Voluntourism

Danielle Wilkins, a seasoned overseas volunteer, tells Verse of her experiences in South Africa and why we should be more mindful where our money goes.

When I was in high school I embarked on a volunteer-based journey to the Philippines, or as the school described it, a ‘cultural immersion’ experience. I returned home two days before Christmas after almost a month in the slums of Manila, living with locals while helping to build homes for the even less fortunate. I gained a completely replenished perspective on my own life and privileges as well as the satisfaction of improving someone else’s – even just a little.

It inspired me to spend more time volunteering abroad, however, I was adamant on completing my degree first. That was until my boss returned from an African adventure early last year, her stories fueled my desire to go and volunteer once more.

After some light research I found a company that offered a volunteer trip to South Africa where I could help local children reach higher academic standards and a good understanding of the English language. This would ultimately open up many doors for their future.

My trip to the Philippines was completely organised by my Catholic school and the Marist Brothers organisation, so I didn’t have to think twice about ethical considerations. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t until I arrived on South African soil that I actually contemplated where exactly my money was going.

To me, this company was simply a mechanism that I was able to use to go and do I wanted to do. When I found out that the company I had chosen to travel and volunteer with was for-profit, and that some of my own hard-earned money was going back into their head office, I felt cheated.

I had always thought that not-for-profit organisations should be the way that all volunteer projects are set up. After further discussion with some of the volunteers on my project in South Africa, I decided that perhaps this mindset was not accurate.

As a not-for-profit organization, the ability to decide where help will be placed is almost completely in the control of major sponsors. Sponsors who may decide to retract their sponsorship if they don’t get their own way.

Obviously this is an extreme, but it is still a possibility. I soon learned the advantages of a for-profit organisation include the ability to place a project and the necessary funding exactly where it is required with no pressure from outside figures. There is a greater chance of sustainability with a continual income and the ability to give employees of the company a wage. This allows for-profits consistency throughout projects as well as the placement of trained and qualified personnel when and where they are needed, yet another huge benefit to the project.

This time, I returned to Australia just a week before starting my third year of university, again feeling satisfied with my volunteering efforts abroad and grateful for my own privileges and lifestyle. Unlike my high school trip, however, I also came home with a new understanding of the term ‘voluntourism’. A few months ago I hadn’t even heard of it, today it is a phrase I am consciously learning more and more about, a new passion of mine. Next time I volunteer overseas I will do the research, I will consciously chose a for-profit organisation and I will know exactly where my money goes.

Words & image by Danielle Wilkins

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