Do your voluntourism homework first

By Kyla Gardner

Lying on the beach in Cancun is out; laying the foundation for a Habitat for Humanity home is in.

Next week, four small groups of NIU students will travel to locations all over the U.S. to volunteer with NIU’s Alternative Spring Break.

In the last decade, “voluntourism” has been growing as a popular alternative to regular tourism. If you’re interested in this kind of work, make sure you do your homework first. A growing market for volunteer vacations means a growing number of organizations doing less than honest work.

“Volunteering has become almost a business for a lot of nonprofit groups,” said Becky Harlow, program adviser for NIU’s Alternative Spring Break.

You should get something out of your experience but not at the expense of the community you’re supposed to be serving. The key is a mutually beneficial relationship with effective aid as the primary goal.

Here are some things to consider before heading out to voluntour:

Reasonable Expectations

It’s good to have reasonable expectations about how much of a “difference” you can actually make. Good, lasting aid work happens over a long time, not in only a week.

“[Students are] all jazzed about how they want to save the world, and we want to reel them in sometimes,” Harlow, who is also the assistant director for community service for Student Involvement and Leadership Development, said.

Witnessing poverty or other problems first-hand can be overwhelming, and traveling someplace you’re not familiar with can be a clash of culture, even in the United States. Good preparation means researching the population you are going to work with and the area and organization beforehand, Harlow said.

Background Check

The organization you’re going to work with should be able to tell you how your work fits into its broader mission. Otherwise, you may just be painting a school that doesn’t need a fresh coat as much as it needs reliable teachers. An organization should be willing to share with you findings from independent evaluations of its work; it should care about measuring its impact. If the only results it can give you are heartwarming anecdotes, stay away.

Harlow said ASB student coordinators ask for references from the organization and can sometimes find a listing on the Better Business Bureau.

Qualifications & Good Fit

Does this organization require you to have certain skills? You shouldn’t be building a house or caring for the disabled if you have no experience or skills for these tasks. On the flip-side, you will be disappointed if you file papers all week and were hoping to do something more hands-on. The organization should be honest with you about its expectations and you should be honest about yours. ASB student coordinators send possible organizations several pages of questions about the relationship.

“This facilitates a discussion that could be otherwise uncomfortable,” Harlow said.

International Volunteering

Going abroad has many significantly different considerations than traveling in the United States. There are sensitivities to wider differences of culture and language – if you can’t speak the local language, you’ll probably be more of a burden than help. Also, ask the organization how many locals it employs. If the organization isn’t trying to create jobs locally or hire local leaders with expert knowledge of that area’s customs, values and culture, it’s a bad sign. The organization shouldn’t be relying on outsiders to effect change.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig, writer of the aid blog “Good Intentions are Not Enough,” offers a very helpful 4-part guide for international volunteering at