WATCH: New 3-Minute Video Summarizes Research Insights on Good, Bad Community Impacts of International Volunteering, Voluntouring

July 25, 2015

In the back-and-forth argument on voluntourism, ethical global service, poverty porn, and volunteering for development, have you ever wondered if there’s a real evidence base? There is. Please watch and share this brief summary of accumulated insights. Links to the relevant research appear in the video transcript below. The transcript is followed by recent, diverse resources that support mutually beneficial and empowering global service and learning.

International Volunteering from Kindea Labs on Vimeo.


Even as universities and schools expand global learning and community engagement, there is a raging debate about international volunteer service.

Some people say that volunteering and service-learning does more harm than good. Others believe we are all global citizens, and we must participate in international service to make a difference in the world.

Evidence against international service includes research showing that growing up in an orphanage can negatively affect a child’s development and put the child at risk of abuse. International volunteering in orphanages increases these risks as high numbers of volunteers may cycle in and out of a child’s life. Also, the demand for such volunteering placements is increasing the number of orphanages in many countries, despite the fact that most of the children have at least one living parent.

Thus, some organizations have joined a global initiative to campaign against international service in orphanages, and to encourage people to support families and communities instead. All vulnerable children are best cared for in a family-based setting in their own communities, and looked after by consistent caregivers – not short-term international volunteers.

Additionally, there is clear evidence that real harm can be caused by un-credentialed volunteers providing direct health care. This should be avoided.

These two areas –

  1. pre-professional health care and
  2. orphanage tourism and volunteering

are high risk types of international service.

Yet, research also indicates that international service can be very helpful. Communities value service partnerships that

  • Ensure community voice and self-direction through an asset-based, capacity-building lens, leveraging strengths already present in the community.. Top-down development interventions based on outsiders’ perceptions of community needs do not result in a meaningful impact.
  • Engage communities beyond the time horizon of specific, physical development projects. Those projects – like water systems, schools, or new parks – are important – But physical projects are neither the only, nor the most important, outcomes.
  • Nurture trusting relationships between volunteer organizations and the communities they serve. Research even indicates that these long-standing, trusting relationships lead to communities sometimes developing deeper trust in volunteer-sending organizations than in conventional development organizations.
  • Empower community members to maintain their side of cooperative development partnerships. Often these commitments become sources of great pride for community members.

These relationships frequently grow into global advocacy networks, which work to support global governance norms like transparency, inclusive participation, and human rights.

Around the world, there is strong community support for good, community-driven, cooperative global service partnerships.

Encouraging students and young people to take part in community-driven international volunteering is one way to ethically engage our global interdependence, but it must be done well. For accumulated research, ongoing learning, and resources demonstrating what works well, what is wrong, and what is best practice in global service and learning partnerships, visit and learn how to meaningfully volunteer without doing harm. is dedicated to advancing peer-reviewed research and best practices* at the nexus of global learning, cooperative development, and community-campus partnership.

Along with an increasingly diverse accompaniment of sponsors and friends, we are advancing knowledge that supports ethical global engagement.

This initiative is made possible in part through the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation, which is dedicated to encouraging the highest standards of service and leadership. The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life, strengthen international understanding, and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious and art communities.

* While there are hundreds of peer-reviewed articles, blog entries, and teaching tools available at, the brief list below shares several strong, recent examples from institutions and organizations involved with the globalsl network. These initiatives advance best practices among faculty, staff, community members, and students. They are frequently available for free or for a nominal charge.

See more peer-reviewed research and best practices* at the nexus of global learning, cooperative development, and community-campus partnership.

13 thoughts on “WATCH: New 3-Minute Video Summarizes Research Insights on Good, Bad Community Impacts of International Volunteering, Voluntouring”

  1. I think if each community could come up with developing projects, parents will be able to take care of the children under their care since it is mainly poverty which makes them take the children in to the orphanages

  2. This video raises very important moral and ethic considerations in the field of intl service. It focuses on the need for advisors & counselors at both H.S. and college/university level to carefully vet and review service programs which are brought to their attention. And it also places some of the burden for assessing the merits of a program on parents for younger students.

  3. Health care and orphanage tourism are straw dummies so I find the focus on them here irrelevant to the core debate. They are clearly problematic but what about working with an NGO that works on agricultural development? The impacts of voluntourism here are more convoluted and embedded in extremely complex local political and cultural contexts. The term “community” is way too vague to be useful – if someone were to come to your town and say “i’m working with your community” who would be the representative? In my experience with voluntourism in the developing world, elite males are, and they are not making decisions democratically. There is always some underlying politics here, and for students with few skills and no political literacy of the region, it an unpredictable proposition to insert them as powerful actors into a scenario that they don’t understand. The kicker is that “research” like this does not “see” the impacts because it is led by the same culture of lack of local knowledge. Even the elites most of the time do not see the power struggles that voluntourism impacts. So, how can you measure the impacts of something you cannot see?

  4. As someone with 30 years in the international development space using a community participatory approach, I agree completely and vociferously with the CONS, somewhat less so the PROS.

    “These relationships frequently grow into global advocacy networks, which work to support global governance norms like transparency, inclusive participation, and human rights.” I’m sure that’s super IN-frequent, but if they’re saying that as volunteers become sensitized from a trip and can develop/find ways to use their voice to advocate when they get home, that’s fair enough, but definitely over-sold. Connecting returning volunteers to advocacy resources will be an important role of the coordinators.

    The 4 principles for success must not be missed nor taken lightly! They are worthy of a master’s program. And I’m quite skeptical that trip coordinators will be very successful in ensuring the community takes the lead. It will be extremely important to find on-the-ground implementing partners who provide the continuity and have the spine to stand up to volunteer teams to ensure the community leads the way.

    We do need to find ways to engage students as global citizens, and if we can find ways to do so that at minimum “do no harm” we’ll have made real progress. I think this video and accompanying resources help take the next step.

  5. Definitely agree with you. But see my comment on the critical task of finding a robust implementing partner who is already on the ground, has more power than the volunteer group, and is the honest broker between the volunteers and the farming community in your example. Not easy, I admit! And few of the orgs. competent to do this will bother with volunteers, either, because of all the potential for harm. (Mine won’t!) But…if there IS a recipe for success in engaging future global citizens, this will be part of it.

  6. My point was that community itself (farming community, “the” community, community-driven, community based) etc. is very problematic categorically due to the highly variegated nature of interests within any given subset of a population. so, like colonialism, an outside eye defines community in the voluntourism industry. “this project was community-driven.” what does that mean? a local english speaking NGO director that’s a man said it is. or was there a town hall meeting where mostly men spoke. my context is east africa, so these are some of the issues. there are indeed great organizations that take critical theory as their guide, but the majority are not doing that and it is these organization’s whose entire survival depends on maintaining as ambiguous a definition of community as possible (and other terms like “empowerment” and “local”).

  7. Agreed! AND in those situations, the risk is not only in creating/perpetuating dependency, but also propping up the powers that be… And thus delaying the very “community” they think they’re working with.

  8. Hi Lilhank,

    Thanks for your comment. In terms of agreeing with the pros and cons, what we’re working to do here is represent research. The research that informs the transcript is linked above. In particular, Ben Lough’s work (University of Illinois) and Nora Reynolds’ work (Temple University) are what we draw on to make these statements.

    You make a fine point about “frequent”. I actually think – again, based on the research – that the “frequent” growth into global advocacy networks refers to the individuals / organizations who are often in coordinating and/or longterm roles. Meaning, even in the case of a (good) NGO that facilitates short-term volunteering, there has to be someone or some set of people (more likely) who are continuously working with one another. While many short-term volunteers may cycle in and out, there are still long-term, continuously cemented relationships among the set of individuals who coordinate these cross-cultural engagements.

    Reynolds’ research looked at the relationships developed through a specific program based on short-term visits, while Lough was looking largely at long-term international volunteer placements. Absolutely agree with you on the challenge and complexity of all of this, and appreciate your careful and critical comments. Thanks for engaging!

  9. Very much appreciate your points, Bob and Lilhank. I would say that this is where RESPONSIBLE universities and NGOs wish to engage – precisely at the muddled and muddied nexus of critical theory, colonial history, participatory development models, crosscultural engagement, and consequential action. I wonder if you’ve had any time to take a look at some of the syllabi or program examples linked above. Many of us are working to advance critical dialogue in this area / with our students. And you’re right, of course – it’s neither easy nor simple.

  10. Good stuff, Eric. Thanks much for the resources.
    I’m an old KU grad, so maybe I got touchy when I saw K-State involved. 😉 We need to keep progressing, so thanks for all you’re doing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • update-img-new

    Get updates on what's new in the Campus Compact Network