Wal-mart style Voluntourism

When I was 10 years old all I wanted was an American Girl Doll. In my infinite pre-teen wisdom, I wrote the American Girl Doll company, suggesting that lowering the price of the doll would actually allow more girls or boys to purchase one. They kindly wrote back, including a finance plan on how to fundraise or save to buy my own doll. So much for my plea against violating my piggy bank. I’m no financial expert (my last checkbook is from 1998, when I opened my first bank account); the AGD company already knew what I now understand: selling more at a lower price, while great for consumers, is rarely ideal for producers. Wal-mart style consumerism, previously only for material goods, has now made its way into the service sector, and into my realm- the world of voluntourism.

Voluntourism hasn’t been around that long; therefore prices for a week or month long stay aren’t quite standardized. For all other forms of travel you know what the price range is and what to expect. You know that if you stay in a very cheap hostel that you’re most likely going to get barebones accommodations and bugs in your bed. If you pay for the more expensive bus ride maybe you’ll actually get a bathroom or a TV. All of those travel aspects are common knowledge for the average globe-trotter. If you’re looking to volunteer, however, prices can range from a mere $200 a week to more than $1000 a week. If you go through a trip provider it’s hard to know exactly where your money goes.


A common misconception on many volunteers’ part is that if the company doesn’t charge a lot to volunteer, then they must be in it for the right reasons. But the correlation between price and being in it for the right reasons cannot be justified unless you actually research and get to know the company. Some organizations you volunteer with will cover all of your expenses when you’re with them. For others, your fee only covers administrative costs. As an independent organization, Casa HOY gave part of volunteers’ fees to support the projects where participants volunteered. Under the Wal-mart model, zero percent goes to the volunteer projects. And just because the price is cheaper doesn’t mean that volunteers donate that extra money to their projects, either. On the contrary; in general participants that pay less money overall per week expect more perks.

Another aspect of the Wal-mart business model is more for less. Same with commercialized voluntourism: The longer a volunteer stays, the cheaper it is. But it’s just like that giant jar of mayonnaise on the Wal-mart shelf. Why would you buy 2 gallons unless you own a hotdog stand or have eight children? The lady in her pajamas buying it (that’s been me before, although not with mayonnaise) will tell you it’s because it’s cheaper. The same situation can happen with volunteering. Unfortunately many volunteers stay a few extra weeks (or months) because the longer you stay, the cheaper a week is. Even if they have no plans to travel around the country or dedicate extra hours to their volunteer project, volunteers stay longer because they get more bang for their buck.

The moral of the story is that if you have to work to get a product (money or research-wise), you will value and cherish it more. You will also know exactly what you are paying for and be better prepared. The AGD company has the right business model. Once I finally saved up for and bought that American Girl doll, I didn’t let go of her. Voluntourism is a new product, and should therefore be researched with care. And while any type of traveler can backpack it or study abroad or take a tour, volunteering in another country is a participatory form of travel that should be done with serious dedication and interest, not just because it’s in your budget.


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