The Volunteer World’s Dirty Little Secret

Here is the volunteer world’s dirty little secret that everyone should know about.

Volunteer + Tourism = Voluntourism

A massive industry in every corner of the world where a non-profit, a school, a wildlife camp or an orphanage is set up to draw in volun-tourists. They show you pictures of children in need, of animals you can cuddle or wells you can build…but these kinds of practices are almost always just a ploy to take your money and don’t actually contribute to the betterment of the people or communities you came to serve. 

When I was in high school I joined a mission trip to Mexico to “volunteer at an orphanage”. When I got there, I quickly realised that these kids were being forced to hang out with us. Forced to literally dance like monkeys and entertain us. And then I looked around and did the math. Each of us American teenagers paid $700 plus a $500 plane ticket to be here. That’s $1200 times 20. That’s $24,000 spent, $14,000 of which was profit split between the orphanage and the organization…with the children being used as bait. It wasn’t a surprise that this scam was eventually exposed, making national headlines in Mexico…but we fell for it because we never thought to question the words “volunteer” or “mission trip” or an organization tied to religion.

What’s worse, is that by giving this “orphanage” money, we were incentivizing them to collect and exploit more children. We were indirectly contributing to children being used as commodities.

So how do you know whether a volunteer experience is authentic or just another unethical tourist trap?

In the volunteer world, we play by three rules of thumb:

    1. Don’t volunteer at an “orphanage”
    2. Don’t take jobs away from local people.
    3. Be careful when you’re paying to volunteer 

Let’s quickly break these down with some juicy details!

Don’t volunteer at an “orphanage”

You must take extreme caution when deciding to volunteer in any capacity that involves children. 

Let’s use Cambodia as an example. 

With the influx of western tourists looking to volunteer, hundreds of “orphanages” have popped up and needlessly filled with children. According to current estimates 80% of these children have at least 1 parent who is alive and well, BUT the children are essentially being rented from their families for western volunteers to play with and unknowingly, exploit for profit. Profit that comes from your wallet and keeps these Child Zoos open.

Here are green-flags to spot an ethical volunteer opportunity when children are involved:

    • Criminal Background Checks are required.

    • Volunteers have some skillset to transfer to the children (education, soccer, art).

    • A clear initiative is defined (beware of phrases such as “play with children” or “childcare”).

Don’t go to a country to do a job that the locals could do themselves

…otherwise you are taking opportunities away from the very people that you came to help. 

The best example of this is digging wells in the Dominican Republic. Are you an architect? A construction foreman? A water expert? No? Then let’s get REAL. What purpose are you serving by digging holes? None. The money you spent on your plane ticket to get down there would’ve been better spent by training locals on how to build wells for their community for the next 20 years. You’re just on a muddy vacation, girl. 

Instead, think about the skills you have to offer: Teaching a sport like soccer, fundraising for medical supplies, implementing a recycling program, teaching women about microloans…bring a skill that is not yet present. A skill that is needed and sustainable. THAT is how you truly make a difference. 

Be careful with “Pay to Play” arrangements

A few years ago, I wanted to move to a Spanish speaking country and learn to speak Spanish by integrating into the community. I found an organization in Bolivia with a professional looking website and a couple promising reviews. This organization promised to pair me with a host family for language exchange and a volunteer position. All I had to do was pay for room and board; the money would go towards helping these local families and organizations. 

So I flew my ass to Bolivia. I paid an arm and a leg for my flight, and when I arrived, I paid my $800 per month fee for my “rent” (aka a room in this family’s house). $800 was an extremely high price for a room in a house in Bolivia, but I was promised a full cultural exchange with an underprivileged family who was so eager to host me. That sounded fair. 

In reality…that family didn’t get a crap about me. Neither did the volunteer organization. 

I soon found out that the promises of cultural integration and language exchange were a sham. This “non-profit” was just a business. The family they put me with barely spoke to me, and they weren’t underprivileged; they were rolling in volunteer cash. I was there to be a paycheck and (surprise!) to tutor their kids in English. I was just another paycheck. It was a terrible feeling. And I was down about $2000. 

This was totally my fault. I booked this experience on a whim. I didn’t properly research. I didn’t collect reviews or referrals…I just went.  

If you sincerely are in this to contribute to the greater good of the world to help others and improve yourself, take a step back and objectively audit the opportunity in front of you. 

The Volunteer Opportunity Checklist


So when you find a volunteer opportunity, go through this ethical checklist and ask yourself these questions….

  1. How is my involvement contributing to this organization?
  2. Has this organization just let you (a stranger) walk straight into an environment with vulnerable or at risk children and adults?
  3. If you pay for your experience – how much of that cash actually benefits the children or people involved?
question mark photo by Towfiqu B - unsplash

HERE ARE SOME questions YOU can ask a volunteer program to help ensure that they are ethical and a good fit for you

1. What is the mission of your organization?

2. Are you a registered nonprofit organization? If so, can you provide proof of your nonprofit status?

3. What percentage of your funding goes directly to the programs and projects?

4. Can you provide references or testimonials from past volunteers?

5. What kind of background checks do you conduct on your staff and volunteers?

6. What kind of orientation and training do you provide for volunteers?

7. Can you provide a detailed breakdown of the fees and expenses associated with the program?

8. Are there any hidden costs that volunteers should be aware of?

9. Can you provide a detailed itinerary of the volunteer program and the activities involved?

By asking these questions, you can get a better sense of the organization’s legitimacy and the quality of the program they offer.

Follow your instincts and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ethical voluntourism requires careful research, a focus on sustainable impact, and a commitment to engaging with local communities. By taking these steps and being mindful of the potential pitfalls, you can ensure that your volunteer experience is truly meaningful and beneficial to the communities you aim to support.

buy on Indie Bound
buy on Barnes and Noble
buy on amazon

Ticket Plan

this book has magic powers

Find and Fund Your Purpose while Traveling the World

listen on audible
got to application

Want to contribute to the blog? I love to feature the perspective of other solo female travelers.


Blog Contribution

meet your travel guide

I'm a bestselling author, hotel reviewer and pickleball player. I teach women how to travel the world solo without going broke or getting kidnapped.
In 2011, I left Seattle with just $200 in my pocket to travel the world solo. Today, I'm the founder and creator of The Solo Girl’s Travel Guide, the #1 travel guide book series for women - and the author of The One-Way Ticket Plan. 

author of The One-Way Ticket Plan and CEO of The Solo Girl’s Travel Guide

Meet Alexa

subscribe to my channel

YouTube Video

Check out my Latest