Please Don’t Volunteer Abroad for Your Gap Year


Voluntourism is the fastest growing part of the travel industry, especially for students. The concept of volunteering and service is noble. We want to give of our time, energy, and sweat to improve the lives of others. In theory, it provides an opportunity to get to know people and cultures through an exchange based around our generosity. It is often billed as the socially responsible way to travel, and it is a key offering of many gap year programs.

But, in recent years, voluntourism has come under attack. Leila de Bruyne’s 2012 Huffington Post article went viral, forcing many — including gap year students — to question the impact of volunteering abroad. Experts in international development and social impact have pushed back on the assumption that volunteers who are often young, lacking expertise, and have no understanding of local cultures can meet even the most basic of needs without causing harm. If your goals are to live in a community, experience meaningful learning and cultural exchange, and be socially responsible, there is a far better way than voluntourism. Below is a guide to help you identify gap year abroad opportunities that will offer great learning without causing harm.

Why Gap Year Volunteering Doesn’t Work

The problems with voluntourism become clear when we ask ourselves two questions:

  • What skills and expertise can I bring that are not already present in the community? — At any age, it is important to consider the limitations of our skills and abilities. Gap year students don’t yet have meaningful training in medicine, teaching, or even manual labor. Problems or needs that may seem simple — like the lack of a well to provide clean water — can be quite complex. While digging a well may require just a few shovels and a day or two of work, the politics and power related to who will control the well and water as a critical resource are often the reason why no well exists in the first place. By attempting to meet a local need with sub-standard work or without an understanding of the broader political, economic, and cultural context of the community, we run the risk of creating problems rather than making contributions.
  • Is the outcome of volunteering something done for or to the host community? —  What one perceives as a need in someone else’s community may not actually be needed or even wanted. It is rare in the voluntourism industry to find projects initiated by a community seeking foreign volunteers. Far more often, a company approaches a community and offers to bring volunteers to paint a school, teach English, or engage in an environmental project. In a majority of cultures around the world, turning away a gift like this when it is offered is rude, even if it is something that you don’t want to accept. While we want to do something for the community, we end up doing something to the community.

Even with all of the best of intentions, voluntourism runs the serious risk of doing harm to the communities we hoped to help. But, fear not! There is another way.

Focus on Learning

“I want to question and investigate and prod into what I don’t understand. And through this questioning, improve my understanding, and my opinion before I can affect any sort of change.” – Haley M, TBB ‘14 Alum

Gap Year Volunteer Learning

If you really want your contributions to be meaningful, you need to begin by understanding the kinds of critical issues communities face. Find opportunities that let you work and learn alongside local experts to gain insight, especially if you decide to do an academic gap year service program abroad. Find resources — books or online — and brush up on your knowledge of the root causes of these issues. Let your presence be focused on learning in the field and building knowledge. It is only by improving your understanding that you can develop real solutions. After all, if the solutions to the challenges a community faces could be fixed by simply picking up a shovel, someone would have already done it.

Learn with humility

“I feel that it humbled me about how little I knew about the world and assumptions that I had made that didn’t end up being true.”- Andrew K, TBB ‘12 Alum

It takes humility to admit you don’t know the answers and be curious enough to ask. You must assume that others, no matter how “poor” or “in need” they may seem, have endless amounts of knowledge and wisdom to share. When you recognize this, you are on our way to being able to doing something with other communities rather than to them. This makes it possible to truly learn and develop your understanding of communities and issues. Bringing this perspective to your learning will also enhance your critical thinking and problem solving skills for college. Here’s a great guide to prepare to approach communities and your learning in this way.

Keep an eye on the big picture

“I’ve learned what is a more effective way of affecting change in the world… by learning what isn’t.” –Lauren B, TBB ‘14 Alum

Gap Year Volunteering Students in EcuadorAs a visitor to a community, sometimes you will do meaningful work, and sometimes you won’t. When you do realize that your efforts aren’t effective, take a step back to see if there other ways that you can contribute. Service should be about learning about the issue and supporting the host community, and not making you feel good. In addition, always follow the mantra of “first do no harm.” Just because you are in a community doesn’t mean you have to be contributing if that work is actually doing harm. Keep investing in learning in the field and broadening your knowledge of community issues. It will prepare you to start college in search of the knowledge that will help you create meaningful solutions to these issues.

Work with programs that share these values

Many gap year programs offer service opportunities. As you research your choices and make your plans, be sure to check that the gap year volunteer program is aware of the issues above and is designed to create an impactful experience for you.

Robin Pendoley Thinking Beyond Borders CEO

Thinking Beyond Borders has developed a model of partnering with organizations abroad to provide service learning opportunities for our gap year programs (at right is a clip of TBB Founder & CEO Robin Pendoley describing our partnerships during a recent presentation at Middlebury College). TBB recognizes that our students will only solve these global issues if they learn about the details and complexities during their gap year and college, then commit their careers to applying that expertise. We approach organizations seeking partners that want to share their local expertise on critical global issues with students who are passionate about learning and finding solutions. Rather than create a project for TBB students, our partners invite them to shadow and work alongside their expert staff in the field. Each day in the field includes an opportunity for TBB gap year students to do meaningful work, allowing them to learn through direct experience. Our students do make contributions, but the focus is on the learning in the field that will prepare them to start college in search of the knowledge that will help them innovate solutions.

Travel. Learn. Engage with the world. Seek solutions. But, we have to do these things with humility. We have to assume that others, no matter how “poor” or “in need” they may seem, have endless amounts of knowledge and wisdom to share. When we recognize this, we are on our way to being able to doing something with other communities rather than to them.

8 Comments to “ Please Don’t Volunteer Abroad for Your Gap Year”

  1. Absolutely! This is key to doing any good, in one’s own country or abroad. Humility and the understanding that people know much more about their needs than others ever will. And it should be noted that people in other countries do ask for young people’s help, despite their lack of experience. I’ve found that one thing that is most helpful is solidarity with them, young people throughout the world.

  2. […] But, we have to do these things with humility. We have to assume that others, no matter how “poor” or “in need” they may seem, have endless amounts of knowledge and wisdom to share. When we recognize this, we are on our way to being able to doing something with other communities rather than to them.” (…) […]

  3. […] workers, international volunteers, and those who take a gap year in developing countries are often regarded with suspicion. This is why it’s important to have a humble attitude. As a […]

  4. […] Another key thing I learned from TBB was the idea of mutual liberation, the concept that volunteering can be a shared connection between “volunteer” and “recipient” where they help each other to […]

  5. […] to provide learning opportunities, not low-skill volunteers (read more about the ethics of “voluntourism” in a previous post). Each day also includes a 90-minute seminar, challenging students to analyze […]

  6. […] other traditional values are fast disappearing as they have in other popular volunteer countries (source, […]

  7. […] of others. As the graph shows, this is an area of significant growth. Our students often come with an idealistic vision of providing direct service to improve the lives of others. We see strong growth toward a more justice oriented approach to […]

  8. […] is their philosophy regarding voluntourism – read here. How do they view community service in orphanages, animal sanctuaries – read here – and […]

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