teaching during a gap year

Volunteer guilt: the symptoms and how to cure it

Let’s be honest. While volunteering overseas is generally considered a worthy way to spend your time, there are plenty of cynics out there – and sometimes those questioning voices are in your own head… Is this project really making a positive difference? Am I properly skilled to do this work? Do people really think I’m just a ‘poverty tourist’? Should I really pay for the privilege of volunteering?

Sounds like a common case of ‘Volunteer’s Guilt’ – but you can overcome it, and still be a responsible and decent traveller! Let’s tackle the issues one at a time…

Is this project really making a positive difference?

Unfortunately, the volunteer travel industry doesn’t currently have a worldwide accreditation scheme which means that among the majority of genuine projects, there are a few bad eggs.  At best, some travel companies may ‘dress up’ overseas trips to undeveloped countries as ‘voluntourism’, getting tourists involved in activities which have little or no positive impact on the local communities or environments they purport to help. At worst, projects may be mismanaged or blatant cons – this is, thankfully, rare.

The cure: Ensure you’re booking with a reputable organisation with plenty of experience in volunteer travel. If a particular organisation is unfamiliar to you, it doesn’t mean it’s dodgy – just ask questions about how long they’ve been working in the area, check if they have links with local groups on-the-ground, and search for peer-to-peer reviews online.

Am I properly skilled to do this work?

Sometimes everyone can suffer from a lack of confidence. You may feel overwhelmed by what’s being asked of you and that more ‘qualified’ volunteers should be involved. But you probably have all the skills you need – quite often that’s as simple as the will to get involved! However, if you feel uncomfortable about any of the tasks asked of you, don’t book the trip. There have been stories of orphanages letting volunteers, unqualified in childcare, to do more than they should (this is an area that’s currently under the spotlight as tour operator ResponsibleTravel.com recently removed orphanage holidays from their site). Ask yourself if you would expect to take on a similar role back home – if you wouldn’t, don’t book it.

The cure: All genuine projects will be up-front with what skills are required. Always ask before you book, and even suggest what other skills you could offer on site.

teaching during a gap yearDo people think I’m a ‘poverty tourist’?

This can be quite a common worry for travellers in undeveloped countries – the thought that they are only there to get a first-hand glimpse into cultures and lives very different to their own, do a bit of ‘work’ to feel good about themselves, and then leave back to go back to their First World comfort without any lasting support given.

The cure: Make sure you’re happy with the level of work you’ll be required to do on your project. Quite simply, the more hours you put in, the bigger the difference you’re making to the local people and environment. And if you’re happy skipping the occasional leisure day, you could even ask if there is an opportunity to do more good work!

Should I really be paying for the privilege of volunteering?

Many people still grapple with the notion of paying for a volunteering holiday: ‘If I’m already volunteering my time, isn’t that enough?’ Most volunteer travel organisers will set a price for your place on the project, alongside the costs for transport and accommodation.

The cure: Volunteering holidays still cost money to run. All reputable operators will be up-front with what these costs are for, and will provide a breakdown if requested. Quite often, a large proportion of these costs will be going straight to the local community involved – to pay for homestays or camping accommodation, food and the services of cooks, cleaners, local guides and project leaders. 

So don’t feel guilty about doing something amazing and worthwhile. As the majority of people don’t even take volunteering holidays, you’re already well-ahead of the pack – that’s nothing to feel guilty about!

Let us know what you think in the comments below…

This blog post originally featured on Frontier’s Gap Year Blog

Published by

Kerry Law

Kerry Law (Founding Editor, Goodtrippers): I'm a PR and writer living in London. Since taking my first trip aged 2yrs (all the way from from NZ to the UK) I've loved travel. As a keen advocate of ecotourism and responsible travel, I decided to start Goodtrippers...

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