What happens when the private sector invests in solving development challenges? Positive things for the most part - impact investment for example. Primarily driven by a need for different models of philanthropic giving, and the understanding that traditional philanthropy on its own is not the answer, impact investment is when businesses invest to solve a particular social issue, with a financial and social return expected on that investment.

Most impact investors are business people first, and philanthropists second. As business people, they consider their investments from many angles: Is the investment financially sound? Is there evidence that this problem needs solving? Is the proposed response validated and are the people proposing to solve the problem suitably qualified and experienced to do so? A good investor will conduct due diligence on the investment and make a decision based on solid metrics; head, not heart.

But what happens when the private sector sees a business opportunity to respond to consumer demand, but this demand is misguided? And what happens when that misguided demand has the capacity to cause real harm to children, families, communities, and the environment? What responsibility does the private sector have to ensure their products are not harmful? What if good intentions cause bad outcomes, but demand for these products remains strong?

High demand

End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT) Netherlands conducted research among providers of volunteer-based projects, which showed the greatest demand was for projects where volunteers can work with children. Among the providers, 97% knew that orphanages were not a good place for children, however only 26% wanted to change their products.

Demand from travellers to “give back” through voluntourism has resulted in more and more for profit businesses creating partnerships with local organisations (NGOs) to meet so-called locally defined needs. The result? A suite of products available to consumers to slot neatly into their travel itineraries in every destination imaginable, doing whatever it might be that piques their interest. Volunteering with children? Yes. In Guatemala? Yes. For two weeks in July? Yes. Turtle Conservation? Yes. In the Philippines? Yes. For three afternoons and then a cruise and a beach holiday? Yes.. In almost any destination imaginable, a volunteer placement can be booked in minutes, with just a few mouse clicks and a credit card. Prospective volunteers place their trust in the legitimacy of placements due to the simple fact they are being offered up on a shiny website that makes the complex issue of “giving back” ever so simple. This is despite the fact that in many cases, volunteers don't actually know the reality of what they will be doing on the ground when they arrive at their destination, and the activities they participate in are often vastly different to what is promised.



Low Transparency

In most cases, the company you give your money to has no experience in delivering childcare or saving turtles, they are a travel agency that will place you with a partner organisation overseas that may have little or no affiliation with the website you booked through. The name of the partner organisation is not stated, to prevent you approaching the partner directly and avoiding the hefty middleman fees.

Furthermore, the nature of partnerships between volunteer placement organisations and local NGOs is generally murky and not transparent. Who assesses the local partners? What is the evaluation process? Are the people assessing potential local partners qualified development professionals with strong knowledge of localised issues and an ability to make informed decisions? Who determines the need for volunteers? The partner organisation, or the community themselves? How long ago were the needs defined? Are the needs still the same? Is an independent needs assessment undertaken?

The result of many of these partnerships is that large amounts of unregulated and unreported funds are channelled to developing countries ostensibly to support local organisations, however how those funds are spent is often entirely unconnected to the evidence-based development needs of those countries and regions.

Some might question exactly how much of volunteer program fees goes to local partners. The answer is simply that we don't know. Volunteer agencies are not obligated to report on this, and the local organisations that they partner with are not reporting either, particularly in cases where corruption is an issue. Even if we wanted to trace the funding, we don't have access to the names of these partner organisations (see transparency issues above). We can, however, reasonably assume that the amount given to local partners varies according to the program cost for the volunteer - which can range from a few hundred dollars, to many thousands, depending on the company’s business model. We also know that many volunteers have such a profound experience during their placement that they often give additional funds directly to the local partner during, or at the end of, their placement, and in many cases set up ongoing donations once they have returned home, engaging their friends and family too.

 In 2017, the volunteer agency IVHQ released a self-generated ‘impact report’, which found that USD$11 million had been invested in to local communities as a result of program fees. Without transparency around partnerships, it is impossible to evaluate the effectiveness or impact of this investment into local communities. It is also impossible to establish if, or how these partners and their projects are in fact contributing to alleviating evidence-based development needs.

Misguided Supply

Demand equals a need to increase supply, and understandably, witnessing the influx of cashed up volunteers, enterprising locals may see an opportunity to set up an NGO and benefit financially from this demand. They don’t always have the best of intentions or the expertise required – nor are they connected into local development strategies or NGO networks. This is best illustrated by the continued increase in the number of orphanages in popular tourist destinations, despite the decline in the number of children legitimately requiring alternative care – a direct mismatch between need and response.

Impact-based Solutions

While the desire to give back while travelling is to be commended, the ways in which travellers are encouraged to give back has to change. We are privileged to have the means to travel to many incredible places around the world that have significant and complex social challenges, and we all need to be part of the solution. However, these solutions need to be evidence-based, measurable, impact focused and above all, not cause further harm to communities.

Voluntourism as a concept or practice is not going away any time soon, and so the focus must be on how we can make it more ethical and effective, and how we equip consumers to think critically about their ability to truly ‘help’ while travelling. Some companies are striving to improve their transparency, impact measurement and practice – and this is to be commended.

Philanthropy has evolved from the time-worn model of traditional giving to now include supporting social enterprise, impact investment and direct giving, resulting in better outcomes for communities. The concept of individuals giving back while travelling must also evolve. Consumers must be equipped with the knowledge and critical thinking skills they need to make informed decisions about their capacity, ability, and best means to help. Volunteer placement companies must ensure their partnerships are independently assessed and evaluated, and that impact is measured and reported. Increased transparency around partnerships, financial reports and impact reporting is also required.

There are many ways to give back – and we need to recognise that volunteering when travelling is not always the best way. Sometimes it is simply better to travel, pay for carbon offsets, stay in eco-friendly accommodation, support ethical, local businesses, and make a contribution to an organisation that is working to address development issues in an ethical and sustainable way. Unless you have specific, relevant, specialist skills, in most cases - development work should be left to the professionals.