The problem with reviews and recommendations

Read my latest blog post on my new Responsible Volunteering website:



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Can young volunteers really contribute to development?

See my latest post on whether young volunteers can really contribute to development on the responsible volunteering website


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The great voluntourism debate

See my latest post on my new blog and website


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New responsible volunteering website and blog

I have been wanting to do more to contribute to the overseas volunteering sector and help to promote best practice in the industry for many years now. It has taken some time to really figure out what I can do and where my knowledge, skills and interests best fit. I have also witnessed a growing impetus from within the industry to change and improve, along with a vocal campaign promoting responsible volunteering, led by some passionate advocates.

Last November’s World Travel Market Responsible Volunteering session felt like a tipping point. I left the event buzzing with the desire to do more than write about the issues in my blog. It was at that point the idea of the Responsible Volunteering website was born. I realised that while there is a lot going on within the volunteer tourism industry, there is still very little general advice out there for people wanting to be responsible volunteers.

Just under 5 months later, the website is finally live! Please pay it a visit:

The website offers impartial and honest advice to anyone considering a period of volunteering overseas, particularly in developing countries. I have used my knowledge from 6 years experience of advising volunteers at VSO and writing communication materials aimed at volunteers, along with all the research I have done in the last couple of years.

I’ve been writing my blog about responsible volunteering for 15 months now and it has been a pleasure to blog about the volunteer tourism sector and comment on some of the debates surrounding this often controversial area.  I will now be focusing on a new blog which is on my website.  If you like this blog, please do follow my new blog.


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What is the point of some volunteering projects?

Here’s an interesting first person perspective on a volunteering experience which raises an important question – what is the point of some volunteering projects? This is a great example of a project where volunteers may find that what they do doesn’t actually contribute or improve the situation of the people they are supporting. The writer, Hannah White, describes her placement with a children’s home/orphanage in Argentina and gives a positive account of how the project was managed and run but also writes about how her role there as a volunteer involved playing with the children for a few hours each day, but that there was nothing more for her to do, even when she offered.

Hannah writes that the volunteering organisation she went with “did not seem to have set up a “project” which would notably improve things – it did not seem to have established a relationship or understanding which meant that volunteers could contribute and have a lasting effect. It felt like I’d been shoved somewhere, and that that was that. I felt distinctly underused, unsatisfied, and frustrated with the effect I’d been able to have, and not just for me, myself and I.”

This really illustrates how well-meaning people sign up for these kind of volunteer projects based on a brochure or glossy information without really understanding the role they will be doing or having an in-depth conversation with the sending-organisation about whether they have useful skills which could benefit the local people or what the objectives of their placement will be and what the long term aims of the project are. It also shows that volunteers expect an organisation to develop projects that benefit local people and lead to improvements rather than just perpetuating the status-quo.

This is really frustraing to read but also great to hear as it is an honest and frank critique, without being over-dramatic.  Hannah concludes that “The problem was that no-one really had any idea what the purpose of the volunteers would, should, or could be. It was as if the fact that we’d been pointed towards a group of needy children was instantly enough to make for something sellable as a project.”  I think she makes an excellent point here about the way volunteering to help needy children is presented and marketed by volunteer-sending organisations versus the reality of these kind of projects. I hope that more volunteers will write these kind of articles in such an eloquent and balanced way.

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The importance of having a selection process for volunteers

The Responsible Tourism Partnership published guidelines for volunteering organisations last year which state that “Each volunteer is interviewed and screened before being accepted as a volunteer.” Fair Trade Volunteering’s five criteria for member organisations state that organisations “need to have an appropriate pre-departure selection, preparation and training programme”.

VSO has an excellent and comprehensive selection process for volunteers. They run assessment days which consist of an interview and group tasks which are observed by “selectors”. What they are looking for is how well people work together, sensitivity towards others, ability to listen and learn and self-assurance, qualities that are important for a successful placement overseas. They also discuss personal circumstances and motivations. The aim is to ensure that volunteers are ready to go overseas and are fully committed and will represent the organisation’s values and make a positive contribution to development. Now, this kind of selection process is very thorough because VSO invests thousands of pounds in each volunteer placement and as a charity and recipient of funds from the UK Department for International Development, they have to assess volunteers carefully. For organisations where people pay the costs of volunteering themselves, it doesn’t need to be as extensive as this, but some sort of selection process is still essential.

All volunteer-sending organisations should have a process in place where their staff have a personal communication with a volunteer and discuss their interests and motivations, identify a suitable placement for them and talk through some of the issues and challenges they may encounter while overseas. The word interview is perhaps too formal for this kind of conversation (although it is more appropriate if a volunteer is being recruited for a placement requiring specific skills and experience). A phone call would be best, or face-to-face if it was logistically possible.  In the case of overseas organisations who recruit volunteers directly, rather than using a sending-organisation, it is still possible to set up a Skype call so they can speak to their prospective volunteer and make sure that they understand the project, their role and the local context.

A selection process can help an organisation assess whether a volunteer is suitable for the placement they are interested in and if they have the right experience.  Even for short placements that don’t require specific skills, it is important for an organisation to have a conversation with a prospective volunteer and assess their motivations and ensure they understand what will be expected of them. Another thing that can be assessed is how well the volunteer will cope living overseas and how much support they may need or expect from the organisation. If someone is going to volunteer in a foreign country, it is very different from a holiday. It is important for them to have realistic expectations and understand the context they are going to.

An interview is also a two-way process so it gives the prospective volunteer the opportunity to ask questions and find out more about the placement they will be doing and what they should do to prepare.  It is also the opportunity for the organisation to brief the volunteer and give them key information about the project they will be going to and any relevant practical information.

Even the largest volunteer-sending organisations who offer primarily 1-2 week placements should be using a selection process for their volunteers, especially as they will have the resources/staff to implement this. Setting up a volunteer placement should not be like booking a holiday or merely a financial transaction!

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Naming and shaming

A good post from Sallie Grayson of people and places about the dangers of not speaking out about negative volunteering experiences and naming and shaming. Volunteers should feel confident that they can give constructive criticism about their placements and the organisations who arranged them, especially when they have paid a significant sum for the experience.

The more people speak up and tell others about their experiences – positive and negative – the better informed future volunteers will be. It will also help present the reality of overseas volunteering rather than some of the glossy marketing used by organisations which covers up the inherent challenges which most volunteers will face.

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