Category Archives: Volunteer

When Good Intentions Fail: How the Voluntourism Industry Fails to Make a Sustainable Impact and Uphold Ethical Standards

By: Cristina Chavez MNA ’20

Voluntourists are engaging with children. Photo credit: The Day
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The idea of teaching English in Cambodia, assisting at a medical clinic in Guatemala or building a well in Uganda sounds like a life changing experience if you have two weeks of vacation to spare. However, these short-term international volunteer experiences do little to prepare, educate, or align the volunteer’s skill sets to meet of the needs of the community they serve. I’m guilty as well for having participated in these trips for educational programs. Many of times, I felt helpless and ill-informed when stepping into these spaces as a student. Many of these international engagement experiences do more harm than good to improve the quality of lives for the community and in result, contributes to the growing problem of the voluntourism industry.

As a growing 2 billion dollar industry, voluntourism provides various types of volunteer experiences such as eco-tourism, medical trips, teaching, and many more. Voluntourism is described as Westerners who travel abroad to undertake projects that seek to improve the lives of its community. A combination of emotionally-striking poverty porn and the chance to ‘make a difference’ fuels the desires of altruistic Westerners to volunteer abroad in these communities. This in turn does more to hurt vulnerable communities and plays into the narrative of the egocentric western savior complex. However, the voluntourism industry argues there are many pros to providing these trips such as transformative experiences, exposure to local communities, and fundraising opportunities.

The problem with the dark side of the voluntourism industry is that its feeds from complex systemic issues of poverty and suppression. Many voluntourists lack the understanding of their privilege and the oppressive systems when entering into these spaces. As Teju Cole famously tweeted, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Voluntourism takes on a nuanced-colonialism through the disguise of exotic travel with the hopes of ‘making a difference.’ For example, the popularity of voluntourism trips rose during the aftermath of natural disasters as evident in the case of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. While voluntourists contribute to this evolving problem, many NGO’s also hold responsibility by perpetuating the industry. NGO’s will at times invest more in catering to the experiences of voluntourists than it does to elevate and invest in its community by withholding funds from its community.

While voluntourism is well-intentioned, the industry must challenge itself to delve deeper to uphold a higher standard of ethics and establish concrete initiatives. I argue for the voluntourism industry to focus on several initiatives in order to achieve real impact such as education of social issues, sustainable development, cultural competence, measured impact, and a code of ethics.

Beginning with education, the industry needs to provide thoughtful, honest, and community driven programming around the social justice issues at hand. In addition, sustainable development projects must be community-centered rather than serve the experience of the volunteer. Volunteer skill sets, capacities, and experience should align accordingly with goals the community it is seeking to achieve in order to make sustainable impact. Cultural competence must be upheld when working with vulnerable and poverty-stricken communities. Clear communication, respect for beliefs and practices, and adaptability must be at the core when working with groups whose culture is different. In addition, voluntourists organizations need to measure impact on a short-term and long-term scale, considering all unintended consequences. Most importantly, voluntourism organizations should be upheld to a code of ethics and remain transparent at all times.

Voluntourism can make a positive impact, but it must move away from superficial engagement by upholding a strong code of ethics and calling on the support of professionals. It is also important to critically analyze the intentions of all involved–the voluntourist, voluntourism organization, NGO, and community. This must be an open conversation where all share collective responsibility.

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Watch: Voluntourism: When You Take More Than You Leave Behind | Madara Žgutė | TEDxISM

Nonprofit Career at your Doorsteps

The University of San Francisco (USF) School of Management, in cooperation with student volunteers, administrative and faculty members, have compiled a career resource guide for current students, alumni, and prospective students of the Master of Nonprofit Administration (MNA) program.  Resources have been provided through various sources including field research of philanthropic career opportunities, community outreach, faculty and student advisement, the 2017 GuideStar Nonprofit Compensation Report, and the 2017 University of San Francisco School of Management Graduate Career Services Career Resource Guide, which has been edited to fit the needs of students in the nonprofit program.  These resources are designed to provide students with internship, fellowship, and volunteer opportunities, networking events, compensation reports, interview tips, resume templates, and tools for job searching for those pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector.

This project is also meant to bridge any gaps that may exist between USF and alumni of the MNA program.  We would like to assist alumni in their own career paths or to engage alumni with current students to share their specialized advice from working in the field.  This guide (including the handbook and the compensation report) will be accessible to all currently enrolled students in the full time and part time program using the USF Canvas system within the MNA Depot, and it  will include all of the resources described above.  The handbook will also be posted to the USF MNA website and will be accessible to the public including alumni.  The compensation report has been purchased by the University of San Francisco School of Management from and is for internal usage only due to restrictions placed upon the distribution of the report by GuideStar.  Thus, this piece of the guide can only be accessed by currently enrolled students or those alumni who wish to physically visit USF to view the resource in person.  This resource cannot be shared electronically by email.

Events will be announced to current students through the MNA Depot and to alumni and current students who are members of the MNA LinkedIn group page which can be found here:  These events will include those hosted by USF and events hosted by outside organizations (typically occurring within the San Francisco Bay Area) for networking and volunteer opportunities.

The School of Management and the MNA Program at USF are excited to assist the growing needs of current students and alumni in their career development and professional endeavors in the philanthropic job market.

Download here the 2018 MNA Career Resource Guide and see resourceful links for successful nonprofit careers.



Volunteer Tourism and Third Sector

Increasing Numbers Of US Students Choosing To Embark On Volunteer Tourism Gap Years

Increasing Numbers Of US Students Choosing To Embark On Volunteer Tourism Gap Years

Volunteer Tourism and Third Sector

by Siana Amos, MNA ’17

The rapid growth of the volunteer tourism industry has sparked diverse debates among participants, researchers, and professionals. While some see international volunteering as invaluable, others question the impact and motives of participants and volunteer sending organizations. Critics have raised concerns over the role of sending organizations and the effect that commercialization has had on the nonprofit sector. These disputes have caused stakeholders and spectators alike to analyze the impact and potential ethical risks of these service opportunities. However, in spite of this controversial position, research suggests that the use of ethical learning frameworks could allow the volunteer tourism sector to use its recent popularity to enact change and do good.

The $173 billion volunteer industry attracts more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists each year and is one of the fastest growing trends in travel today (Kahn, 2014). While commercialization has significantly contributed to the growth of the industry, these business-like models and the rise of for-profit agencies are widely controversial within the social sector. Volunteer sending organizations serve to develop volunteer opportunities, arrange pertinent logistics, and facilitate relationships between volunteers and host communities. Those that hold 501(c)(3) statuses work to enhance social and environmental good, and maintain a commitment to invest all profits in organizational activities and programs. WorldTeach, a leading nonprofit sending organization, promotes itself as a key proponent of universal education and responsible global citizenship. Their two-fold organizational mission demonstrates their commitment to the students and host communities, as well as their sizable volunteer population. Global Volunteers seeks to organize international volunteer opportunities that embody their philosophy of sustainable development. This organization believes that adequately managed and supervised short-term programs have means to enact social change. In contrast, for-profit companies like Projects Abroad and Global Crossroad work to alleviate systemic injustices but do so in a manner that generates profits for stakeholders. This diversification has resulted in increased attention and contrasting reviews for the volunteer tourism sector.

The recent adoption of commercial methods has enabled and constrained international volunteer efforts. Although business-like models regularly increase financial success, these strategies often redirect efforts away from philanthropic goals and towards profitable advances. Commercial orientations force sending organizations to manage multiple stakeholder relationships and balance opposing dynamics that may arise if the needs and interests of consumers (i.e. volunteer tourists) fail to align with those of the receivers (i.e. local communities). Opponents of volunteer tourism argue that gaps in culture, background, and privilege create a lack of intercultural competence and sensitivity among Western volunteers. Critics have also questioned volunteers’ seemingly selfless motives given that several use the experience as means to build their resumes or college applications. Despite these various concerns, studies reveal that international volunteers thoroughly enhance organizational practices. Supporters argue that international volunteers continuously address labor shortage needs, provide resources, philanthropy, and social capital, increase the intercultural competence of local staff and clients, and introduce new skills and abilities to host communities (Lough, McBride, Sherraden, and O’Hara, 2011). However, while efforts clearly yield some valuable outcomes, the potential dangers of volunteer tourism demonstrate a need for improvement across the industry.

The use of ethical frameworks that prioritize empathy and respect in partnerships would be highly beneficial in intercultural contexts. The Fair Trade Learning Model is a global educational exchange that achieves reciprocity “through cooperative, cross-cultural participation in learning, service and civil society efforts” (Hartman, Paris, and Blache-Cohen, 2014). This model argues that equal partnership and transparency are essential to foster a just, equitable, and sustainable world. This framework believes that community-driven outcomes and volunteer learning are of equal importance, and argues that efforts are most effective when attention is given to community voice and direction. This approach envisions volunteer programs as mutual learning experiences and maintains that programs should implement reflection processes to complement volunteer experiences. The Fair Trade Learning Model believes that sustainability is possible if volunteers and partners are aware of how funds are used and if all contributions are aligned with the economic and social dynamics of local communities. As such, this comprehensive framework suggests that preparation, awareness, and reflection would produce ethically engaged programs and participants.

Volunteer tourism can also be applied through a transformative learning lens. Transformational learning sees dialogue and reflection as essential aspects of volunteer tourism and believes that both allow insights to be integrated into everyday life. This approach identifies self-actualization as an outcome of transformational learning and promotes critical thinking in the practice of volunteer tourism (Coghlan and Gooch, 2011). While volunteer tourism presents various challenges, the valuable and beneficial outcomes should not be overlooked. Thorough application of these learning frameworks would enable international volunteerism to move beyond the simple act of giving back and develop into an experience that is equally beneficial for volunteers, host communities, and society at large.