The standard business model in the voluntourism industry is an outsourcing model where international sending organizations or travel agencies pass the responsibility on to local partners, in many cases small grassroots NGOs. If you ever wondered how these cooperations are designed and which consequences local NGOs have to face – here are the answers – which may suprise you.
We have checked the websites of 25 volunteer travel companies and all of them advertise a responsible and sustainable approach towards the communities they place volunteers in.
- Have a Long-term community approach
- Work sustainable
- Offer community-driven projects
- Make sure the communities are involved
So why are we having a debate about voluntourism if they are all so responsible?
Many companies claim to work with “independent“ local organizations which then facilitate the volunteers and organize the volunteer placements or to have their “own team” within the country their volunteers are working in. The international volunteer travel companies take a bit of the program fee and forward the rest to the local partner. We consider their role to be similar to a travel agency.
Arriving volunteers are often surprised because international volunteer travel companies that claim to work with an own team are usually also working with an “independent” local organization which have an entirely different name than the company volunteers signed up with.
Outsourcing to local grass-root organizations, the perfect solution?
Local grass-root organizations know best where to place volunteers, know the people, country and communities. Therefore it must be the perfect solution to work with local stakeholders. The approach to create a local structure, hire own ground staff and create and control own local companies or organizations, as for example Project Abroad does it up to today, seems to be outdated. Companies pride themselves for working with local non-governmental organizations.
But is the new approach really sustainable model? Let’s take a closer look:
How to start an international volunteer travel program, three examples:
There are many different options on how international volunteer companies operate in the countries they have programs in. Two common options are:
1) to partner with a local non-governmental organization that has not yet developed a voluntourism program:
The international agency can start an exclusive partnership, which means no other company is working with the local partner and using their services. You will only meet volunteers from the same agency. The volunteer travel program has to be set up before the international company can send volunteers.
Example 1: Cambodia Volunteer Foundation in Cambodia works with –> International Volunteer HQ
The local organization was only set up for the purpose to serve the company. Cambodia Volunteer Foundation works neither with international donors nor with any other volunteer company and is not allowed to accept volunteers directly through an own website. The result is, as you can see in the picture, that the local partner heavily depends on International Volunteer HQ.
2) to start working with a local institution that already offer voluntourism placements to other int. volunteer travel companies:
The volunteer travel program has been set up already so the international volunteer travel company can send volunteers immediately. The agency is sharing the services of the local organization with other int. volunteer companies. Volunteers will meet volunteers who signed up with various other volunteer travel companies (travel agencies). They will not know this until they arrive in their host country.
Example 1: Star Kampuchea in Cambodia works with –> Interswop, IFRE, New Hope Volunteers, Rustic Volunteer Travel, RCDP Nepal, Ubelong, Exis Asia, Leapnow and receives support from int. non-governmental organizations.
The volunteer program of Star Kampuchea does not depend on only one int. volunteer company. In addition they accept volunteers that apply directly to them and receive income and funding for the community work they do (human rights work) through other channels such as international donors. The work of the local organization does not depend only on commercial volunteer travel companies.
Example 2: Maximo Nivel works with –> GVN, IFRE, RCDP Nepal, Rustic Volunteer Travel, New Hope Volunteers, International Volunteer HQ, Bridge Volunteers and many other companies from varies other travel sectors.
The volunteer program of Maximo Nivel does not depend on only one int. volunteer company. They also accapt volunteers that apply directly at Maimo Nivel. In addition income and funding are also being generated through other channels such as tours, language courses and internships. Maximo Nivel could actually risk it, to loose a volunteer travel company as a partner, when having different views on voluntourism. They seem not to have donors that support their programs without service in exchange.
Outsourcing operations, is it really sustainable?
In the examples shown above, international volunteer travel companies “support” local organizations by sending international voluntourists. The local organizations then finds placements, arrange the airport pick up etc. In other industries this approach would be called “outsourcing”. Contracting out is usually not only about the quality but also to drastically driving down costs to deliver spending cuts by passing significant tasks to outside suppliers rather than completing them internally.
An international volunteer travel company told the authors of the blog voluntourismgal the reason for why international voluntourism companies prefer to work with local partners: They can do a better job with greater community buy in and it’s more affordable.
Four reasons why int. volunteer travel companies outsource to local partners
Here is a list of the benefits for voluntourism companies if they work with local partners:
1. Low costs
- An already existing structure:
Properties, staff, vehicles, office equipment, networks, contacts and a lot more have already been set up and are covered by the local partner. Therefore the volunteer travel companies can start a new program at almost no costs. They only need to draft their content for the website, receive free photos (advertising material), can use an already existing local structure, local networks, staff, utilities and a lot more. What a great deal!
- An email is enough to set up a new volunteer program
An email is often enough to start a new partnership and a new program in a country the int. volunteer travel company has probably never visited. Most companies would advertise to visit the countries they work in regular or to have their own team within the country. They haven’t. You can enter the business world of volunteer travel without knowing your project nor having any related work experience! When Sebastian, the Co-Founder of this website, worked in Cambodia as an advisor for a local volunteer travel organization, 9 out of 17 int. companies he worked with never visited Cambodia and had no information about the impact of the placements the volunteers were placed in. Only two companies visited more than three days per year
- No development cooperation or social work expertise needed
There aren’t many companies that are staffed with development cooperation professionals or social workers.
- Low running costs
Taxes, rent, salaries, costs for electricity, vehicles, insurances etc. are all being covered by the local partner. We also hardly know any companies getting personally in touch with their volunteers before the arrival in the host country. No financial risks included.
- The local partners are carrying the local risks
Accidents, corruption, conflicts, natural disasters, changing laws towards volunteer programs or abuse of human rights can affect the local operations but not the international volunteer travel company. Contracts include no paragraph for such cases, the companies can drop out from one to another day. The financial risks are on the side of the local partners.
- “Flexible” partnership
Short contracts make it easy to increase the pressure and to push through own interests.
- Scandals or problems in the host country are considered the responsibility and fault of the local partner
Changing partners is an easy way to fix the problem: the negative headlines disappear and the customers are satisfied. Contracts and engagements can easily be broken and ignored without fearing any consequences because most host countries do not have a reliable juridical system or simply don’t have the means to pursue the sending organization legally. Contracts last usually only one year, which is very uncommon in development cooperation.
- Sells better
Going local and using local non-governmental organizations as partners sells better. It is called “whitewashing” and is a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant facts. In the environmental context it is called “greenwashing”. The companies spend more time and money on claiming to be “green” or “white” through advertising and marketing than implementing business practices that have a positive long term impact on the communities. The responsibility to be “green” and “white” has the local partner.
4. Greater community buy in:
- are better integrated
- have existing networks
- are being trusted more.
Also non-governmental organizations are trusted more than companies. Within the hosting country the international volunteer travel company can use the local partner’s name, which brings advantages when working with local people and institutions. On the international level, they use their company name.
To sum it up: The int. volunteer travel company can focus on their core activities such as marketing, selling and growth if they are outsourcing the work with the volutourist to local organizations. The result: Supply and demand determines the market, not the needs of the communities.
Int. volunteer companies prefer exclusive partnerships
Sebastian has spoken with varies international volunteer travel companies about their preferred model and identified the exclusive partnership as their preferred model. Why?
The long term benefit is far greater.
- Branding: The local partner is using the same name the agency uses. A stronger branding is possible. The services appear more exclusive and unique.
- No direct competition = less comparison: If a local partner works with a variety of international agencies, the risk is high that prices and services are being compared. Negative issues reach a wider audience much faster and more easily.
- No direct returnees: In exclusive partnership, the int. volunteer travel company can force the local partner and placements not accept any volunteers who would like to return directly to the placement or to the local partner.
- Marketing: International agencies can sell the success of local partners as their own.
- Dependency and power relations: Due to a high dependency, the company can influence the operations of the local partner. If the local organization only has one international partner, they greatly depend on them to ensure the well-being of their own staff. Sebastian has often experienced unreasonable requests and a lot of pressure caused by international agencies. The int. agency can ask for additional favors and services at low costs or for free.
International agencies have greater influence on the decision of their partners. But they have strong options to increase pressure by
- threatening to end partnerships
- decreasing numbers
which happened, for example, in 2012 when International Volunteer HQ requested their local partners to increase prices for other int. volunteer travel companies or to stop partnering with them. Also many int. volunteer travel companies require their local partner to stop accapting volunteers who contact them directly or push them to increase their prices to a non competetive level.
Exclusive partnerships = high dependency = many disadvantages for the locals
The less income from different sources a local organization has, the less autonomy it has over it’s own volunteer program. Communication and operations as equal partners is barely possible. Due to the financial dependency it is often not possible for the local partners to enforce their own views or to develop independently. As a result the program turns into a commercialized tourism product.
To attract donor support or additional income resources, credibility and good governance are a key for the local partner to become more independent. But how can they receive when depending on commercialized int. volunteer travel companies? It is a vicious circle:
Why is It so hard to break through this circle of dependency?
Because professional local and int. Non-Profit Organizations as well as development agencies are skeptical towards the structures and motivations of the voluntourism industry. As a result, the dependency of the local partner remains. The local partners and their placements can barely improve the local situation. Just as one example, most orphanages receiving volunteers have not seen any visible development nor were the int. volunteer companies able to develop their capacities.
Long term contracts, connecting all local partners with each other and capacity building would be a step in the right direction and might tackle the negative effects. We don’t know any volunteer travel company that does this.
When most international volunteer agencies are working with local partners that run their programs, they should call it by its name: They are simply outsourcing their operations for their benefit and risk reduction. Of course outsourcing isn’t always a negative approach, but unfortunately in voluntourism it usually is, especially as the strategy is also being used to “whitewash” / “greenwash” volunteer travel products.
No matter how much harm an int. volunteer travel company causes, their programs are all advertised as sustainable. This concerning trend, the connections of the voluntourism companies to review websites and fake reviews make it very difficult for volunteers to make the right decision.
We hope the volunteer companies will proof us different by showing us studies or evaluations that proof us wrong. Until then, we will call it outsourcing and whitewashing.
What can you do before you choose a company?
- If the int. volunteer travel company writes about responsible volunteering, Long-term community approach, sustainability, community-driven projects check out the evidence: What have they done for the implementation, evaluation and capacity building. If they advertise it, there should be some reports, photos etc.
- Make sure the local partner and at least some staff members of the int. volunteer company have some legitimate development cooperation or social work experience.
- Ask for annual reports or and documents that can proof that the organization operates sustainable.
- Please ask also for detailed information about your tasks.
- Get in contact with your local partner or placement beforehand
- contact the local staff and former volunteers
- Ask for a work description.
- Look at the donors and supporters of the local organization and placement. If they haven’t got any, be aware. Any project that really works with a long-term community approach, sustainable and with community-driven projects will have no difficulties finding donors and good placements.
- Make sure the local partner and company have a strategy how to impact the community and placements positively in long term.
- Make sure they have an exit strategy and ethical contracts. The int. company must support the local partners and placements to reach more independence.
If an int. company cannot provide you with any of the above information, you should get skeptical.
Remember: Those who have nothing to hide will be transparent to you.