Volunteer Vacation or Vacation Scam?
August 23, 2014 8:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to spend 2-3 weeks on a volunteer vacation with animals somewhere in the world this coming year. Help make the most of my time and select the right program!

I'm leaning a towards something in South Africa (due to the quantity of animal sanctuaries) but have gotten a bit overwhelmed with all the options and the fear that these types of programs are fraught with issues.

Some specific questions:

1) I want to really be engaged with the local environment/animals/people. I'm concerned that these types of programs marginalize volunteers in a way that they end up not really having an impact. Is this something to be concerned about?

2) I'm also concerned that some of these programs are actually set up to look like volunteer programs but are actually just tourist attractions making people feel better about their consumerism.

Do you have a personal experience to share? A company you'd like to recommend?
posted by shew to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In most cases, animal sanctuaries in the developing world would benefit much more from just having access to the money you are spending and using it to hire local people to be trained and permanently do a job excellently that you'd waste a lot of resources training and re-training short-term volunteers to do. Unless you have a specialized skill (veterinarian, for example, or previous experience as an exotic animal caregiver), you're not really going to be providing much for the sanctuary over a 2-3 week period of time. Most programs where this isn't an issue want people to work for a minimum of a few months (for example).

I would recommend going with a program like Earthwatch for your short term volunteering. What is nice about Earthwatch is that the whole infrastructure is set up for you to be doing something useful to science and conservation that can involve working with animals for a 2 week period. Here is a list of their expeditions based around wildlife. I had a great experience volunteering with signing chimps on an Earthwatch program; I have a friend who had a LOT of monkey poop collected by a brigade of Earthwatchers on the Kenyan coast - there;s a bunch of neat opportunities.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:19 PM on August 23, 2014 [15 favorites]

If you're willing to get off the beaten track, I'd highly recommend checking out Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage. They do great work, and offer the possibility of spending time with chimps who are being reintegrated into their natural environment.
posted by alms at 8:46 PM on August 23, 2014


Elephant sanctuary in Thailand. You pay and volunteer.
posted by Sylvia Plath's terrible fish at 9:44 PM on August 23, 2014

Think about it logically: Respectable organizations really aren't going to want a quickly rotating group of untrained, unvetted (no pun intended) people having major influence over policy or unlimited access to vulnerable animals.
posted by jaguar at 9:47 PM on August 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

I can't tell from the question if you're only interested in animal sanctuaries or if you're looking for any opportunity to volunteer working with animals, but if it's the latter, you might want to look in to WWOOF opportunities. WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is an organization lists opportunities for volunteers to live and work on eco-friendly farms in exchange for room and board. Farms exist all over the world. No money (other than a small membership fee to the country's WWOOF organization, usually around $30 for a list of farms) is exchanged and the farms I stayed at in Turkey, France, and Japan were definitely not "touristy." I learned a lot about the culture of the places I was staying and the local environment (farmers know the land and climate like no one else!) Plus I really grew to enjoy hanging out with goats and cows all day. The food was always awesome too.

I spent a few days at the Elephant Nature Park linked above. It was a cool place and they're doing good work but it's definitely more of a "tourist resort with elephant activities" kind of thing. "Volunteers" are mostly helping by paying to stay there, the work they do doesn't involve real responsibility or skill.
posted by horizons at 10:21 PM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you reframe this as a way to examine up close the work a sanctuary is doing so you can go home and advocate and support their work financially in the long term, you have more options. There's very little a drop-in volunteer without niche skills can do short term that can't be done cheaper and better by staff or local volunteers. But you could use this as the start of a mutually rewarding relationship, if you plan long term.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:38 PM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

1) I want to really be engaged with the local environment/animals/people. I'm concerned that these types of programs marginalize volunteers in a way that they end up not really having an impact. Is this something to be concerned about?

Sorry to break this to you, dude, but "volunteers not having an impact" is viewed - rightly - by many orgs that do this as a success. Because the only impact tourist volunteers can often have is a negative one, either through their direct activities, or how those activities displace locals and local jobs that could perform the same things, better.

2) I'm also concerned that some of these programs are actually set up to look like volunteer programs but are actually just tourist attractions making people feel better about their consumerism.

Make no mistake: What you are considering doing is consumerism, and I am sorry; they are almost all like this. Or rather, they exist as a complicated money transfer scheme to compel rich westerners to donate large amounts of money to often-good causes that they otherwise wouldn't. I mean, think about it for a second. Barring a very specific skillset like being a doctor for example - what skills could you possibly bring over a two week period, that would not be available for far less expense with more expertise and long-term investment locally? There is almost nothing.

What you do have that locals don't have, is money. And lots of it. If aid orgs need to put you up in a dorm and get you to count some elephants or whatever for a couple of weeks to get a few thousand bucks out of you, goddamn yes they will do it, and do it in a heartbeat. The amount of money they will get from you generally far outstrips the minor expenses involved with hosting you, giving you an emotional stake in the project and a sense that you are doing something. And if, somehow, you manage to add a small value to some kind of aid project that goes beyond the glorious piles of your money that enables them to keep running, and the PR you will do for them back home, that is a great, added, bonus. But it is just a bonus. International aid orgs that are really working to make a difference want to avoid, wherever possible relying on Western tourists' work. That is a risky thing to rely on.

This probably sounds like I'm ragging on voluntourism - I'm not, honestly. I've done it myself, will probably do it in the future, and think it a fine and worthy thing.

But. But I don't think you should be too fussy about ensuring it's "real" and that you "get to make a difference" etc. The money you donate or pay for the experience will make more difference than your two weeks feeding lions or whatever, will make more difference than actual work could ever possibly hope to make. We're talking about developing countries, here: work is cheap; money is hard to come by.

Which is why I recommend you reframe your question about what the right voluntourism for you is, to more general questions that we should ask before donating decent amounts of money to any aid organisation - because that is really what you're doing and it's good not to lose sight of that.

There are lots of questions you can and should ask - definitely read an annual report before locking in your choice.

Here's a list of five questions you should consider from Charity Navigator.

Here's another good one from United Way

And another good one from some random Catholic Florida Charity thing

So to sum up:

1. The biggest impact you can make is with your money. It's the one thing you have that they don't have enough of in developing countries/area.

2. Your money is not just your biggest impact, but a great, super-positive impact that can make a difference months and years after you are gone. Charities need money much more than unskilled labour.

3. If you are giving a large amount of money to a charity, investigate it, and make sure your money is going to be spend appropriately, strategically, and ethically. If you can't read an annual report, don't spend money with them. If you don't like what you see in the annual report, don't give them your money. If there are going to be a hundred middlemen taking a cut of the money before it gets to your charity, try to find a better way to give them that cash (This is a real issue with voluntourism).

4. Don't feel compelled to get all hair-shirt about the experience. Your money is making the biggest difference, not the time you spend mopping the floor. Do something that you like the sound of, that resonates with you, that sounds enjoyable. Don't just pick something because it sounds unpleasant or hard or 'more genuine'.

5. Think about how you can engage with your chosen organisation over the longer term, not just on this trip but in years to come, if you believe in their vision and make a good connection while over there.

Have a great trip, it will be really fun and I'm sure you will get a lot out of it, whatever you choose.
posted by smoke at 10:45 PM on August 23, 2014 [36 favorites]

Your first issue is a feature, not a bug for these programmes. Yes, you want to be engaged but imagine how exhausting it is for the local community to have to politely deal with the same questions and idealistic notions about 'impact' from a constantly changing cavalcade of outsiders. Hosting volunteers is a burden that needs to be contained where possible. Only go if you believe in the cause and can work within those necessary constraints.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:10 AM on August 24, 2014

This is an interesting essay that you might want to read:

"The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist"
posted by alex1965 at 4:11 AM on August 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Hmm, that... Is not a very nuanced or educated take on it. Voluntourism is a complex thing. Here is a better take that features a lot of academics talking about the challenges, failures and successes.

Here is another, shorter piece from an academic on the topic.

And here is a more critical one from an aid worker.

More broadly, if you are interested in this stuff, subscribe to vt newsletter. It is generally pro voluntourism, but with open eyes.

You can see from the links above, all written by experts and people academically researching the sector, that this is a very hot topic and there are absolutely no black or white answers. That's the thing about aid in general, in my opinion. People are always looking for rules or bromides to apply to every situation. My limited education and experience, and long interest in the sector leads me to believe that each charity, program, outcome, opportunity etc needs to be assessed in its own, unique, context.

When people try to skip that time consuming and difficult process, is when you start to see bad outcomes. The first stage of volunteering/giving is important, and you can make a big difference before you have left the house or engaged with any aid org.
posted by smoke at 5:02 AM on August 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I volunteered at a animal rescue place in Bolivia called inti wari yasi. There are three sites, you pay a pretty reasonable amount and live in. It is mostly cleaning animal cages and chopping up veggies, which is as it should be I think, as I am not a professional. You are assigned one group of animals and then you stay with them the entire time-you don't really get to interact or sometimes even see the other types of animals. There are lots of Bolivian staff, and a nice mix of Bolivian and foreign volunteers. Speaking Spanish is definitely useful but there were folks there who didn't. Most of the staff speaks at least some English.

Are you super useful? I don't know. You're doing grunt work and they have to have a lot of hands to do that. i don't think their model would work without the time and money of volunteers, but it's debatable whether it's a good model. You're definitely paying for an experience to some extent, but i agree that that is unavoidable and not necessarily bad. Anyway, check it out, feel free to memail me with questions about it.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:52 AM on August 24, 2014

From reading the greyhound message board Greytalk it sounds like people have had good experiences at galgo rescues in Spain. I think it's mostly cleaning and feeding labor they otherwise need local volunteers to do, so it's not taking paid employment from anyone. They also need people who can add dogs to their plane tickets, because that's the best way to get dogs to places they have a better chance of finding homes.
posted by sepviva at 9:03 AM on August 24, 2014

but are actually just tourist attractions making people feel better about their consumerism

A lot of tourist attractions put food on the table of local human beings. If anything, your tourist dollar would be best spent at a place that is most transparent about using it to hire/train/educate locals to create long-term careers for them rather than low-level volunteer opportunities for you. You can still take part in whatever educational or entertainment programming they provide (presuming it's not exploitative) and learn something and meet people.

At the heart of it, you want to touch the animals, but they don't need to be touched except periodically by trained professionals.

But for you biggest experience-the-community bang for buck, you'd probably be better off doing some kind of educational tourism for humans.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:40 AM on August 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm going to rain on the cynicism parade a little bit.

When I spent a day at Chimfunshi I didn't qualify as a volunteer, but I did spend time with a volunteer. She was very definitely helping take care of the chimps, at least the younger ones.

Now, Chimfunshi may be an exception. It is very remote and very much a labor of love for its founders David and Sheila Siddle, run on a shoestring. But it also does great work, recovering trafficked chimps and helping restore them to a semblance of normal chimp life. And at least back when I visited, volunteers were welcome and they really did help out. So such situations do exist.
posted by alms at 6:47 PM on August 27, 2014

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