Turning Volunteering into a Force for Good

On Saturday 5th March 2016 Ilma will be speaking at the Oxford International Development Conference about importance of ethical international/domestic volunteering and Matt will be speaking at SanEco Sustainability Conference in Southampton

Volunteering primed for impact

Formal overseas volunteering began over 100 years ago when in 1909 the British Red Cross set up a Voluntary Aid Detachment scheme. These volunteers worked to treat soldiers in battle regardless of who they fought for. Since then overseas volunteering has grown to a huge activity. For example, United Nations Volunteers (UNV) alone mobilises almost 8,000 volunteers per year.

Nurses and VADs

In his recently released report on the Sustainable Development Goals, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon recognised volunteerism for its contribution to a transformational post-2015 agenda: “As we seek to build capacities and to help the new agenda to take root, volunteerism can be another powerful and cross-cutting means of implementation. Volunteerism can help to expand and mobilize constituencies, and to engage people in national planning and implementation for sustainable development goals. And volunteer groups can help to localize the new agenda by providing new spaces of interaction between governments and people for concrete and scalable actions.”

Volunteering is thus poised to be a fundamental cog in the mechanisms of international development. However, recent articles (like this one in the Guardian) have illustrated that volunteering might not be having the positive impact intended. This is not to say that all volunteering programmes have questionable positive impact but there are sizeable problems in the sector.

Issues with volunteering

There are four key issues with current volunteering programmes:

  1. Limited to small scale change
  2. Little empowerment or capacity building
  3. Programmes focussed on the volunteer rather than beneficiary
  4. Creating dependency on foreign assistance

These four issues are of course linked and overlap considerably. The first and perhaps most obvious problems, is that volunteers only spend a short period of time in the communities in which they work. Therefore, the work that they conduct will by default be small scale (think handing out mosquito nets or building a school). This leads to the second problem, because of the short time span, volunteering programmes will rarely result in empowered beneficiaries (mosquito nets end up being used as fishing nets because the education and behaviour change that goes with the net cannot be provided by volunteering programmes).

The situation becomes worse. As volunteering organizations are often dependent on volunteers for their revenue, they become ‘captured’ by the needs of volunteers rather than their beneficiaries. Volunteering organizations focus on the benefits to volunteers rather than the communities they work in. This amplifies the above two problems where volunteers work on ‘simple’ issues which might give the perception of creating impact but actually do not resolve the underlying key issues (for example measuring how many mosquito nets are given out rather than number of malaria cases).

Finally, instances have been reported where communities have exploited the fact that visitors will contribute money to especially severe situations. The argument being the more impoverished a community looks the more foreign assistance will arrive. This has the unintended consequence of making the community dependant on volunteers rather than actually creating positive change. In the worst cases, the community deliberately makes the situation worse hoping for the added support.

In sum there are a range of issues with volunteering. Once again, it is not all volunteering organizations or initiatives which suffer from these problems – some are exemplary in combatting these. However, our experience (which is supported by research) suggests that the vast majority suffer from some of these problems. Indeed, the term ‘volountourism’ has recently been coined to capture the idea that volunteering is becoming more about a tourist experience than creating impact.

Combatting ‘voluntourism’ through a values based approach?

Recognising this fact, the largest volunteering organizations have begun to pay more attention to how volunteers schemes are rolled out. United Nations Volunteers have articulated their principles and approach in their 2014-2017 strategy4.


  • Build ownership
  • Foster mutual benefits
  • Ensure inclusion and promote gender equity
  • Work in partnerships
  • Promote and listen to youth voice


  • Participation
  • Support
  • Evidence
  • Synergy
  • Impact

The argument is that in adopting such an approach, the likelihood of harm caused by volunteering is minimised. This is all well and good, but as a prospective volunteer (or any stakeholder for that matter) it is difficult to have faith in these sorts of publications. What is the guarantee that these values are actually lived? Even if they are, where is the evidence that these values will lead to a positive impact?

One possible way to counteract this might be an audited industry standard like the Fair Trade certificate. Upon proving to a supervisory agency that a programme or organization meets certain criteria, that programme or organization is then awarded a certificate to prove that it meets that standard. Volunteers would then prioritise applications to the certified organizations (wanting to ensure they are going on a high quality programme). This in turn drives each volunteering organisation to seek certification (to avoid losing revenue) and therefore raises the standard for the entire sector.

Of course even this approach has its shortcomings. The entire premise rests upon having a strong supervisory body (there is no point if certificates are handed out easily). Similarly, for organizations to be incentivised to adopt the standard, volunteers would have to have a real preference for certified bodies. This means ensuring that the certificate is well communicated to volunteers. Unfortunately, the sector is very far away from creating or adopting anything like a certificate for positive impact (we hope to publish a dedicated blog on this in the near future).

What should a prospective volunteer do?

It can be tough for volunteers; they want to make sure that they dedicate their time to something that will create real impact. At Balloon the advice we give to any potential volunteer is to ask hard questions. Ask how the organization aims to create impact, how they measure that impact. What about unintended consequences (there are always unintended consequences), how does the organization deal with them. Ask about the principles and the approach values described by UNV. If the organization cannot give you good answers (or even worse, does not seem motivated to do so) maybe it is worth rethinking whether to partner with them.