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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 9 Issue 1 Highlights

 
Lake Atitlan

Study and Research

VOLUNTEER TOURISM AS A HYBRID OF COMMERCIALIZATION & SERVICE: BEAUTY OR THE BEAST?

Konstantinos Tomazos, PhD
Department of Management
University of Strathclyde, UK
k.tomazos@strath.ac.uk

William Cooper, PhD
billy.c.cooper@strath.ac.uk

For this issue of the research forum section of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we are pleased to share highlights from a recent article published by the authors, both faculty at the University of Strathclyde in the UK, in Current Issues in Tourism, 15 (5) (2012), 405-423. This study provides a snapshot of the volunteer tourism market and its current ethos. Findings suggest that facilitators face a dilemma in terms of the degree to which they should embrace commercialization. At the same time, findings suggest that the lack of an international regulatory body leaves good practice open to interpretation and this has resulted into inconsistencies and discrepancies which may prove harmful to the sector.

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INTRODUCTION

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At the time of writing many tour-operators, environmental and humanitarian NGOs and academic groups make money offering opportunities to participate in projects that can assist in community development, scientific research or ecological and cultural restoration (Wearing, 2004; Wight, 2003). This monetary exchange for doing good poses several philosophical and ethical questions. Are the organisations unethical by making money from arrangements for people to go and provide assistance for a worthwhile cause? Is it just a case of ‘enlightened self-interest’? The reciprocal nature of the volunteer tourist experience and the dynamics of service and instrumentalism as incorporated in the ethos of volunteer tourism would clearly suggest that this is the case, but it must not be overlooked that it all hinges on the value of the organisations’ input and the price charged for their services. A simplistic view would be to say that monetary gain is inappropriate in the world of benevolent intentions. However, while there may be a mission to serve a cause, the organisation involved in undertaking the stated mission may be argued to have a financial bottom line which has to be protected. What makes volunteer tourist organizations unique is the fact that while they meet a supply based demand for assistance, they also simultaneously satisfy a segment of tourist demand as well which leads to more profit driven practices and increasing commercialization. These organizations supervise and train volunteers, allowing them to serve in a structured way and ensuring the safety and value of the experience. The volunteers on their side must pay for all their expenses, travel, board, and lodging and in many cases also give a contribution. These donations are always tax deductible, further facilitating the act of giving. Some larger organizations have balances that are certified by auditing firms and they are available for examination in terms of establishing the destination of monetary contributions. Yet this is relatively rare and in most cases, it is not clear where or how the participants’ fee is distributed (Tomazos and Butler, 2009). What is evidently clear though is that projects, especially in developing countries, need a considerable amount of help in view of the very scarce resources to which they have access. The input of these organizations, commercial or non-profit, could be perceived as valuable.

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At the time of writing, the volunteer tourism sector is in general unregulated. The only quality control mechanism currently available is the International Volunteering Program Association (IVPA) which is a membership body that provides a code of best practice, but has no power of enforcement (Tomazos and Butler, 2009). The IVPA highlights the importance of creation of public good by the organisations and their output and they have highlighted three elements of good practice; service, sensitivity and involvement (Tomazos, 2009: 107). Given the proliferation and rapid expansion of the phenomenon, it is not clear how the above is applied across the spectrum of volunteer tourism activities. What is clear is that volunteer tourism organizations, brokers, or facilitators are under pressure to deliver on two fronts: their bottom line demands as well as the provision of meaningful service.

This article raises highlights different practices in terms of disclosing how contributions and fees are being divided between the broker organisations and the projects they serve. We used qualitative content analysis and a coding system was developed to enable comparison across different organisations. The 40 organisations selected were examined in relation to key areas of interest based on the International Volunteer Programme Association (IVPA) criteria of ethical practice. The areas of interest for this research were: declared status, pricing policy, diversification (extras), screening of volunteers and involvement of locals (employment). Due to obvious cost reasons the authors were not able to personally visit every project or organisation discussed in this paper. Instead they had to trust what the organisations declare on their websites.

STUDY OBSERVATIONS AND DISCUSSION

Declared Status

What emerged from the study was that the market is characterized by inconsistency in terms of structure, commitment and mission. Non-profit status means that any donations towards their projects are in general tax deductible for the donor. This may include both participation and travel costs. Charities also hold a similar status with the added benefit that they can count on the support of national or international organizations.  The brand and image value of being a non-profit or charitable organization is considerable. Organizations that are not recognized as such seem anxious to explain why they are making profits and why people should still choose them as their volunteer tourism provider. The general claim is that they only make an operating profit, which they argue enables them to continue the work they do. They further argue that they have a duty towards the projects they support, but also towards themselves and their families who must be supported through their salaries and wages. Other organizations refrain from declaring any status and thus do not have to explain or justify anything. However, all types of organizations claim to take the necessary steps to price their products and conduct their business ethically.

Commercialization

The findings of this study have shown that volunteer organizations find themselves facing a dilemma as to which should be the way forward. Do they compromise and accept that it is enough to be self-sustaining and happy to channel any modest profits back into their mission, or do they choose to seek opportunities of becoming commercially viable and thus tap into mainstream markets. Both approaches have their merits but also their drawbacks. On the one hand, the first approach fits the initial ethos and spirit of volunteer tourism, yet it means that the input of the organisation will always remain small, fragmented and capped by the restraints of limited resources. On the other hand, the second approach carries the promise of enhanced resources to serve the mission and create opportunities, provided that the organisation stays true to its non- profit mission. Evidence suggests that the choice between the two is not always straightforward.

In terms of pricing, proliferation and variety are again apparent, with different organizations adopting different pricing strategies. Starting with the cheapest projects, only one of the forty organizations examined offered volunteer projects for the price of a one-off application/membership fee. This fee was around $500 US and it provided the opportunity to customers to choose another project without charge, as long as they wished to travel within the same year. There was also one organization that offered volunteer opportunities in return for a $1,500 US deposit which participants could collect after completing their volunteer efforts. Three organizations refrained from disclosing any details about their volunteer opportunities. Instead they offered guidebooks for sale at prices ranging from $30 to $75 US. The vast majority of organizations, 25 out of 40, provided volunteer opportunities at a fixed rate with an all-inclusive packaged deal format. The fee in general included project fee, volunteer coordination, accommodation, and administration expenses. These fees range from $300 to $ 1,000 US per week depending on destination, project, and of course, the type of accommodation. Some organizations also offer extras which vary from short excursions and city tours to safari experiences. A recent development in the field is the option of obtaining academic credit from mainly US academic institutions. The cost of such an optional extra varies from organization to organization and university to university. It becomes apparent that the theme of ambiguity, uncertainty and proliferation exists in the pricing and packaging of most volunteer organizations. This may have certain implications in terms of the impact and contribution of the organizations to the destinations utilised.

Rapid Expansion

Not all countries in the world feature as volunteer tourist destinations. It is argued that the locations offered perhaps reflect a number of considerations of suppliers, including cost, appeal (as tourist destination) and need for assistance. Nevertheless, the sector has experienced a boom recently in the number of projects offered to volunteer tourists, which was estimated at 868 per cent increase in the last eight years.

Input and Impact

Such variation in the market, in terms of size, ethos, and business conduct, raises questions in relation to the value and utility of volunteer projects. Most organizations do their best to portray themselves as ethical improvers of communities and environments, but the proliferation of approaches and ambiguity, plus the lack of control surrounding volunteer tourism, leaves the door open for opportunists. There are some organizations that appear to have a clear mission and philosophy to international volunteering and their commitment to their projects and their impact are underlined by the fact that their efforts are part of longer term programmes which may last up to five years. This commitment to projects does not seem to affect prices, since the organisation is able to offer projects for the relatively low price of $125 US per week (excluding flights). In general, organizations with clearly stated practices seem to put an emphasis on building their volunteering experiences upon the four elements of good volunteer organization practice as prescribed by the IVPA code of ethics (ivpa.org): sensitivity, service, involvement, and long term viability. Sensitivity implies that organizations encourage their volunteers to be culturally sensitive and learn from their experience creating understanding and tolerance for other people and cultures. Volunteers generally need to undergo training in order to be sensitive and good volunteers. The study show a general lack of mandatory training which may reflect the simplicity of most volunteer project tasks, or it might also suggest avoidance of potentially costly practices by the organisations. This could have serious implication in relation to the impact of the projects but also the motivation of the volunteers in terms of how seriously they are taking their participation (Tomazos and Butler, 2012).

Profit Distribution

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There is a certain hesitation about providing direct monetary support to communities or projects which might stem from a perceived discomfort related to former colonial stereotyping.  Volunteer tourism organizations generally profess a non-hand-out-policy because, as they describe in on their websites, they aim to create self-sufficient and sustainable projects in communities in need. They argue that direct financial contributions can have a destabilising effect on the development and spirit of communities. They continue with their argument that in case their involvement ceases then a once relied on source of income is instantly removed and some of the projects would collapse. Of course it is not known if the effect of such projects is always beneficial for the host communities and in many cases it is not clear if help is really needed (Tomazos & Butler, 2009). It is not very clear to which extent the projects are ‘rewarded’ for taking on volunteers, but stories are surfacing of projects taking on volunteers in order to receive payments, even though they had no need for their labour (The Times, 2011). This arguably causes resentment and ill feelings amongst the locals who find it impossible to compete with the volunteers in the labour market (Tomazos and Butler, 2012). This raises the alarm because, in theory, the need for their involvement could be simulated and thus they could be exploiting the participants.

Creation of Social Capital

In terms of the creation of social capital (defined as the creation of the circumstances for groups and organisations to work together and serve a common purpose), volunteer tourist organisations bring together societal groups and people from different countries in order to improve the lives of people they would otherwise could not have impacted (Zahra and McGehee, 2013). In addition, many organizations strive to keep their participants active and in touch after their return. Most encourage strong alumni networking and make full use of social networking websites as Facebook or Bebo. They arrange reunions and their offices help past volunteers get in touch with each other. In terms of future employment, references may be provided to prospective employers and university tutors. Organizations generally also tend to improve their ‘product’ through feedback and constructive criticism of former participants.

FINAL REMARKS

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The findings of this study have shown that volunteer organizations find themselves facing a dilemma as to which should be the way forward. Do they compromise and accept that it is enough to be self-sustaining and happy to channel any modest profits back into their mission, or do they choose to seek opportunities of becoming commercially viable and thus tap into mainstream markets. Both approaches have their merits but also their drawbacks. On the one hand, the first approach fits the initial ethos and spirit of volunteer tourism, yet it means that the input of the organisation will always remain small, fragmented and capped by the restraints of limited resources. On the other hand, the second approach carries the promise of enhanced resources to serve the mission and create opportunities, provided that the organisation stays true to its non- profit mission. Evidence suggests that the choice between the two is not always straightforward.

Having said that, it must be noted that there are examples of organisations which sit at each of the extreme ends of this spectrum of commercialisation and service.  At the one end there are organisations that market themselves as ethical tour operators, registered as limited companies, while at the other end sit organisations which make no demands on the participants and they take upon themselves to cover all costs, focusing on their service mission. In general, such organisations have a religious remit and they may receive funding from other external sources. As it stands currently volunteer tourism appears to be just like any other economic activity, dependent on the availability of resources which in this case are predominantly supplied by the participants and the reality is that organisations have to compete for these. This fact could prove to be very positive for the ethos of the sector. The positioning of organisations on the spectrum of commercialisation and service is likely to affect their efforts to attract the trend of an increasingly informed and sophisticated volunteer tourism customer base that are prepared to part with their money and offer their services, if they see that their efforts are making a difference. Yet what must not be overlooked is the fact that profit making practices that value profits over all things are threatening to take over every aspect of human endeavour (Capra, 2002) and undermine the ethos of social, cultural, environmental and humanitarian initiatives around the globe (Chomsky, 1999). Yes, such approaches create extra capital and supply extra resources, which if properly used, can make a difference. But by doing so, is volunteer tourism selling its soul for market share? The rapid expansion of the sector stands witness on the effectiveness of applying market techniques to volunteer tourism, and the ambiguity, and inconsistency in terms of practices stands as a reminder of what happens to values or good intentions, once they are given an ‘exchange value’. Future research will show, if volunteer tourism, not unlike Faust, has made the wrong bargain.

References

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Anon. (2011, April 23). Gap-year volunteers are charged thousands for pointless projects, The Times, pp. 61-62.

Capra, F. (2003). The hidden connections: A science for sustainable living: HarperPerennial.

Chomsky, N. (1999). Profit over people: neoliberalism and global order: Seven Stories Press.

Tomazos, K. (2009). Volunteer tourism, an ambiguous phenomenon: An analysis of the demand and supply for the volunteer tourism market. (PhD PhD), University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

Tomazos, K., & Butler, R. (2009). Volunteer tourism: The new ecotourism? Anatolia: An international journal of tourism and hospitality research, 1(20), 196-212.

Tomazos, K., & Butler, R. (2012). Volunteer tourists in the field: A question of balance? Tourism Management, 33(1), 177-187. doi: 10.1016/j.tourman.2011.02.020

Wearing, S. (2004). Examining best practice in volunteer tourism. Volunteering as leisure/leisure as volunteering: An international assessment, 209-224.

Wight, P. (2003). Ecotourism:Ethics or eco-sell? Journal of Travel Research, 31(3), 3-9.

Zahra, A. and McGehee, N.G. (2013).”Host perceptions of volunteer tourism: A community capital perspective.” Annals of Tourism Research. 42:22-45.

 We hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum!  If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to The Voluntourist Newsletter or e-mail Konstantinos k.tomazos@strath.ac.uk

See you next issue!

Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
Blacksburg VA
nmcgehee@vt.edu

For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum>>>


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