GeoVisions Blog

Is Voluntourism Really A Compromised Industry?

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Tue, Nov 29, 2011
On 24 November, ran an article by Richard Stupart entitled "Voluntourism does more harm than good."  The tag line read, "Orphan-huggers create a market for orphans; well-builders take work from locals; and other things ethical travelers should know."

I'm going to approach Mr. Stupart's article from two perspectives:
  1. He's right.
  2. But the focus really should be on "The result has been a boom in tour companies offering voluntourism opportunities in a wide range of destinations, catering to all levels of commitment."
cashing in on voluntourismI have noticed that everyone is cashing in on Voluntourism (including the press) and I wish some great writer out there would do an article on the damage THAT causes.  Bugger the "goodie-two-shoes" articles. Those people are just there and will insert themselves into a situation abroad and at home because they simply have nothing else to do.  Resorts, cruise lines and hotels offer 2-3 hour voluntourism projects and call it sustainable tourism.

Mr. Stupart sums it up nicely and as accurately as I've ever seen it put.  "There can be no easy decisions when attempting to weigh up how to volunteer, or whether to volunteer at all.  Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between ill-considered decisions taken for the purpose of stroking a traveler's ego, and subjective decisions to volunteer after properly considering as much of the moral and practical detail of your engagement as possible."

For quite sometime, GeoVisions has provided a document, "Where Does My Money Go" in answer to that exact question by some of our volunteers.  And on many of our program pages, we actually provide a list of items that get paid with a volunteer's money.  This activity came with trying to be "all things transparent."

How wonderful would it be if all of the responsible voluntourism providers (really, there are a few) wrote their own document explaining why volunteers participate on their projects and precisely (measured objectively) what good comes from it.
  • How will your work be more beneficial than sending money?
  • If you and your friends invested money in a project abroad (after doing research and interviewing project directors), would that be more sustainable?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, how much of wanting to go abroad is all about your ego?  Or that you had horrible parents?
  • Why aren't you voluntouring in your own country?
  • Why are you taking a tax deduction on volunteering abroad? Why aren't you spending money in your own country, and giving up the tax deduction to pay your fair share?
  • How much research did you do about where you're going and why you should even be there?

Those are questions we have been asking ourselves here at GeoVisions over the last year.  And what are the answers? 

When we answered these questions we closed 50 of our voluntourism projects.  We have only a few now and most of them are hands-on medical for people going into or already in the medical field.  We have a last few remaining "long tails" and most will be fading away over the course of 2012.

But GeoVisions is in business, right?  So what are we doing instead?

two people communicatingGlad you asked.  We invented programs that focus on cultural exchange first.  Then, if you want, you can do some volunteering like teaching a family conversational English or helping kids with their homework.  Something that first of all exchanges two cultures, something that then focuses on communicating with one another.  And finally, something that allows for a little local volunteering and sharing.

Of course our most innovative programs were copied.

Last year I even saw 8 volunteer abroad senders providing the same program in India, all sending to the same receiver.  All of the programs were packaged differently, all charging different prices.  Never let it be said that some of my friendly competitors have but one brain shared between them all.

2 years ago GeoVisions could market our programs with two online search engines (we refuse to participate with Google Ad Words).  Now we have a minimum of four additional search engines for volunteer and teach abroad.  There are a multitude of online review sites…mini TripAdvisor sites trying to ratchet up online traffic and therefore dollars.

GeoVisions has double the competition we did from 2009.  Double the senders, and probably more than double the receivers.

There are operators who start their Google Ads with, "Volunteer Abroad For $160" and "Volunteer Abroad - $180. American volunteers wanted for affordable volunteer trips abroad!"

When we all cash in, we ethically bankrupt ourselves.

When you look for ways to make money from an industry rather than looking for ways to serve that industry, you add to the problem.  What am I writing?  You ARE the problem.

holding the world in your hands

When you use price to round up self-serving volunteers to attend flim-flam projects, you add to the problem. When you copy programs and other people's ideas, you add to the problem.  When you don't belong to global organizations focused on building best practices, you add to the problem.

I have heard a few of my competitors say, "More volunteer abroad senders?  Great, that means more volunteers out in the world."  To that I reply, "Hogwash."  The industry is watered-down because of those who have piled on and thought this might be an easy way to prey on well-meaning people and cash in.  And on this, I am being very kind.

I continue to read publicly that "Voluntourism will likely always remain a compromised industry."  Mr. Stupart even wrote that last week.

I do think it is interesting to note, as I end this post, that Save The Children does not allow volunteers on their projects.  That is to say they do not allow you to call up, and explain that you want to go volunteer in Ethiopia on one of their end child hunger projects.  You can volunteer in their Westport, CT or Washington, DC offices in marketing, finance and social media.  But you're not allowed on a Save the Children project as a volunteer.

I hope, if you're reading this, you are not asking yourself, "why"?

Tags: Responsible Travel, Volunteer Locally, Why Do I Have To Pay To Volunteer, Tax Deductions, Volunteering Abroad, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates, Randy LeGrant

Volunteer And Choose To Make A Difference With Civic Responsibility

Posted by Alexandra LeGrant on Tue, Jan 11, 2011

KarenGeoVisions is proud to present this guest post by Karen Middleton, President of Emerge America, a premier training program for Democratic women. Karen also served as a Democratic Representative for the state of Colorado and was on three committees - House Education, Business Affairs and Labor, and the Legislative Council.

For as long as I can recall, I have always felt a strong sense of civic responsibility and a commitment to my community.  Interestingly, I do not remember how and where this was instilled in me.  I vividly remember registering to vote on my 18th birthday, and casting my first ballot that same year.  As I have voted and engaged in my community in other ways, it has been both a source of pride and a consistent theme in my life.

While I know I have this gut-level sense of myself, I have spent several years trying to find the best way for us and our society to instill this same sense in our children and students across America.  When I see someone throw trash out their car window, or tell me they don’t vote, I have a strong physical reaction and wonder what we can change and why I have this sense when others don’t?  While I have long felt this way, I don’t know where I learned that lesson and how it was so deeply embedded.  If I knew, I would bottle it to share.  You might ask, how are these acts linked?  To me, it is whether you care about the world around you and whether you participate to make the world better.

I have tried to impact this type of thinking in two ways.  First, I spent several years working with civic education issues – how to teach it, what it should include and how to incorporate it in schools across the country.  I participated in both state and national groups to help affect this policy change.  While there are many splendid examples of how to do this work well, I don’t know how many people have been impacted and if it has worked.  Reports were produced, conferences were held, materials were shared, and websites were developed. 

Second, I taught political science for a couple of years and tried to engage students in this type of thinking myself.  We talked about the impact that just one person, just one voice, and just one vote can make to change the world.  It may be a big problem, or a local issue.  Was I successful?  I am not sure.  I definitely engaged some of my students in some of my classes to think differently about their place in the world.  I can only hope that my continued efforts, through example, and by continuing to engage in other ways.

global handsIn addition, I presented this issue to civic groups who are part of the fabric of community engagement.  Interestingly, they were struggling with how to best reach young people to both offer their guidance, and to support them.  Groups like Rotary or Civitan are equally challenged by how to reach the next generation of young people to engage them both as future members and recipients of community and civic engagement work.

This is work we must all continue to think about and continue to work on as we lead by example and share our time and energy to inspire others to join us as voters, volunteers and active members of our society.  It is a journey we take together.

Tags: Reasons To Volunteer Abroad, Volunteer Locally, Staying Involved, Make Something Happen, Working For A Better World, Airfares

Volunteering Abroad Didn't Work Out: How Do You Do The Right Thing?

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Fri, Dec 31, 2010

I watched a TED talk today by Barry Schwartz.  I was so taken with Mr. Schwartz and the subject of "doing the right thing" that I'm embedding the video at the bottom of this post.  If you have 20 minutes to watch, please do.

What got my mind racing at the outset of Professor Schwartz' talk was the description of measuring a round column in relation to "rules." If you think about it, it is impossible to measure a round column using a ruler.  So to solve the problem, the Greeks fashioned a ruler that bends.  ( can already see where Schwartz is going with this one...)

A taptape measuree measure.  A flexible rule.  A rule that bends.  Aristotle saw that to measure a round column, they needed to design a ruler that could bend and later he equated that with dealing with people.  Often times we need to bend the rules.  In dealing with others, many times to be successful we need to improvise.  But a wise person bends the rules and improvises for the right aims.  Schwartz goes on to say, "If you are a person who bends the rules and improvises to serve yourself, what you get is ruthless manipulation of other people.  So it matters that you do this in the service of others and not in the service of yourself."

Most of us think institutions, and for that matter most people, don't really have our best interests at heart.   We mistrust organizations and other people more today than ever before.  My physician needs to see a patient every 11 minutes.  How can he get to know me in that amount of time?  My bank needs to cut their risk, so along with thousands of other consumers, they decrease my credit line without calling me to sit down and talk about it and inquire about my needs.  Teachers, teaching for the test, can't or won't spend time with my kid to find out what he already knows and what skills he really needs to learn next month.

Professor Schwartz reminds us that to deal with the economic crisis, we set up rules for bankers.  And to make certain no child is left behind, we set up rules for teachers to follow on how to educate all children.  We tend to react to a crisis or even criticism by setting up rules, or devising even more rules so that these things never happen again.  But that only adds fuel to the mistrust we have in organizations, because they are so busy enforcing the rules and inventing rules on how to enforce rules, there is little time to get to know the customer.  And we all know that like water, people will find the cracks in the rules.  The point of the TED talk is that rules and incentives don't work.  Practical wisdom works.

In the Volunteer Abroad space, I have seen websites pop up that actually encourage people to write negative reviews of their volunteer project abroad.  Whether they went on that project or not!  It seems to be encouraged on those sites that the more negative you can be the better things will get.  I don't see any suggestions on using practical wisdom in making things better.  I do see many opportunities to make the problem worse.  And that only contributes to mistrust.  They are simply a depository of negativity.

Schwartz concludes the talk with, "Rules and incentives don't tell you how to be a good friend, how to be a good parent, how to be a good spouse, or how to be a good doctor, a good lawyer or a good teacher.  Rules and incentives are no substitutes for wisdom.  In giving us the will and skill to do right thing, to do right by others, practical wisdom also gives us the will and the skill to do right by ourselves."

I think the bottom line is this:  If the organization does right by you, it does right by itself.  If the organization does not do right by you, use wisdom in your next steps so that you do right for others, thereby doing right by yourself.  It's why we volunteer, isn't it?  We do right by others and therefore we do right by ourselves.

Enjoy the video.  How do you use practical wisdom in dealing with others?

Tags: Volunteer Locally, Make Something Happen, Working For A Better World, Volunteering Abroad

Quack Like A Duck? Walk Like A Duck? It's VolunTOURISM!

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Thu, Sep 23, 2010
Photo of a duck upside down in a wine glass.I've been reading lately some Blog posts about volunteering abroad vs. volunteering locally.  There is always something people want to write about with regard to volunteering abroad.  Ages ago people were writing about how non-profits provide the best opportunities to volunteer abroad because they are, well, non-profit.  The for-profits wrote that the notion of tax status has nothing to do with good works.

Then we had Bloggers writing about NGOs vs. "middle men" sending organizations.  Those who find sending organizations "distasteful" encourage teens to find an NGO and research them and cut out the "middle man," while sending organizations site their benefits of doing the research and the risk management.  [I am a father of four and frankly, I don't trust any research they would do when it comes to vetting an NGO.]

Now we're seeing posts complaining about hoards of volunteers descending upon a struggling community and ruining it.  Those complaints normally come from people in the Aid and/or Development sector.  Or people who think they are.

Photo of a large group of rubber ducks in water.I commented on someone's Blog a few days ago and suggested that it's time to call Voluntourism what it is.  VolunTOURISM.  Bloggers need to stop generalizing about volunteering abroad.  Site a specific example if you wish, but stop the generalizations.  It reminds me of the local sandbox. "If you don't play the game I want you to play then I'm taking my toys and going home."   All the while there is a parent standing there saying to herself, "PLEASE take your toys and go home."

On this Blog, we have over on the right, a list of Blogs we find fascinating.  Over there, on the right towards the top.  See it?  A box entitled, "Blogs We Are Reading Right Now."  We don't agree with all of them, but we think you should check them out.  These are thoughtful writers with strong opinions with a massive following.  I have no issue with anyone writing a Blog post pointing out potential negative effects of volunteering abroad.  But I DO take issue with writers generalizing about it.  

Many people agree that George Bush "senior" lost his reelection bid because he forgot, "It's the economy, stupid."   I'm reading a lot of interesting Blog posts these days and I'm thinking to myself, "It's volunTOURISM."  PLEASE, stop trying to make it about Aid.  It isn't.  And it doesn't pretend to be.  And if and when it people out.  Or if you don't, at least be specific.

Over at, Voluntourism is defined, "The conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history and recreation — in that destination."

Photo of one rubber duck looking this way.
In other words, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it's a volunTOURIST.  Are members of the Peace Corps voluntourists?  Personally, I would answer "no."  Are voluntourists on a program of Aid or Development?  My personal view is, "no."  And if senders of voluntourists can make this distinction, and more importantly, if the voluntourists themselves can make the distinction, then why can't many Blog writers?

Tags: Volunteer Locally, Volunteering Abroad, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates

Operation: Music Aid Is A Locally Grown Volunteer Organization

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Sat, Sep 04, 2010
Operation Music Aid logoI really thought I might write about our new Conversation Corps-Nepal program in this post.  But something happened on the way to the computer.

My 10 year old son is playing the sax in the school band.  We went to the Madison Music Center, very near where we live, and I was surprised by what I found there.  It's where Operation:Music Aid was founded…and the current headquarters.

Operation Music Aid Signed GuitarGeorge Hauer is the owner of the Madison Music Center.  He's 71 years old and works 7 days a week.  The company is set back in an industrial park, actually, and while not hard to find…you have to be looking.  George is an amazing character and he not only supplies musical instruments along the Shoreline of CT but he's the co-founder of Operation: Music Aid.

Operation: Music Aid was founded to supply guitars and keyboards to wounded military service personnel now in military hospitals for extended care.  They supply the instruments to the hospitals and they are distributed as needed to assist in physical and psychological rehabilitation, as well as for morale. Their goal is to get an instrument to every one of our service men and women who have been injured while on assignment. All the instruments received at the hospitals become the property of the individual patients.

Walking around George's music store is like walking around the Hard Rock Cafe without the loud music and videos.  Signed photos and musical instruments adorn the walls from supporters like David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jane Fonda, Petula Clark, American Idol's Katharine McPhee and others.

Operation Music Aid letterIf you're in the area, stop by and meet George.  Or check out Operation: Music Aid's website or simply email them for more information.  The first person who donates $100 to Operation Music Aid will receive a FREE Operation Music Aid T-Shirt.  On top of that, GeoVisions will match your gift up to $100 and we'll toss in a FREE Conversation Corps or Conversation Partner T-Shirt.

Simply leave a comment below and let us know your name.  When we hear from Operation: Music Aid that they have received your donation, we'll send out both shirts to you.  Be sure you email us at so we can get your shipping address.

We also hope you will use the comment box below to tell us about volunteer organizations you know of locally, who are making a huge difference in people's lives.

Tags: Volunteer Locally

Volunteer With Best Friends! Or Simply Strut Your Mutt

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Tue, Aug 31, 2010

After a long hiatus, I'm back.  What a summer.  Hot…that comes to mind first.  Hectic.  I just hadn't planned on being so busy.  I barely saw my kids.  And I've already been filling out my "dance card" for Winter 2010 and well into 2011 and that causes some pause.

So to get things rolling back on the GeoVisions Blog, I'm not writing about Voluntourism or GeoVisions in this first Blog post of the fall.  I'm going to point you to another site, actually.  All about reunions.

Everyone is marking the 5th Anniversary of Katrina.  Anderson Cooper 360 has actually been "keeping them honest" and having the previous administration's emergency response team talking about what they did wrong and what they would do differently today.  The interviews have been refreshing to see so many people own up to their mistakes.

IA boy reunited with his dog.'d never thought of reuniting family pets with owners and what an enormous job that would be.  Most of the volunteering we see in the Gulf consists of building and rebuilding homes, cleaning up, large construction, education and work with the hungry and homeless.  But when I saw the video over at Best Friends Animal Society, I was blown away.  I encourage you to watch their 6 minute video about how hundreds of volunteers showed up to reunite families with their pets who were left behind.  It will warm your heart and it will cause you to think differently about volunteering.

Best Friends logoPlease, first watch the short video that appears below, courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society.  Then if you're so moved, check out their organization using the link above.

Those of us doing this work sometimes forget to call attention to domestic organizations and the incredible work volunteers do in all walks of life.  This is me calling attention to Best Friends Animal Society and the incredible work they do to bring joy to people and animals.  It just doesn't get any better than that.  So enjoy the video:


If you volunteer with adoptable pets, or have stories to share, please use our Comments area below.  We can't wait to hear from you.

Tags: Volunteer Locally, Staying Involved, Wildlife Conservation