found. But, I don’t want to comercialize the stories and lives of the people I serve. By the way… this is great awareness material. Would you let me share this with a group of non-profit volunteers, trainees and interns? Thanks a lot.

    • August 27, 2010 at 2:46 pm #


      Thanks for the comment. You are struggling with some very good questions. The balance between telling a story that honors the community you serve while raising appropriate awareness of their situation outside that community is a tension that is difficult to get right. As for sharing the material, I would pleased and honored to have it shared – that’s why I write it. Thanks for asking. If you don’t mind, may I ask what you do?

  2. August 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

    This is a great taxonomy. I do think it is interesting that you use the term”volunteer vacations” to describe what is offered by commercial voluntourism operations, versus “service vacations” as what is offered by non-profit voluntourism. I think that most non-profit voluntourism operators would probably have no problem using the term “volunteer vacations” to describe what they do, but I can see the importance of using unique terms in each node in your tourism tree. I have some experience with non-profit voluntourism operators that have just the sort of strong community focus that you described, and I think that, unfortunately, there is a tendency in the news media to draw no distinction between the for-profit tourism companies and the non-profit voluntourism organizations, even though there exists a different philosophy and approach to what they do. CNN just recently published an article on its website about people returning from volunteer trips and they featured heavily the organization i-to-i, without making any mention of the fact that i-to-i is a for-profit tourism company. I wonder how many people who stumble upon these commercial operators on the web in their searches for a way to volunteer abroad realize (at first, anyway) that their altruism and freely donated time and services are being used to line the pockets of what are actually commercial tourism outfits. It isn’t like the i-to-i website (or websites for similar outfits) makes it that obvious that they are a commercial operator. I know when I first started looking into volunteer vacations I assumed (naively) that it was only non-profits that organized these trips. I of course know better now.

    • September 6, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

      I’d like to bring my readers’ attention to Mike On Purpose and his post “Profiteering and Altruism“, which also has a good and thorough comment by Randy at GeoVisions.

  3. August 28, 2010 at 9:24 am #

    Thanks for the update, A. Yes, there will be times when more harm than good is done, but I believe long-term relationships and deepening connections between communities and do-gooders can allow for more equalized and impactful interactions. Regardless of the type of poverty tourism, organizers can enhance participants’ and communities’ experience greatly by providing useful contextual and historical information and by building in time for internal group reflection where people can grapple with what they’ve seen/heard.

  4. August 30, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    Firstly, great job with the diagram and explanation; I’ll be linking to these articles soon! I think there should be some sort of regulation that protects poverty stricken individuals and groups from being photographed for commercial or personal purposes. It ruthlessly invades their privacy while leading to no tangible benefit.

  5. August 31, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    The difference in for-profit and non-profit or 501(c)(3) is the way you report your income, therefore your taxes. For every ethical 501(c)(3) you show me, I’ll show you another with family on the Board, extremely high salaries for the top 5% of staff (family or friends perhaps) and can easily show you that there are as many non-profits, profiting from voluntourism as for-profits.

    A great place to start is looking at each 501(c)(3) IRS From 990. These should be displayed on the non-profit web site. If not, you can go to Guidestar.org and download them. There you will see how they spend their money, where they make their money and what the executives are paid.

    Before you generalize…do some research. Sometimes that will show you “the other side of the story.”


    • September 2, 2010 at 12:26 am #

      Randy, I have to disagree. Yes, taxation is a fundamental distinction between for-profit and non-profit enterprises, but it is NOT the most salient difference when talking about voluntourism. Mission focus and financial incentives are the most salient differences. It matters if you are serving the volunteer first or the community first. Both must be served, but primacy matters. If you prioritize the experience of the volunteer, you’re probably in the tourism business; if you prioritize the experience of the community, you’re probably in the development business. Most for-profits volunteer sending enterprises have as their primary income source, the volunteer clients, whose satisfaction pays the bills. Most (but clearly not all) non-profit organizations that send volunteers have donors who give money to fund projects that impact communities. Few donors give to development organizations that host volunteers because they want to fund a great experience of the volunteers. So the organizations tend to have distinct incentives and priorities, and this is very salient in terms of the impact on the communities served. Granted, there are some organizations that are non-profit whose only business seems to be sending volunteers and with that as their focus, I’d say they are in the tourism business as well. In fact, they would be the most direct competitors of organizations like Geovisions.

      Now, let me be clear, I’ve said nothing about financial and organizational ethics. I’ve raised some red flags around sending volunteers into vulnerable communities with little or no accountability to the community and with a primary purpose of generating client satisfaction, and I’d be surprised if you disagreed with these cautions. But, by bringing in the ethics of high salaries and all that, I’m not really sure where you are wanting to take the conversation. (BTW, since most non-profit boards are unpaid, I also don’t agree with the automatic assumption that having family on the Board is unethical – in fact, for many small and start-up non-profits, friends and family as volunteer Board leaders are the lifeblood of the org.)

      So, here’s the deal. You say I should do some research. Okay. I like research. In fact “research and evaluation” is in my job title. Tell me where to begin. What did you have in mind? Do you think its really helpful to start downloading the 990s from each organization that hosts volunteers and looking at how much the executives get paid? Do you think there’s a lot of non-profit volunteer-sending organizations out there raking in dough for their friends and family on the Board? Maybe the Jesuit Volunteer Corps? Maybe the Young Adult Volunteer Program of the Presbyterian Church? Maybe Amigos de las Americas, Habitat for Humanity, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, World Teach, MCC, VSO, … I don’t know, who’d you have in mind? Or maybe you’ve raised a red herring argument. I think a better place to look is how different organizations talk about themselves. When 95% of the sentences on the for-profit volunteer vacation websites talk about the volunteer experience, I begin to wonder how seriously they take their responsibility to the communities they send their volunteers into and to the generation of social good.

      I’ve generalized, I know. I don’t mean to paint all non-profits vs. all for-profits into some kind of black and white dichotomy. Surely, there are non-profits doing lousy development work and paying themselves handsomely from the money they charge volunteers and surely there are for-profits doing amazing development work while struggling with the bottom line. Maybe Geovisions is one of these, I don’t know. But, I stand by the usefulness of the generalization I’ve made. I think mission focus and financial incentives are more important than how the organization is treated by our tax code, and I think your executive pay argument is a red herring.

  6. September 2, 2010 at 7:27 am #

    You: Most for-profits volunteer sending enterprises have as their primary income source, the volunteer clients, whose satisfaction pays the bills. Most (but clearly not all) non-profit organizations that send volunteers have donors who give money to fund projects that impact communities.

    Me: Where do you get off saying for-profits are primarily concerned for the volunteer and non-profits are funded by donors? I sit on a global volunteer abroad working group at a global organization made up of HUNDREDS of non-profits and HUNDREDS of for-profits including senders and receivers. I literally communicate with hundreds of senders and receivers each month.
    You: BTW, since most non-profit boards are unpaid, I also don’t agree with the automatic assumption that having family on the Board is unethical – in fact, for many small and start-up non-profits, friends and family as volunteer Board leaders are the lifeblood of the org.

    Me: I read this and think, “Your heart is in the right place, but your reality isn’t.” Look…a 501(c)(3) is a PUBLIC CHARITY and therefore has the duty to do the work our government cannot. If you read the IRS bulletin on 501(c)(3) and why they give favorable taxation for that classification, it is to do the work of the government (public) that the government cannot do…for whatever reason be it financial or through workers. If you accept that, you need a Board that has NOTHING to do with the founder because if you have family and friends on your Board, they are going to vote your wishes and that has been argued successfully in Minnesota, where that state disbanded hundreds of 501(c)(3) orgs for those very reasons. Further, if you take donations you legally cannot ask volunteers to pay. Again, cited in MN two years ago, all 501(c)(3) orgs taking donations AND charging a service fee to volunteers were told their tax status would be changed. Boards that have a relationship to the founder are not working in the public good. They must be independent fully.

    There are also about 75, 501(c)(3) volunteer orgs who also have their own FOR PROFIT travel company. The for-profit travel company makes the money and the 501(c)(3) recruits the volunteers. But if you look at the Execs and Board and also look at the ownership of the For-Profit travel company, they are one in the same. That’s taking advantage of the IRS code.

    What I wish you’d do is highlight these areas and not generalize on an industry that has literally thousands of for-profit and non-profit organizations. Write a Blog post on organizations taking advantage of the system, rather than generalize about those who aren’t. Also, I’d love to see a Blog post on the ethics of deducting a volunteer trip to another country and have our country pay for it, by allowing YOU to deduct the trip. Volunteering locally and deducting your expenses or mileage is one thing. Traveling to Ghana and staying a few weeks building a school and deducting that trip is quite another. Or to me it is. And I think it would make for a great Blog post.

    It is THESE areas I wish people would focus on, rather than the very tired debate of for and non-profits. That train has left and no one cares anymore. The hot topic now is risk management.

    The last survey at Voluntourism.org showed that no one cares if a sender is for-profit or non-profit.

    You: Maybe the Jesuit Volunteer Corps? Maybe the Young Adult Volunteer Program of the Presbyterian Church? Maybe Amigos de las Americas, Habitat for Humanity, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, World Teach, MCC, VSO.

    Me: Some of the orgs you cite above fall into the AID category and that is far, far different from volunteer organizations. One of them was cited recently by the IRS to remove the working, “expenses for this experience are tax deductible.” And I’m happy to say they did remove it. I sat on the Board at World Teach, for example. They are 100% committed to each community, and they are an amazing organization. Still, there were many meetings on recruitment because at World Teach, they support communities that need it the most. And it’s hard to find people to go to some of those areas. Not impossible…but harder than sending people to Spain or Thailand or Turkey.

    Lastly, rather than generalize about organizations who are “sender” centric vs. “receiver” centric, here is an idea: Ask about how the experience is measured. In the business, we call that Risk Management.

    1. How do you manage the volunteer’s expectations before and after the experience?
    2. How does the receiver handle culture shock?
    3. How are the funds used on the project?
    4. How much of a sender’s fee goes toward the project, and how much to overheads?
    5. How close are the medical centers in case of injury or serious health-related issues?
    6. How long has the receiver been working in this community?
    7. What is the liability coverage of the sender and that of the receiver?
    8. How is the receiver staffed? Number?
    9. Is the receiver weather dependent? If so, what do vollies do when the weather does not permit them to work at the project?
    10. Staff to volunteer ratio.
    11. Accommodations?
    12. Food? Meals?
    13. Transport to the project. Back and forth from accommodation to the project? Safe?
    14. Safety of the equipment the vollies will use.

    And I could go on for hours. Our inspectors use a 15-page risk management sheet.

    It is THESE things that matter to volunteers. They could care less about the taxation benefits. Or at least our vollies could care less. They want to know we are sending them to a safe place, where they can do the most good, and return safely. So I’d love to see a Blog post about that. Do all of our competitors visit each project and do a risk management analysis? No.

    Is that not more beneficial to the industry and in the end to volunteers? Their safety and ensuring that the work they do is benefitting the community? I fail to see how tax status has anything to do with that.

    • September 2, 2010 at 10:09 pm #

      Let me reframe the discussion and see if this helps us connect. Again, this is not about tax status, but about what drives the enterprise. What is its mission focus?

      * There is one set of volunteer-sending organizations whose focus is on volunteer experience. They see themselves primarily in the leisure, travel & tourism industry. They start with the volunteer and look for good service opportunities in which to place her. Most of these are for-profit and some of these are non-profit.

      * There is another set of volunteer-sending organizations whose focus is on development outcomes. They see themselves primarily in the development, aid, and humanitarian industry. They start with the development project and look for volunteers to help move it forward. Almost all of these are non-profit.

      From the standpoint of a development practitioner who is interested in how the activities of volunteers impact the communities where volunteers are sent, the distinct mission foci of these two sets is relevant.

      GeoVisions is an example of an organization whose focus is on volunteer experience. It is squarely in the leisure, travel & tourism industry. The risks that you say you manage are mostly concerned either with the volunteer having a bad experience (accommodations, food, transportation, safety) or with the business running into legal, fiscal, or reputational problems (liability, use of funds, managing client expectations). As you say, ” It is THESE things that matter to volunteers.” The business is volunteer-centric; you may also be concerned about development outcomes, but that’s clearly not your primary business competency. I would be surprised to see many organizations in this set develop many meaningful metrics or key performance indicators around development outcomes. If it turns out that the volunteer doesn’t really add much value to the community, it doesn’t really matter that much, so long as he’s had a good time, “feels” that he did something good, and pays his bill.

      The Mennonite Central Committee is an example of an organization whose focus is on development outcomes. They are accountable to donors who fund development outcomes, not volunteer experience. They are also accountable to the communities they serve. They too are concerned about risks associated with volunteer safety, but they generally tell the volunteer up front, “this is not going to be a comfortable experience for you, and you may be putting your life at risk.” (I was an MCC volunteer for several years; I remember signing a contract with my wife that said as much and she happened to be killed while we were volunteering.) If the volunteer isn’t adding real value in terms of development outcomes, he may be sent home.

      So, now I’ve removed the for-profit vs. non-profit handle from the distinction and just call it mission focus. Does this work better for you?

      On a side note, I still totally disagree with your rigid approach to the make-up of non-profit boards. Many non-profit organizations require Board members to be donors or fundraisers for the organization – they aren’t profiting by being on the Board. Many small and start-up non-profits rely on family and friends to take leadership roles on the Board as they work to transition from a founder-led or family-led organization to one that is led by an independent Board that can move beyond the influence of the founder. For what it’s worth, this is not a heart-thing, but a head-thing. I’ve studied non-profit boards and management at the Hauser Center at Harvard University (was a TA for a course there some years back too), I’ve attended Board development workshops, have been exposed to the literature, and have served on non-profit boards for the past six years. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I know enough to stand firmly by my assertion that its not necessarily unethical to have family or friends of a founder on a non-profit Board, in particular on an unpaid Board.

    • September 6, 2010 at 10:18 pm #


      It seriously concerns me that your list of 15 questions is almost solely focused on the experience of the volunteer and risk management for the organization. Where are the questions that get at the quality of the aid:
      1. Is the aid actually needed?
      2 Is this the right type of aid being provided?
      3. Are these the right type of volunteers to provide that aid?
      4. How do the aid recipients feel about the aid?
      5. How do people in the area not receiving aid feel about the project?
      6. How effective is the program?
      7. What is the larger economic impact of the project?

      Your list creates the distinct impression that your organization provides a recreational activity that uses “feel good” aid projects as a way to attract customers. But good aid is about the needs of the recipients, not the needs of the volunteers.

      There’s a great post by Pepy Tours on the unintended consequences of voluntourism projects called

      • September 7, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

        Saundra, I think your comment got cut off. Could you provide the Pepy Tours post you wanted to refer to? (In case Saundra doesn’t get back to this, the blog she’s referring to is called Lessons I Learned.)

  7. September 2, 2010 at 10:24 am #

    Rio slums are Brazil’s newest tourist destination

    Brazil on Monday launched a pilot project allowing tourists to visit some of its notorious slums, after the shantytowns have been cleared of drug dealers and other criminal elements.

    With the nation eager to garner world favor ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the new venture will afford curious visitors a chance to see the interior of a favela, which sometimes are lawless shantytowns rampant with drug-trafficking and violent crime.

    But President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he hopes to show that slum dwellers perhaps are impoverished but are just like people everywhere.

    “People in my generation want to make sure that our children never refer to any neighborhood as a favela,” Lula said as he unveiled the new program.

    “Favelas are neighborhoods, communities, like everywhere else,” the leftist president and former labor organizer said as he launched his “Rio Top Tour.”

  8. September 2, 2010 at 11:00 pm #

    OK. You have me hooked…or sucked in. Either way, I’m going to respond since you asked me a question.

    As an “aid” or “development” worker/writer, I can understand your point of view. In fact, as I read your paragraphs that being with a *, I find no disagreement at all. What I think has happened is when an “aid” or “development” person writes about Voluntourism (there is no volunteerism if you travel to get to your project, reside there and then return home), there are misperceptions. Likewise, when a Voluntourist writes about “aid workers” then there are also misperceptions. In other words, I think we can think too much about this.

    Voluntourism has been around 15+ years, and it is changing each month. Cruise Lines are getting into it. The Ritz does it for 1/2 day. And Marriott in New Orleans is doing it. And I agree, most organizations promoting Voluntourism are volunteer centric. They recruit volunteers to work at a project. I most certainly do not agree with you at all that that is a bad thing. It is just a thing. There are millions of projects and thousands of volunteers. So communities go wanting, experiences wasted. And frankly, the traveling public could care less. I can, in all honesty, tell you not one person in two years has ever asked about the tax status of GeoVisions. They could care less if we are for or non-profit. That horse has left the stable a very long time ago.

    I also take exception with your comments on the risk management piece. The risk management exercise does indeed ask pages of questions about the experience of the volunteer. It also is designed to find out if the project at hand is worthy of the volunteers we recruit, or, if they are spending unwisely or this is not a sustainable project. Why send volunteers into a project that will not use the volunteer or his money to help solve some problems in the community? So the tool is designed to evaluate both volunteer experience and project worthiness.

    Good organizations, be they for profit or non profit, balance the interests of the volunteer with the sustainability of the project. And typically, aid and development agencies don’t like voluntourism.

    So it does look as though we’re approaching some common ground.

    With regard to Boards, we should just agree to disagree. If a Board member is in anyway related to the CEO of the organization, it is a puppet Board. There simply is nothing you can write that would change my mind. And, if an organization disguising as a 501(c)(3) takes donations and also charges a service fee to the volunteer, they are breaking the law. And lastly, if a 501(c)(3) takes grant money, and still charges a service fee and also takes donations and members of the Board are related to the CEO, that 501(c)(3) is not a PUBLIC charity as defined by the IRS, it is a private company, with a Board, disguised as a non-profit for tax purposes. And that is why the tax issue truly is important.

    Like you, I also have been on Boards and I have seen how they are run and where the money goes. I’m glad your experiences have been more than rewarding. Mine have been eye-opening.

  9. September 3, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    I have no control on whether other people care about whether a voluntourism operator is a for-profit outfit or not. I can only speak for myself–I do care about it. As a point of principle I refuse to engage in voluntourism for a for-profit organization. That doesn’t mean that I think that every single non-profit is reputable, well-run, or worth volunteering with either, and it is a straw man to suggest otherwise. The non-profit status of an organization is only one of several criteria that I would use to help me determine who I will donate my money and my time with. It is a starting point for me, something that allows me to rule out certain organizations as part of the winnowing process as I try to figure out ultimately who I will work with.

  10. September 4, 2010 at 7:14 am #

    You see…if you were to turn your criteria for evaluating an organization upside down and look at the other criteria first, tax status last, you might be very surprised at the incredible work being done globally by for-profits.

    I can take GeoVisions from for-profit to 501(c)(3) in six months. All I need to do is change my status, fill out a 350 page form (there are tons of consultants who do this daily for a fee) and submit it. I can then gather my brother, my parents, my close friends (just to make sure my agenda is clearly followed) and ta da…I’m now a non-profit. But the programs are the same, the agenda the same. But because I’m a 501(c)(3) I pass the first test. Or, I can do what a competitor of mine did…BUY a 501(c)(3) corporation that had gone out of business, but the charter had stayed alive. An attorney sold it to him for $1000. He changed it from “religious” to “education” and he added his family to the Board and his for profit runs the travel portion and his non-profit handles the fees so his volunteers can deduct their expenses from their taxes.

    Now I ask you in all seriousness…if I can do that and choose rather to remain ethical…why am I not at all considered? What I’ve been saying in all of my comments is that tax status IS the consideration. I understand, from previous comments by others, that there is a huge difference in voluntourism and aid and development organizations. So I agree that differentiation has to take top priority. But tax status is an easy one to get around. I’ve been doing this work since 1975 and I have found that there really is not much of a difference in the voluntourism space of for-profits and the 501(c)(3) orgs doing the same work. And to have that as a #1 priority of screening is just not doing your homework on the makeup of the organization and the Board. I would put forward as my last argument that I’d rather invest my time and money into an ethical and sound organization with a track record of promoting sustainable projects that actually help people…vs an organization set up to capture the attention of people due to my tax status.

    501(c)(3) is not magic. It’s a 350 page form and a six-month wait.

  11. September 4, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    I strongly agree with Randy’s sustained diatribe against the FP/NFP distinction as a valuable indicator. There are many reasons one might choose one kind of vehicle over depending on circumstances, but these are just that: corporate vehicles, both capable of carrying different kinds of intentions, capacities, and results.

    Here’s one development advantage that I think for-profits can have over not-for-profits: they can be more directly accountable to their funding sources than NFPs. And I think accountability (rather than good intentions) is a powerful engine driving people to do the right thing.

    NFPs usually get their bucks either directly from the public, or from intermediate agencies like USAID or AusAID. The public is accounted to by newsletters and press releases produced by the NFP itself, and has little time or expertise in assessing the NFP. I think public-donation-funded NFPs have very little accountability. Agency-funded NFPs have to jump through many accountability hoops… but because these agencies are bureaucratic, the hoops tend to be procedural. I mean, if Blackwater (now Xe Services) can continue to win hundreds of millions of dollars of business from the US Government, what comfort can we gain from government agency oversight of ANY contractor?

    But I like what Randy describes of voluntourists. I believe that for the most part, these people are fairly smart, and well intentioned, and probably have done some research into development before parting with their money. What every voluntourism company is sending hundreds of first-hand observers to see its work, every year. And these people have the power to kill the company. You can fool some of the time… I don’t think that a voluntourism company that sent people out to do meaningless or harmful work would survive long. Their customers would see through them, and word of mouth would kill them. But I do suspect that there are NFPs that do that for years, possibly decades, without getting caught. Whose going to blow the whistle? Some poor farmers, who would lose even what small benefits they got? Their own employees who in so doing would end their own careers? The distant public or the routinised, rule-bound agencies?

    I’d put my faith in an angry, complaining, wallet-carrying customer to enforce due diligence.

    • September 6, 2010 at 9:13 pm #


      You nailed the problem David – although I don’t think you meant to. FP voluntourism agencies are accountable to their customers. This is what I’ve been saying, and this is the problem. They respond to the financial incentives of the people who pay for the services they offer. What’s the problem? Well, I think you may assume too much knowledge and experience for the kind of people that pay tourism agencies for a voluntourism experience. I have some serious doubts regarding their capacity to recognize bad projects. They are happy to hang out with orphans for a couple of weeks or paint a house or dig a ditch for a few days between regular vacationy activities and are unlikely to even know that there are deeper questions they could be asking about the activities, the development approach, the economic model, or the long-term impacts on the community. They put their full trust in the agency that sends them. If that agency doesn’t know anything more about what good development looks like than the volunteer and doesn’t have an incentive to learn, then I’m not too hopeful about the outcomes.

      That said, I’m actually quite an optimist as compared to most others in the development and aid scene who can be pretty negative about the whole idea of int’l volunteerism. (I linked to a number of these in the first poverty tourism taxonomy post.) As an optimist, I tend to think that more good than bad generally comes of these things, despite the risks. But, harm can and is often enough done, and I don’t trust most volunteers to have a deep understanding of this and to know what kind of questions they should be asking their sending agency, be it FP or NFP, to help ensure the best chances of really doing good and not doing harm. An “angry, complaining, wallet-carrying customer” is more likely to complain about the food, lodging, transport, or safety than about the quality of the development project he worked on and its long-term impact on the community. He’s going to believe whatever story is told to him about that. Any changes that accountability to the customer will bring about will be client-focused, and the agency will get better and better at serving these clients and making them happy, but will they also get better and better about selecting good projects for them in terms of development impact? No, probably not. Why would they?

  12. September 4, 2010 at 11:57 am #

    Has anyone seen this extraordinary infographic re Voluntourism?

    PS to Aaron: what software did you use for your taxonomy?

    • September 6, 2010 at 7:08 am #


      Thanks for the link. I’d seen the infographic before. It looks really nice, but as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to present information, I actually found the information presenting surprisingly sloppy for being so neatly packaged.

      I built the taxonomy in Keynote, which is Apples (superior) answer to MS PowerPoint.

      • September 7, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

        I bought my first Mac, a 128k, while living in Wewak in Papua New Guinea. Now you’ve given me good reason to make the leap from PowerPoint to Keynote. Thanks 🙂

  13. September 6, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    For those following this interesting discussion, I invite you to opine at the newly posted poll post: “Volunteering: The For-Profit vs. Non-Profit Debate Poll.” right here at Staying for Tea.

  14. September 7, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    This comment is for SAUNDRA. First, my apologies. At least on my system, the comments are out of order and I didn’t see your comment until now. It might be me but at least on my system, your comment was buried. And as you directed your comment to me, the least I could do would be to reply.

    Saundra, the Risk Management piece we use is 15 pages, and I only put in the 15 questions because I have a day job and work hard 7 days a week. I just didn’t have the time. More importantly, the questions you highlight in your comment are superb and highlight the fact that MOST voluntourism organizations are not Aid or Development organizations. I do follow several aid and development Bloggers, most notably “Tales From the Hood” and find the Blogs very interesting.

    We don’t do any aid or development projects, nor do we pretend to do so. I know Daniele Papi (you mentioned her in our comments) over at Peppy Tours and we do exchange emails. I in fact lobbied for her to present at our upcoming conference in Beijing. She is fantastic and runs an incredible program. But she, too, is not in the aid business.

    You: But good aid is about the needs of the recipients, not the needs of the volunteers.
    Me: I don’t agree. Good work is delivered by good volunteers who have the means (money and time) to devote to a cause that is important to them. There are millions of projects…volunteers simply want to find a project that they feel good about. The needs of the recipients are there already. They are not conjured up by volunteers nor are they conjured up by volunteer sending organizations. At GeoVisions we focus on “conversation” for 75% of our projects filling in the rest with either Wildlife At Risk or Women and Children At Risk. We don’t do “construction” projects, for example.

    If you ignore the needs of the volunteers and place 100% of your concern for the recipients, I fail to see how anyone wins, including the community. If the volunteer is happy, she will do better work. If the volunteer is sleeping at night, she will be on time and fully rested for her day on the project. If the volunteer is healthy, she will be in the right frame of mind and at the project, rather than in bed. If the volunteer has a successful experience, she will tell others and they, in turn, will find projects.

    We do want to make sure our volunteers are healthy and have the means to support themselves so they are not a burden on the community. And as we recruit volunteers, of course we want to make sure the proper match is made. Our Risk Management piece is intended to then make sure the projects we agree to support are the right match for the volunteers we know we’re going to receive.

    It is really no different from when my son went to the Peace Corps and was recruited to go to an area where he speaks Spanish. Going to Nepal was not possible…only S. America for him. And then he was placed at a project where he could teach most of the time. I mention this only because even at the Peace Corps level, it is crucial to make sure the person going is the right match for the community and the work. His community exists and the needs exist. The Peace Corps had to make the right match.

    What we do is volunTOURISM. That’s what it is and it’s why it has the name. It isn’t volunAID.

    And if you don’t like it, that’s fine. I don’t think you should like something you believe strongly against. The fact is, and it won’t make you very happy if you don’t like voluntourism, that the for-profit space is 5X larger than the non-profit space in voluntourism. And even inside there, those of us who do the risk management and work hard to make sure we send good volunteers to good projects…we also frown at cruise ships and their 4 hour voluntourism project and some hotel chains sending guests out for a few hours. So even inside Voluntourism, there are various levels. And it simply is not going away. It is, in fact, getting bigger and bigger.

    There are organizations trying to get a handle on this and provide a set of global Best Practices. The best right now is WYSE Work Abroad and in the U.S. the BBC (Building Bridges Coalition). Still, the movement is going far faster than member organizations. And that’s too bad.

    Thanks for the questions and I’ll incorporate them into our Risk Management form. They are great. I’ll just remove the word “aid” and make the necessary changes.

  15. September 7, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Wow. This is a great discussion, and I am reminded of three ideas that I hold valuable.

    The first is from the book Death By Meeting, which suggests that meetings are boring because they hold no drama, and a good meeting is one in which key positions are tabled, and people have impassioned debates. This is a good meeting.

    The second is from the philosopher H.-G. Gadamer, who said that an authentic conversation is one in which both sides are open to the possibility that they might learn something — even something quite shattering of their worldview — from the worldview. This is a position that I think it’s helpful to hold.

    The third is this: Whenever we encounter entrenched arguments — between government departments, tribes, nations, or professions — I think its helpful to think historically to understand the roots of the conflict.

    What I think may be at work here is a very old Western debate about “faith” vs “works”. In simple terms: the “faith” side says that intentions are most important; the “works” side says that results are most important. I think that the NFP side of this debate is arguing that motive (for-profit vs not-for-profit) is important. What I’m arguing, is that who cares what you think you are doing: it’s the actual effect that counts, and this is largely independent of intentions. Good people do bad things; bad people do good things. From the recipient’s point of view, it’s the effect — not the intention — that counts.

    In saying that, I’m not trying to convince anyone that I am right: just stating the different historical traditions, and positions myself within that frame. I’m a consequentialist, a pragmatist, a “works” person. I’d rather work with a badly intentioned person who delivers good results, than a well-intentioned person who fouls up. (**Proviso: As long as the badly intentioned person is not an a**hole.)

    Down to the nuts and bolts:

    Adam, what I like about you’ve said is that you’ve boiled the argument down into something that’s empirically testable: What kinds of things do FP voluntourists complain about? If it’s about food, hot water, and fuzzy blankets, then you’re right, and happy to agree with that. But we can easily check with the FP voluntourism agencies re the facts of the matter. Are FP voluntourists as unaware and self-centred as you portrayed, or as aware and other-directed as I portray them? No need to argue: maybe Randy can dish out some facts.

    As a self-confessed consequentialist, I also want to look at the big contextual picture here. I believe the people behave well or badly not on the basis of good intention, but on the basis of good context. I’m a fan here of the Stanley Milgram and W. Edwards Deming: we need to look at the system, not the individual.

    I see that what this argument is about is:

    (a) Feedback systems. Who has the better feedback system? Will the customers of the FP provide better feedback about quality of programs, then the well-intentions self-assessment of the NFPs?

    (b) Social psychology. Which system will motivate people to do the right thing? The appeal to ethics of the NFP, or the punishment system of the FP? I don’t thing this is either/or. We just need to look at such systems objectively, and learn from them.

    (c) Then there’s the what I would call the ecological question. Yes, perhaps the NFP sector provides more and better short-term benefits to the poor that the FP voluntourism. But what if, is often case, we are dealing with a complex system, in which long-term outcomes are not readily apparent? For instance, by making voluntourism a more popular option (80% of the market) might the FP market not be building a broader societal change in consciousness beyond what the NFP sector has so far been able to achieve.

    (d) And finally there’s what I would call the “devil in the detail” question (also known as the “God is in the details” question) which is that simplistic, black/white divisions don’t do a good job, and we always have to get into the detail of how people operate. For instance, compare a FP for who has a dedicated development profession to organise their proggrams, with an NFP, who has good intentions but no experience (thinking bicycles and T-shirts here.)

    From this last perspective, I am warning against simplistic categorisation of human beings like FP/NFP, well-intentioned/badly-intentioned, developed/undeveloped, capitalist/altruistic, German/French, male/female, Chinese/American… you get the point.

    We always have to look at the particulars.

  16. September 8, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    Last Friday, I went to a bar in Lesotho with two of my colleagues. Unbeknownst to us at the time, outside a tragic drama had unfolded. A 24-year old Peace Corps volunteer, Tom Maresco, was shot to death by an as yet unknown assailant.

    In trying to understand what happened, I tracked down this story:

    “During a 20-month Dayton Daily News examination, the newspaper found many volunteers worldwide who complained about being sent alone to remote sites with insecure housing, ill-defined jobs, and a lack of attention from the Peace Corps administration.”

    Note the “ill-defined jobs”. This is not just about personal comfort, and I don’t think that you can accuse Peace Corps volunteers living for years in remote villages of seeking creature comforts.

    To me, this is concrete and specific evidence that a major not-for-profit (albeit a government one) doesn’t listen to its volunteers in the field. I think this underscore my point: that unless there is a direct and close link between your funder, and your volunteer, there is no responsiveness, and therefore no accountability.

    Accountability happens only when (a) there is a close connection between funder, and volunteer (such as when they are one and the same), and (b) poor performance leads to sanctions. Internal organisational accountability is simply enough. Organisations who claim “we monitor ourselves” are simply out of tune with best practice in accountability.

  17. September 8, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    Here’s a view from the director of UK’s VSO against ANY kind of voluntourism:

    “Young people who want to make a difference, she says, ‘would be better off travelling and experiencing different cultures, rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact and can leave a big hole in their wallet’.”

    Also today, I received a “thank you” from the small Turkish hotel for which I’d written a user review for . This led me to ask myself: Is there a TripAdvisor for voluntourists? If not, why not? It’s another way of building accountability irrespective of corporate status.

    • September 9, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

      I have a couple of comments about the quote from VSO.

      First, I think the reference to “young people” is a curious example of ageism. I am not a young person. I am 50 years old. Yet I have an ongoing interest in the subject of voluntourism. It is interesting that the VSO director seems to presume in his comments that people like myself even exist. Voluntourism is for people of all ages.

      I think, though, that those comments do raise an important and broader question about what people seek to accomplish from a voluntourism trip. If they see themselves as swooping in from the outside as saviors of a developing country, then I think they might consider taking the advice that the VSO director gives. I think that the best voluntourism outfits see the assistance they offer to local self-organized organizations as being not one of outsiders knowing what is best; and they see cultural exchange as an important component of the process. It isn’t about being saviors but rather at least in part about establishing mutual connections of respect. The voluntourism trip that I did to Mexico last year helped out with an ongoing project by an indigenous women’s cooperative. The project was under the control of the local community, and continued on even when we the volunteers were not there to help out. The connections that we made with that community were just as important as the work we did. Trips to local cooperatives, soccer games between the teenage volunteers and kids living in the village–these were also an important part of the trip.

      • September 9, 2010 at 9:29 pm #


        I agree with the direction you’re heading about what makes a quality voluntourism project. I think I started this initial separation of FP vs. NFP thing based on the fear that a good portion of tourism operators motivated by profit and without true development expertise would fail to do just what you’re talking about. This was the heart of the “Red Flags Waving” section in my very first post on The Future of Voluntourism. My thought was that a (development-focused) NFP, accountable to donors demanding good long-term development outcomes rather than a (tourism-focused) FP accountabile to tourists demanding a good 2-week experience, would have a better shot of getting this right. I’m really thankful for this string of comments. I’ve learned that I need to have greater nuance in my thinking and to keep clear the voluntourism space from the development/aid space. And to recongnize that within the voluntourism space, there are going to be really great operators and really crummy ones, and this is probably not going to be strongly correlated to whether or not they are organized as FP or NFP.

        I do wonder what a really good TripAdvisor for voluntourism would look like. If set up well, there would have to be as much focus on the quality of the project as the quality of the volunteers experience.

  18. September 8, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    David…I like your style. Good stuff.

    I don’t think you would find any difference at all if you surveyed FOR profit volunteers and NOT FOR profit volunteers if the organization works in the volunTOURISM space.

    We can’t confuse aid, development and voluntourism. In the voluntourism space, it matters not if the sender is NP or FP. You recruit volunteers to spend time at a project and either part of the project includes some “tourism” or there is time before or after the project to travel. That’s it. I’ve done this since 1975 and I’ve worked with both For and Non profits and have been on Boards. There IS no difference. At least with the organizations I know…which is about 300 members of WYSE or WYSTC and more than that on the BBC. This is from my perspective.

    I think I’m shocked that so many intelligent and caring people can so easily “label” not only organizations but experiences.

    At GeoVisions, we have decided to focus on what happens AFTER the experience. The experiences are going to happen. They are not going away. As I wrote earlier, they are increasing, actually. If we screen the best volunteers and screen the projects and make a match based on actual need and desire then what’s left? The experience after the experience. Isn’t that the real place to make your judgements? No one is talking or writing about the experience after the experience. Do voluntourists go again? Do they get involved locally? What do they do?

    If we focus our passion rather than label how agencies are taxed, or label the people who want to participate…then we might take this discussion to new levels, rather than rehash the same ole, same ole.

    • September 9, 2010 at 9:17 pm #


      I’m going to surprise you tonight and not just agree with you once, but twice! First, I agree (finally) that the FP/NFP handle is inappropriate in the taxonomy. What I really intended to separate was the tourism space from the development/aid space. I think I had in mind organizations that are more in the dev’t/aid space who are appropriating the voluntourism label for their short-term volunteer trips. But even as I return to to look more closely at the organizations using this term, it is clear that they really are in the voluntourism space as NFP direct competitors to the FP organizations – in other words, no fundamental difference in their business model or objectives. If I were to update the taxonomy, I would correct this.

      Second, I’m gong to agree strongly with you that there should be much more focus on what happens after a volunteer experience. A great deal of the work we do at the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship focuses on this aspect of volunteerism. (We are working mostly with young adults who volunteer between 1-3 years initially and then return, often to pursue a graduate level degree. The most common volunteer sending agencies these volunteers work with are Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and Mennonite Central Committee, among the 20 or so difference organizations.) There is a great deal of cognitive dissonance to work out in the re-entry process for these volunteers. There seems to be three main patterns that returning volunteers follow – 1) they shipwreck for a while. They can’t reconcile how much they’ve changed with how little their home community (friends, family, church, etc.) has changed. They get angry with American lifestyles, politics, culture; they walk into a Wall-mart or Costco and get nauseous. 3 years after returning home, they’re making coffee at Starbucks and wearing a permanent furrow on their brow. 2) they reconcile the dissonance by rebounding to their former self. They compartmentalize the experience as something belonging to a special place and time in their life. 3 years after returning home, they look back with nostalgia and wonder about how idealistic and naive they were back then when they thought they could actually change the world. The go on to become bankers. (That last line was a joke.) 3) They get help to reflect systematically and thoughtfully about their experience with others who’ve done something similar. They learn how to articulate and share what the experience has meant for them, what they learned, and how they have changed. They figure out what choices going forward need to be informed by the values shift they’ve experienced, and get help discerning academic and vocational direction. 3 years after returning, they are on their way to becoming global citizens, embracing a life-long ethic of service, civic engagement, and global understanding. A good part of our work is nudging at the tipping points so that more returning volunteers can follow this third path upon returning.

  19. September 9, 2010 at 2:25 pm #

    Hi mikeonpurpose. I agree about the ageism. I’m 54 on the outside, but still (of course) 18 on the inside.

    The following statements of your resonate: “…cultural exchange as an important component of the process” and “…about establishing mutual connections of respect.”

    I have a thesis that I have not yet had the time to justify, which is that 90% of “aid” is about establishing a relationship between people and peoples, which goes unrecognised in the official mythology. Aid inputs are, for most countries, a tiny fraction of the overall economic activity in that country. The idea that these inputs are responsible for “developing” the country seems rather… odd. People develop their own countries. Sometimes you get to participate in a small way. It’s both a pleasure and an honour.

    But what does happen in development contexts—whether through voluntourism, or through full-on development projects—is that people of different nations and cultures get to work together in a more authentic way than might be the case in the waiter/waited-upon relationship of commercial tourism or the suppler/purchase relationship of trade. This development relationship has—I suspect—transformational power that goes beyond impact evaluations and logframes.

    Way back in 1967 the development economist Albert O. Hirschman did a study of eleven World Bank funded projects: Development Projects Observed. Though times have changed, I think his findings are still intriguing. He found that most projects failed to set the objectives that their planners set for them, but that the projects had nonetheless important unforeseen benefits, chief among them an increased sense of power and optimism in those that participated in them, which came from encountering and surmounting obstacles through the project experience.

    • September 9, 2010 at 9:40 pm #


      You’ve mentioned one of my favorite books of all time. (check out my bookroll page – I’m not just making this up.) And you’ve touched on a thesis that is dear to my heart. I would love for you to read my series of posts on Principles of Community-Based International Development (i.e. Staying for Tea) I wonder how much of this would resonate with you. In many ways, what you’re getting at here is the very heart of this blog: “value people over projects, and effectiveness over good intentions. Hold in tension a humanitarian ethic of service and a professional ethic of competence. …” And it is this belief in the power of meaningful human exchange, in the transformative power of mutual indebtedness, and the in capacity of people to make the world a better place both in their own community and as an outsider walking along side and accompanying others in their communities that makes me one of the weird development/aid professionals that is still optimistic about volunteerism (and by extension, albeit with some caveats, voluntourism.)

  20. September 11, 2010 at 5:37 am #

    Hi Aaron. Sorry about the “Adam” in an earlier post, plus all those glitches. Too much writing after 12 hour days.

    I just read the Principles. I grok them all. In fact, that series is what originally attracted me to your blog: not just the content, but the quality of writing, and the extended exploration of a topic within the often limiting brevity of the blog format. You’ll see I’ve added a few comments.

    If one applies “the hiding hand” reflexively, it gives rise to the following possibility: perhaps in our work we are doing something really important, but it’s not what we think we are doing. That is indeed weird, but like you, I take it positively.

    Your phrase “mutual indebtedness” has inspired me to compose a post on something that bothers me a lot: that the needs of the beneficiaries are transparent, but the needs of the donors and implementers are opaque. I’ll post a link here once I’ve done so.

  21. September 20, 2010 at 9:42 am #

    Commenting on Staying For Tea comment Sept. 9.

    My apologies. I’ve been straight out for weeks and I’m just now coming back around to reading Blogs I like…this one being near the top of the list.

    1. I wrote on Sunday in comment to a Blog that it is time now to call a spade a spade and if it looks like voluntourism and walks like voluntourism…it’s probably voluntourism. I’m pushing for those of us doing that type of program to simply come out with it and refer to it as such.

    2. We’re doing some research with “the experience after the experience” with Southern CT State Univ. and I’ll share the results when we’re done.

    Love the Blog. I have a link to this Blog on my own Blog. I want our “voluntourists” to see many points of view.

  22. June 4, 2011 at 12:33 am #

    Because words are the medium of most debates, clarifying the meanings of the words used should always be an essential precondition for meaningful discussion. Indeed, quite often positions may be clouded because participants are (for various reasons) associating different meanings to the words used.

    In this context, it is particularly sad, that in a so called “information society” many people have become (and apparently educated) to be so nonchalant about interrogating the (actual) meanings of the messages they are constantly bombarded with -or they themselves propagate. The myth of “global communication” pretends that we all speak the same language -and that all our aims are the same (unless we are in “opposition”). This is part of the global cultural genocide practiced by the commercial media. Youthful optimism and good intentions support such a naieve belief -and good intentions often do pave the road to Hell . The dominant political-economic system exploits this confusion to the maximum.

    So perhaps the hidden problem remains the environment in which one operates: If one reads Kenneth Galbraith’s “The New Industrial State” (now already quite old) one reads of a ubiquitous coordinated and sophisticated political-economic system that cannot risk uncertainty if it is to recoup its investments in the machinery that produces cheap consumer goods -which also need to be continually distributed and marketed globally (in expanding markets) if the system is to survive.

    Despite the theory of a “free world” and “free will”, such a system spends millions on researching and controlling the (consumerist) behaviour patterns of its (potential) customers) -through university research, advertising and more covert media use and cultural manipulation. It is therefore extremely adept at adapting to threats that might undermine it. Adapting to these threats, and actively modifying them to the benifit of the system is a clever part of its strategy. New concepts, as they emerge, are thus easilly corrupted and used by politicians as slogans which help to disguise the fundamental nature of the underlying system. How much, for example, do the UN “millenium goals” actually benifit the poor and underprivaleged of the world -and how much do such slogans hide the fundamental desire of the system to produce a global homogenous consumer society that can continue to produce, market and consume the goods produced by the system that can actually cause poverty by destroying successful local land based ecologies/economies and replacing them with money based consumerist systems? In most cases, local conditions are far too complex to be solved by simple solutions based on simple slogans. Has the invasion of Iraq truly brought peace and democracy to the area -or is it merely a failed attempt to expand US market interests?

    Indeed, it is a pity that a general lack of understanding of the importance of language seems to be characteristic of the modern age. “Rhetoric” has become a dirty word which isolates us from the wisdom of the skills it once taught. “Culture” is no longer a local tool for survival but has become a product for global marketing by global companies. Despite the myth of “connectivity” promoted by the internet -most people seem amazingly provincial and unable to look beyond the limits of their own (professional) practices.

    If we are to solve these life threatening problems, then it seems to me that we shall not only need to understand better the various “verbal” languages used by people -we shall also need to understand much better the various physical and conceptual “languages” that manifest themselves both globally and locally.

    • June 5, 2011 at 5:45 pm #


      Man, you are aaaall over the place. Nevertheless, I appreciate your comment and your deep thinking. Be well.

      • June 6, 2011 at 1:15 am #

        Actually, if you are to be effective you may well need to be all over the place. Consumerism is ubiquitous and all embracing. If one concentrates too much on the details (or allow oneself to get sidetracked into getting bogged down in side issues) then one misses the big picture.

        Good magicians know that distraction is a major tool for an effective fooling of the public.

        The real world doesn’t divide itself up into the nice little boxes of academics, politicians and professional NGO’s.

  23. Ditch Townsend
    July 20, 2011 at 5:54 am #

    I’ve just come across this discussion and am sorry not to have been around at its height. Perhaps I may be able to add a historical and British dimension for those who, like me, come to this thread late: Back in 1996, after 3 years running a short term overseas volunteer programme for Tearfund (UK), I wrote a book called, ‘Stop, Check, Go.’ It was remaindered after only a few hundred sales, but (despite no access to the sales receipts) I am reasonably pleased that the copies were shipped to the USA and now appear still to be available on-line. I say, “reasonably pleased” because when I wrote it, I had a deep concern that development principles could easily be trampled upon (perhaps even in some of the work I had organised) but I didn’t have any development experience (which I have now) and being wary of my limits, I therefore avoided writing about the impact of projects on local development issues, except with odd references to the issue. (I also, rather naively, predicted that the numbers of people involved in what is now called ‘voluntourism’ was plateauing!) What struck me as the more urgent problem at the time (although arguably not the most important through development-shaded spectacles) was what I now know to be covered by the term ‘risk assessment’. At the time, I characterised what I often saw when I looked around me (then in a Christian context) as, expecting God to guide us “blindfold on a well-marked path through a minefield.” The problem was, I couldn’t find a guidebook, so I wrote one – principally to try to protect volunteers themselves by giving them the tools to make their own risk assessments of the programmes they were considering joining. No doubt, today’s risk assessments are much more comprehensive, but I felt my book (by bringing together a lot of the unwritten issues) was taking a big step forward. Indeed, I eventually saw a network of Christian short term programme organisers formally develop out of some informal conferences I had organised, plus this book, plus a little lobbying, although it set its own direction, since I had moved abroad by mid-1995. As has been asked in the comments to this blog posting: who effectively monitors the risk analyses and mitigation plans of today’s swathe of voluntourism outfits (whether FP or NFP)? My book sought to let volunteers do that for themselves. Mention is also made of volunteers inability to know if the work they do is likely to have a real developmental impact – although reasonable assessment criteria are probably out there within the development profession. What I would love to see would be a resource which enabled volunteers to make both assessments for themselves (risk and impact) – perhaps a book, perhaps a ‘Tripadvisor’-type web site… Incidentally, we did research (not methodologically strong, but interesting) following up over 100 of our volunteers. Of the short termers (several weeks), we found that at least 50% returned overseas within 10 years, 90% of these to developing countries. 25% went on to work for NFPs and 40% voluntarily supported NFPs more than just by personal donations (e.g. representative volunteer fund raising). Of the longer termers (6-12 months), one third felt poorly supervised and only half felt they had the right amount of responsibility, but 75% were working or planned eventually to work, in a developing country long term. I was also struck by how much harder it was to recruit to learning trips than to working trips: so few inexperienced applicants really appreciated how little they could offer in comparison to how much they could learn. In practical terms, we could only find enough volunteers recognising their learning needs as paramount, to organise 1 learning tour for every 9 working trips. In summary, having spent time managing NFP voluntourism, and now with some development experience, I am even more cautious about the balance of impact that inexperienced volunteers can have on development, but with the impact of globalisation, and in communities that have experience of participation in their own development, I think that opportunities to learn and contribute in a managed risk context can reasonably often be found, if sought and planned for carefully. Sadly however, it may be that volunteers themselves need better tools to empower themselves, to mitigate risks to themselves and the communities they enter. Then perhaps, stronger demand will encourage FPs and NFPs to more often make adequate risk assessments, and demonstrate strong development impacts.

  24. March 13, 2014 at 6:20 pm #

    Huh, good article and great comments. A real philosophy in it


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    […] UPDATE: An updated graphic with new notes has been posted at Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.o […]

  2. Profiteering and altruism « Mike On Purpose - September 4, 2010

    […] Staying for Tea blog has provided an interesting taxonomy of so-called “poverty tourism”, of which voluntourism was cited as one example.   I […]

  3. RANDOM NOMAD: Aaron Ausland, NGO Research Director & Development Practitioner « The Displaced Nation - November 30, 2011

    […] “Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0” […]

  4. Top 50 Volunteer/Activism Blogs - L I V A - March 4, 2012

    […] discussion about volunteerism and community development. Some excellent recent posts include Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0, A Moderate Elitist and Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological […]

  5. Voluntourism Debate, Cambodian Orphanages, & The Need for Better Standards and Data | Building a Better World - June 6, 2012

    […] Watching the profile reminded me of the relatively loose terminology too common within today’s international volunteerism, study abroad, and service-learning. Development practitioner and blogger Aaron Ausland has worked to add some focus to the numerous related terms with his posts Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance and Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0. […]

  6. The Best and Worst of Staying for Tea: Milestone 25,000 | Staying for Tea - June 21, 2012

    […] Interestingly enough, the third and fourth most popular posts are also about voluntourism. Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0 – the one with the awesome graphic (shown above) that went semi-viral – is #4 with just […]

  7. Poverty tourism versus positive movements across cultural and economic gaps | Photosensibility.com - July 6, 2012

    […] appreciate this graphic via Staying For Tea, but it’s important to understand the context. The original intent was to show that a variety […]

  8. Voluntourism: What You Need to Know Before Signing up | jetsettimes - September 24, 2012

    […] from ‘slum tours’? Where does ‘study abroad’ fit into the picture? Aaron has created a taxonomy for classifying the variety of experiences on offer. You should use this when researching […]

  9. Recommended Reading « A Better World - September 28, 2012

    […] http://stayingfortea.org/2010/08/27/poverty-tourism-taxonomy-2-0/ […]

  10. Top 50 Volunteer/Activism Blogs - OnlineDegrees.org - January 22, 2013

    […] discussion about volunteerism and community development. Some excellent recent posts include Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0, A Moderate Elitist and Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological […]

  11. Learning Service | Poverty tourism taxonomy 2.0 - May 19, 2013

    […] To read the rest of this article, click here. […]

  12. Learning from Community: Community Outcome Assessment Best Practices and Insights in Global Service-Learning | Building a Better WorldBuilding a Better World - October 1, 2013

    […] Ausland, A. 2010. “Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0” on Staying for Tea. http://stayingfortea.org/2010/08/27/poverty-tourism-taxonomy-2-0/ […]

  13. What ARE we talking about? Poverty Porn, Volunteer Service & Global Service - August 28, 2014

    […] by development practitioners rather than conventional academics. One example is Aaron Ausland’s Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0, pictured […]

  14. Interactive Technology for More Critical Service-Learning? - May 10, 2015

    […] Aaron. 2010. Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0. From <http://stayingfortea.org/2010/08/27/poverty-tourism-taxonomy-2-0/&gt;. Accessed 31 May, […]

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