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July 2005 - Wisdom & Insight

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Wisdom & Insight
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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.

Wisdom & Insight

This month we will revisit a question – “What research is being conducted in the area of voluntourism?” - from a previous newsletter and introduce Dr. Nancy McGehee as our Coordinator for VolunTourism Study & Research. Nancy will work with colleagues in the industry to provide our readers with discussion of ongoing studies and the latest research in voluntourism. Beginning in the August edition of “The VolunTourist,” we will have a dedicated “VolunTourism Study & Research” section. We are grateful to Nancy and look forward to sharing this information with our readers.

In May, a reader of The VolunTourist wrote in to ask about research in the area of voluntourism. As a professor who studies volunteer tourism as a major part of my research agenda, I was thrilled by the query! The question inspired me: perhaps this newsletter might serve as a great way to pass along findings from current research in voluntourism to the people who need it most. Thus, what I aim to do is to present to readers of The VolunTourist abbreviated, non-academic versions of some of the research that I have conducted over the years, as well as to invite many of my colleagues from around the world to do the same.

The focus of this segment will vary greatly from month to month. It may include discussion on any of the following topics:

  • What components of a voluntourism experience really change a participant once they get back home
  • What voluntourism organizations can do to solidify the voluntourism experience (and increase the likelihood of a repeat experience) after participants return home,
  • An exploration of consumer interest in voluntourism components as add-ons for non-voluntourism experiences, or
  • How to best accommodate VolunTourists with physical or mental challenges, just to name a few examples.


Tuesdays 10am ET/7am PT

I invite your questions and comments about the research that will be presented here, as well as those you may have regarding future research. But I also have questions for YOU: What are some of your most pressing issues in voluntourism? How might research in voluntourism help your organization? I welcome all comments!

For the “inaugural” edition of this segment of the newsletter, I will be discussing one of my favorite projects. I conducted this study with a volunteer tourism organization that focuses on a wide variety of international projects, primarily short-term in nature (around 2 weeks). In order to protect the privacy and confidentiality of my subjects, I will not be sharing the name of the organization with whom I worked – I’ll just call them Green VolunTourism International (GVI).

Utilizing existing literature in social movements as my foundation and starting point, I set out to see if and how participation in a GVI experience would increase volunteers' social movement participation and support for activism. In other words, did participation in a voluntourism experience inspire a person to come home and get more active in local organizations? Did they want to donate more money to those organizations? Become officers? Volunteer more frequently? Were volunteers really changing their social movement activities as a result of the experience? If so, what was it about these experiences that changed people? What components of a voluntourism experience really made the difference?

What I found was pretty interesting. While there were many elements of the GVI experience that I studied (type of voluntourism experience, participant’s past voluntourism activities, age, education, or gender of participant, to name a few), the two that were most important, and most influential on social movement participation once a voluntourist returned home, were what I call network ties established and self-efficacy gained.

How do I define network ties established?

If volunteers found common values and concerns amongst their fellow volunteers, and as a result made real connections in the form of friendships and mentorships that would endure long after the experience, those were measured as strong network ties established. If these network ties were cultivated and established over the course of the voluntourism experience, participants were more likely to change their social movement activities at home than those who did not find this type of connection while volunteering.

How do I define self-efficacy gained?

Self-efficacy gained means that, as a result of a GVI experience, volunteers discovered a newfound ability to overcome obstacles. They were personally empowered and inspired. Without belief in the power that one person has to implement change, it is unlikely that a person would see any benefit in becoming active in social movements. Participants in a GVI experience who gained confidence in their potential to implement change once they returned home, and recognized that one person can make a difference, were more likely to participate in social movements post-trip than those who did not have any increase in self-efficacy.

What does this potentially mean for VolunTourism Operators?

What can you do to make sure that these elements are incorporated into your respective voluntourism experiences?

No doubt many of you are already doing things to help make sure this happens, and can rattle off a long list of what works best for you, so I will include just a few ideas.

In terms of establishing network ties, obtaining as much information about your participants and placing them in groups with common interests and goals is very important. This doesn’t mean that you group people together according to demographics and socio-economics (much of the value of voluntourism comes from being around people with whom you do not normally have the chance to communicate). It just means that you look for additional ways to develop links amongst people who have common concerns and passions. Likewise, make sure that you build in activities and time for participants to interact and get to know each other. Finally, provide venues for communication after the voluntourism experience – either virtually, via an online chat room available only to past participants, or “live” in the form of local events in cities and areas where a critical mass of past voluntourists exists.

In terms of opportunities for gains in self-efficacy, this requires an in-depth understanding of your participants. You want to find ways to push and stretch your participants while not straying too far from their comfort zones. Because of that, each voluntourism group is quite unique and must be evaluated anew. Building challenges into each day, however, is often no problem for most voluntourism organizations: if you are working in a rural or developing region of the world, or participating in relief work, challenges come with the territory!

The results of this study are important in that they highlight two of the most significant elements of the voluntourism experience. To people in the business of voluntourism, this research is also valuable. It provides evidence that, if conducted in a way that assures the development of network ties and providing opportunities for gains in self-efficacy, voluntourism experiences can positively affect their participants’ ideas about, and participation in, social movements once they return home. These findings may be used to point out the far-reaching socio-cultural effects of a voluntourism experience to the various foundations, philanthropic organizations, and others interested in contributing resources to organizations which offer voluntourism products and services.

See you next month!

Nancy McGehee, Ph.D. (Sociology)

Hospitality and Tourism Management

Virginia Tech, Blacksburg VA


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