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Volume 6 Issue 4 Highlights



For VolunTourists: How To Make The Most Of Your VolunTourism Experience - Part 2

In this, the second installment of a two-part series, we will continue to explore practical guidance for voluntourists - how to make the most of their inner, as well as outer, VolunTourism Experiences. After careful review and consideration of the growing body of academic research and blog posts and articles on VolunTourism from across the globe, some patterns have emerged regarding the challenges faced by voluntourists. In order to be better prepared to address these issues as they arise, I suggest that voluntourists adopt three practices: 1) Create a "VolunTourism Buddy System," 2) Set yourself up for progress in your volunteer work, and 3) Learn to manage the inevitable 'VolunTourism Polarities.'


Volunteering, in any context - domestically or abroad, can go very, very wrong. Yet, on some level, we hope that what is described above will never be our personal fate. (Thomas Aquinas said it well: "But for the grace of God, there goes myself.") Do we need to leave this to fate, especially when perhaps thousands of dollars are at stake? Or can we utilize good judgment and develop our own personal "VolunTourism Tool Box" to ensure our internal capacity to handle these setbacks, even the really big ones, regardless of the setting or the situation? This would make for a fairly dark noir-style article if we set our sights on the former, so we will focus our attention on the latter. We will take a look at filling our VolunTourism Tool Box with three courses of action to combat these potential challenges.

In the first part of this series, we discussed The VolunTourism Life Cycle. As I mentioned, over the years, I have discovered seven 'phases' that make up the life cycle of any voluntourism experience. The bulk of the 'activity' related to these phases is conducted internally, through mental processing, thinking, etc. Each phase corresponds with an 'action' - Know, Ask, Discern, Prepare, Listen, Reflect, Act. Figure 1 (below) introduces these seven phases - the Decision Point (Know), the Trip Determination Phase (Ask), the Trip Selection Phase (Discern), the Pre-Departure Phase (Prepare), the Trip Participation Phase (Listen), the Post-Trip Phase (Reflect), and the Future Participation Phase (Act). 

Figure 1: The VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle

For this article, we will build on this knowledge by inserting several suggestions to assist you at various points along 'The VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle. These exercises, if you will, are designed to address challenges that other voluntourists have reported as part of their engagements or have expressed prior to their departure as motivations and/or expectations that are of great importance to them - obviously, any failure to meet these expectations or to further encourage these motivations can result in disappointment on many, many levels, as Nancy Trejos notes in the opening quote above.

Your "VolunTourism Buddy"

Remember the old saying, "misery loves company"? Well, it turns out that company can also serve as a cure for misery, especially where a volunteering experience gone awry is concerned.

In a recent article published by CNN.com, "Do Celebs Like Jolie Inspire Voluntourism?", my colleague, Dr. Nancy McGehee, shared some research findings as it pertains to supporting a voluntourist. Eva Vasquez writes:

This personal support that Dr. McGehee speaks of is truly essential for voluntourists. The nature of these experiences - the financial outlay, the emotional investment, the time commitment - are often beyond the capacity of any of us to fully address by ourselves. This is not to suggest that it is impossible to do so, but having a network - a parachute, no less - makes jumping out of the plane at least that much more tolerable. And should something go wrong, having a Buddy is nothing less than an imperative.

Just as a diver does not venture into the sea alone, a voluntourist should not venture forth on a voluntour without having a plan for incorporating a Buddy into the process. There are three places along 'The Voluntourism Experience Life Cycle' where I recommend that a VolunTourism Buddy can play a significant role in assisting you:

  1. The Trip Determination Phase
  2. The Trip Participation Phase
  3. The Post-Trip Phase

The Trip Determination Phase - If you are past the 'Decision Point' and have determined that you are going to embark on a voluntour, then introducing a VolunTourism Buddy to assist you as you move through the next three phases (Trip Determination, Trip Selection, and Pre-Departure Phases), prior to the actual Trip Participation Phase, can be very helpful. This VolunTourism Buddy may or may not have ever participated in a voluntour, but s/he will be someone who knows you very well. S/he will be someone that you can confide in as you navigate the process. S/he will be someone that you can share your hopes, disappointments & frustrations, and any reservations you have about taking such a journey. S/he will be someone that you can ask questions about which trip to select - "How does this organization look to you? I'm not quite sure, it sounds good and all, but I just don't know." Having an individual who can help you with these gnawing questions will instill greater and greater confidence as you approach your trip.

The Trip Participation Phase - There are two roles that a VolunTourism Buddy can play during a voluntour - as a companion or as someone with whom you communicate during the experience. As a companion, a VolunTourism Buddy may have been planning this trip with you from the beginning, or, as a last-minute "please come with me" appeal, you may have convinced them to join you. In either case, the companion can support you in times of difficulty - primarily in emotionally and mentally challenging situations, but there is nothing better than having someone to hold your hand when a foodborne illness or dehydration has a hold of you.

Since most voluntourists will have the capacity to communicate with the outside world at some point along their journeys, setting up a scheme for connecting with your VolunTourism Buddy will be something you want to plan in advance. (Don't make the mistake of selecting someone who is likely to be unable to communicate with you while you are on your trip.) Letting this individual know what your communications' options are, once you arrive, will be your first priority. From that point, it is up to you to adjust these communications accordingly.

Does your VolunTourism Buddy need to be living? Good question. On a personal note, I will say that my VolunTourism Buddy is my mom. She passed away in 2007, but I take her with me on each of my journeys. She told me prior to her passing that she would 'come to me in the butterflies.' As you might imagine, I have had quite a few conversations with numerous species of butterflies in different lands since that time. Strangely enough, these creatures have a way of helping me process even the most challenging of difficulties - they are, after all, butterflies. So, yes, my answer is yes. A VolunTourism Buddy need not be living nor be human in order to assist you at trying moments during your voluntour.

The Post-Trip Phase - If you have made it through The VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle without a VolunTourism Buddy, then now would be an excellent time to adopt one. This person, unlike the other potential VolunTourism Buddies, however, should be a former voluntourist. Whether you know it or not, you will be speaking a 'different language' when you return from your voluntour. This language will not be readily understood by those who have not previously had such an adventure. Do yourself a huge favor by selecting someone who has voluntoured so you can avoid using additional energy, precious energy that you may not have, to focus on translation. This way you will be able to express yourself 'in the moment' without fear or concern as to whether someone understands what is coming out of your heart and mind via your mouth.

Set Yourself Up For Progress

There has been much debate in the academic literature as to whether volunteering is pro-social behavior, work, or leisure (Chambre' & Einolf 2009). After years of researching voluntourism, I have concluded that the volunteering activities that occur as part of a voluntour are most closely related to, by participants at least, as work. And knowing that the growing majority of potential voluntourists are coming from the professional sector, as our current research is pointing out (roughly 19%, or 1 in 5, self-identify as 'professional/ technical'), treating volunteering as work may assist all of us in addressing some of the challenges that arise. This being said, is there a way to make 'volunteer work' better?

In May 2007, the Harvard Business Review published an excellent article written by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer - - "Inner Work Life: Understanding the Subtext of Business Performace." The authors write:

Your 'inner work life' as a voluntourist will not be as unexamined as Amabile and Kramer describe above because you will have some 'free time' during the Trip Participation Phase of your voluntour that will not be filled with television, email correspondence, social engagement, or otherwise. You will be observing your 'perceptions,' 'emotions,' and 'motivations,' especially at the start as you will feel differing degrees of isolation - this you can count on. You will be wondering if what you are doing is making a difference. And if, in your estimation, it is not, there will be trouble.

Marc A. Musick and John Wilson allude to this type of trouble and offer a suggestion as to how it may be avoided in Volunteers: A Social Profile. The authors quote Jane Eisner from her article "No Paintbrushes, No Paint" (Brookings Review 15:39-41.):

So, the work you do must have relevance, and it must be valued, most especially by you, regardless of the destination in which you find yourself. You must understand why you are doing what you are doing; and if you don't, you better be prepared to ask questions. Your volunteer work must also be well-defined and well-managed so that you can measure your progress. All of these elements contribute to ultimately setting yourself up for progress. Amabile & Stevens write:

You are your own best manager, and you must remember this when you are volunteering five minutes, or fifty, one hundred or even five or ten thousand kilometers from your home. You 'facilitate your own progress' by knowing as much as you can about the project you are supporting, prior to your departure, and then, upon arrival and in the subsequent days, continuing to learn even more about what you are doing and how best to do it in the context of supporting your 'inner volunteer work life'. And finally, you will want to be processing those inner feelings so that you can adjust your outer circumstances to continue your sense of progress. You may need to re-define your goals & objectives to do so; but you already know you are equal to the task, you are, after all, a voluntourist!

Managing VolunTourism Polarities

Three Key Polarities VolunTourists Must Learn To Manage

  • Lack Versus Abundance
  • Volunteerism Versus Tourism
  • Service To Others Versus Service To Self

To suggest that one of these items is more important to your VolunTourism Tool Box than another would defeat the purpose of bringing them to your attention. However, if there is one item on this list that will serve you even beyond your voluntour, then learning to manage polarities is that item.

Nearly two decades ago, Barry Johnson, PhD wrote a book entitled Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. In his Introduction he writes:

Dr. Johnson created an approach called Polarity Management(TM) to address these 'unsolvable problems.' Figure 3 (below) offers a view of his Polarity/Paradox Map(R).

Figure 3: Polarity Map

Dr. Johnson offers two questions that one might ask to determine if s/he is looking at a problem to be solved or a polarity to be managed. The first - "Is the difficulty ongoing?" and the second - "Are there two poles which are interdependent?" He uses breathing as an example of a polarity to be managed. Inhaling or exhaling only is not an option. Breathing is an ongoing 'unsolvable problem' and there must be a balance; clearly, these two 'poles' - inhaling and exhaling - are interdependent.

When it comes to a voluntour, and what you will encounter, particularly during the Trip Participation Phase of your journey, there are numerous VolunTourism Polarities you will want to learn to manage. For this piece, I have selected three for you to consider: 1) Lack versus Abundance, 2) Volunteerism versus Tourism, and 3) Service to Others versus Service to Self.

Lack versus Abundance - Like it or not, there are two sides to every voluntour. The first side is the 'lack' side - what is missing? what is needed? This tends to be the side upon which the entity that coordinates your volunteering activities will focus. Without an awareness of what the community is seeking, i.e. lacking, it is very difficult to identify a service project. Most individuals will focus on this if they are wearing a "volunteer" hat when deciding to take a voluntour. On the other hand, the tourism part of your experience will concentrate on the abundance of the destination - the art, the culture, the history, the geography, and the recreation. You will need to manage the experiences that flow from the paradox of the proximity of these two elements.

"Trail Work in Torres del Paine, Chile" Copyright © Conservation VIP, All Rights Reserved

Volunteerism versus Tourism - What we want to focus on here, as the polarity to manage, is the fact that some individuals will tend to focus on the volunteering element, while others will focus on the touristic elements of a voluntour. This can lead to philosophically heated discussions in some situations. It can also lead to a failure to see the importance of either the social contribution or the economic contribution - both, in my opinion are equally important - and in the context of a given destination, one may be more so than the other. Volunteerism is aligned with social impact. Tourism is aligned with economic impact. Together, however, and when managed properly, a combined socio-economic impact can be generated that is more conscious than either one when taken separately.

Also, you may decide to select a voluntour that supports the economics of a destination, like cleaning the walls of Machu Picchu which will allow it to prosper well into the future for additional travelers to visit and support local communities through their disbursement of funds for food, clothing, accommodations, etc. Thus, your volunteering has an economic outcome. Likewise, your tourism can be directed to support local vendors, by purchasing their locally-produced goods or local families via homestays. This, of course, will have an economic benefit, but it will also provide a social one as families will have the resources to keep their children in school, rather than having them quit early to work and provide income for the family.

Service To Others versus Service To Self - This is a big one. Load up on service to others, and you may find yourself lying flat on your back come day #2 of your journey with a herniated disc. Not good. Indulge in yourself too much, and you will miss opportunities to interact with some incredible people - local residents and your fellow voluntourists. Balance these two by seeing how they flow interdependently, as Johnson suggests, like breathing.

Final Thoughts

If VolunTourism is to have longevity, we must exercise a sincere willingness to nurture VolunTourists throughout the VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle. If we fail to see the relevance of this 'necessity,' we will run into the same issues of "burn-out" and other challenges faced by traditional volunteer placement services. This is something we do not want, especially in the context of travel.

"18 and 85 - - Cleaning Walls At Machu Picchu" Copyright © Conservation VIP, All Rights Reserved

For VolunTourists, you must also do your part. You must prepare yourself with the proper tools and understanding. You must provide feedback, on a daily basis if at all possible, on what you are experiencing and how you are reacting to that experience. Most of all, you must be invested in your experience through your commitment to being involved. If you do so, your experience will serve all who cross your path - before, during, and after your adventure.


Amabile, Teresa M., & Kramer, Steven J. (2007) Inner Work Life: Understanding The Subtext of Business Performance. Harvard Business Review, no.5.

Chambre', Susan M., & Einolf, Christopher J. (2009) Is Volunteering Work, Prosocial Behavior, or Leisure? An Empirical Study. Baruch College Center For Nonprofit Strategy & Management Working Paper Series, 1 - 30.

Johnson, Barry, PhD. (1992) Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, HRD Press, Inc.

Musick, Marc A. & Wilson John. (2008) Volunteers: A Social Profile, Indiana University Press.

Trejos, Nancy (2009) How Can We Help?: On a Volunteer Trip, Good Intentions Can Misfire When Cultures Clash. The Washington Post.com, (accessed 15 September 2010).

Vasquez, Eva (2010) Do Celebs Like Jolie Inspire Voluntourism? CNN.com (accessed 15 September 2010)

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