How to be a useful voluntourist

There are many ways to volunteer badly.

Volunteering your time and skills through a reputable organisation can be very effective – and it doesn’t mean heading to a disaster zone.

Volunteering in foreign countries has become, well … more fashionable. More Australians are engaging in the ‘voluntourism' sector by adding extra days or weeks to their holidays so they can building houses in remote villages or working in orphanages as a way of seeking personal fulfilment. There are, however, more sustainable and community-focused options available.

This year, the government-based program Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) expects to have around 1400 volunteers working overseas across more than 40 countries.

Selected through a competitive, merit-based recruitment process, they will receive allowances for accommodation, transport and a modest lifestyle and, through Australian Volunteers International and Scope Global, will be placed in developing countries for an average of 12 months.

However, with more widespread media coverage of global crises, the number of people volunteering through independent companies or organisations such as UK-headquartered Projects Abroad is increasing.

Projects Abroad operates multiple volunteering campaigns in various parts of Asia, like The Philippines.

Projects Abroad operates multiple volunteering campaigns in various parts of Asia, like the Philippines.

“What is clear is the different ways people volunteer in 2015 compared to even 10 years ago,” says Brett Williams, chief executive of Volunteering Australia, an organisation that monitors volunteer efforts.


“We are witnessing significant growth in voluntourism.”

Projects Abroad’s Australia and New Zealand manager, Will Pashley, says: “I think volunteering as a way of travelling is getting more popular mainly because there is a momentum behind it.

It is easier to do than in the past and, as more people do it, more people know someone who has done it and this inspires them.”


Micro-finance placements

Projects Abroad has been in operation for 23 years and has offices in 29 countries. Working with support teams, its volunteers contribute in areas ranging from childcare and conservation to human rights.

For those with a business background, Projects Abroad’s voluntary micro-finance placements, from Senegal on Africa’s west coast to Tanzania in the east, offer business planning, lessons in bookkeeping and marketing, and mentoring and review sessions.

Unlike AVID, volunteers through private organisations pay for their transport, accommodation and other costs.

Related: One CPA gives as much as she receives at a local NFP

However, Pashley says the onus should be on the company to make all arrangements such as accommodation, insurance, food, transportation and even equipment, and adds that volunteers need to make sure they go through an organisation whose dealings are “transparent and legitimate”.

While the internet will throw up many possibilities of how to spend your time and money volunteering, Australian Red Cross, previously in partnership with the AVID program, will soon integrate international volunteering with the rest of its humanitarian and development work in partnership with the government.

The change has resulted from a budget cut to AVID, from A$56.6 million to A$39.6 million.

World Youth International, one of Australia’s leading not-for-profit international development organisations, helps bring together a range of volunteer opportunities for thousands of Australians of all ages in Kenya, Nepal and Peru.

There has been a surge of volunteers rushing to Nepal in the wake of the catastrophic 2015 earthquake.

There has been a surge of volunteers rushing to Nepal in the wake of the catastrophic 2015 earthquake.

Another positive example is Habitat for Humanity, whose volunteers have built or repaired more than 800,000 homes across the globe.

A special set of skills

For those with a financial skill set, Accounting for International Development (AfID), is a multi-award-winning social enterprise, building long-term financial sustainability in charities and community organisations across the developing world.


For AfID volunteer Jim Lowe CPA, 72, it was the ideal way to combine his skills with his interest in international travel and the healthcare sector.When he was offered a four-week assignment at a Kenyan hospital run by AfID’s partner organisation, AIC International, he was more than keen.


“The hospital provides care to children with disabilities and their carers living in poor rural areas of Kenya, who often find it difficult to access relevant care,” Lowe explains.


During his time there, Lowe worked with staff to develop their financial procedures and devised a strategy to expand and find new sources of income, including donors and private clients.

Of course, being a CPA doesn’t mean you can’t diversify – climbing ladders and using power tools in the tropical heat of an East Timorese village was a huge leap outside Chris Kendrick FCPA’s comfort zone.

She says the first fortnight she spent there in 2012 transformed her life and allowed her, as part of a group of 25 volunteers, to build a community disability centre at the coastal village of Hera, a 40-minute drive from Dili.

Alice Springs-based Kendrick travelled to East Timor with Yooralla Youth Ministries Australia, a Christian charity that works to help Timorese and Australian young people transform their lives.

Every little bit counts

Like Jim Lowe and Chris Kendrick, be assured that if you do volunteer your time and skills, it has a high chance of being effective.

A survey by independent, non-profit organisation Australian Volunteers International (AVI) analysing 10 years’ data from its volunteers, host organisations and not-for-profit organisations found more than 70 per cent of volunteer placements were classified by host organisations as “high performing”.

While volunteers were responsible for a number of tangible improvements in organisational capacity – from introducing financial reporting systems to redesigning training curricula – what stood out were changes in the behaviour and attitude of staff as a result of their interaction with volunteers. 

Microfinance has become increasingly popular in Tanzania.

Microfinance has become increasingly popular in Tanzania.

These changes included increased self-confidence, greater cross-cultural understanding and enhanced skills.

“International volunteering has become a sizeable contributor to the field of (community) development,” confirms AVI acting communications manager Jane MacDonald.

Time or money?

“We appreciate the concern and commitment that so many people show in seeking opportunities to help in humanitarian crises, and the willingness to endure difficult conditions in order to provide assistance,” says AVI’s Jane MacDonald. 

“But, in nearly every emergency, there are large numbers of local people ready and able to do all the non-specialist work that needs doing – clearing rubble, providing first aid, distributing relief supplies, and so on.”

Disaster locations quickly get crowded and chaotic, she adds, with large numbers of relief agencies creating an extra strain on transport, accommodation and supplies of food and drinking water. 

“For this reason, most relief agencies will limit the personnel they bring in to the minimum necessary, and otherwise seek to work through local government and national disaster relief bodies.”

Read next: Accounting and finance skills tick all the boxes for this volunteer in Cambodia.

AVI suggests that, in the midst of a crisis, people give money.

Projects Abroad’s Will Pashley says: “From our perspective we feel we have local commitments and we want to do what we can to help, for example, by rebuilding a school. 

We don’t consider ourselves experts in disaster recovery; this is specialist work and we aren’t specialists, so we steer clear of places where the really heavy and hard work is going on, such as the centre of Kathmandu post-earthquake.

“However, as with the Philippines after the typhoon nearly two years ago, we can be very useful on the margins of the devastation and push forward projects that otherwise would not be happening.

“The money the volunteers pay goes into the rebuilding and so we inject resources and labour. This also employs plenty of local people, putting money into the local economy, going to brick merchants and samosa vendors alike.”

Click here to see learn more information about how you may want to go about choosing a volunteering agency.

To read more about Australian Volunteers International's framework for international volunteering and development, click here

For help in finding reputable opportunities for overseas volunteering, see

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) is the independent national regulator of charities, including those working overseas under the Overseas Aid Gift Deduction Scheme.

Read next: An accountant swaps her calculator for a drill in East Timor

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