We have been involved with short-term mission and volunteer trips since 2009 and during that time we’ve faced all sorts of questions about the how much of an impact we actually make. Does short-term volunteering truly benefit the community in which you work or is the trend for international volunteering just a clever way for agencies to make some money? What are the impacts of short-term mission or volunteering and do the positive benefits outweigh any potential harm?

In my experience, the short answer to all of this is: It all depends. There are literally hundreds of agencies and organisations offering short-term volunteer experiences overseas and not all of these experiences are created equal. Undoubtedly there are agencies that use the feel-good factor of volunteering as a simple marketing tool for the good-conscienced traveler. However, there are also those who offer well thought out placements that create a lasting impact for both the community and the volunteer.

So, before you jump to one conclusion or another, let’s check out the arguments and see what’s really going on.

Wouldn’t it be better to just send money?

There’s no question that there are considerable costs involved in overseas volunteering. Not only is there the initial travel cost, there are also costs associated with accommodation, food, in-country transport and volunteer management. While most organisations/communities would be grateful for that level of financial aid, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they would choose it over and above engaging volunteers.

Depending on the situation, many organisations rely on volunteers to bring skills and expertise that do not exist in their own community or country. They also recognise that by engaging volunteers, they are more likely to garner long-term financial support. Once a volunteer has made a heart-felt connection to a community, they often go on to become a regular donor and many fundraise on an organisation’s behalf for years to come.

How much good can you do in 10 days?

This argument is so subjective, because it really depends on what you class as doing good. Not all good is wrapped up in specific projects. Often it is the talking, listening, sharing and learning that has the greatest long-term impact for both the volunteer and the local community.

That said, there is definitely a place for project-based volunteering. While a short-term project may not solve all the challenges facing a specific community, it is often the catalyst for further development. It can also be a good opportunity for volunteers to transfer skills and knowledge to others. How much good you do depends on the project you’re working on and whether the community/orphanage/school you’re supporting really wants the work to be done. Designing a project just to keep volunteers busy is counter-productive.

I have been involved with short-term projects where entire houses have been built in less than a week. I’ve seen volunteers train women in essential health care, upskill teachers in specific subject matters and install vital equipment in less than 3 days. However, I’ve also been involved with projects where there was no super-sized outcome for the community and the whole focus was on the needs and wants of the volunteers. It’s these kind of volunteer placements that cause the most controversy and rightly so.

If volunteers really want to make a difference, why don’t they just volunteer in their home country?

We get this a lot. Surely charity begins at home, right?! The reality is, most people who volunteer overseas are also involved with volunteering at home. And if they’re not involved before they leave, they usually get involved when they return. It doesn’t need to be an either-or situation.

I’m a big believer that people should get involved with projects and causes that make their heart sing. For some that’s volunteering at their local animal shelter, for others it’s reading to older people. Some volunteers are passionate about the environment and for some it’s the arts. Some people love to travel and some people will never get on a plane. It takes all kinds of volunteers to make the world go around.

Why do these places need overseas volunteers? Surely there’s people in their own country who can help?

Great question. Depending on which volunteer programme you sign up to, you’ll often find that local volunteers are involved in the projects as well. This is a great opportunity to share skills and help develop local capability. In my experience, local volunteers get a real kick out of working alongside volunteers from other countries.

That said, not all projects engage local people and that can have unintended outcomes that cause more harm than good. We believe the best kind of volunteering is about working with the local community, rather than for them.

Aren’t volunteer agencies just exploiting the poor to sell trips?

The unfortunate reality is that volunteer tourism has become big business and there are definitely agencies who are just in it for the money. I have heard some real horror stories from around the globe and it makes my bones shudder.

However, not all volunteer opportunities are the same and there are plenty of agencies and organisations that are making a real impact through volunteer placements. If you’re thinking about volunteering overseas, make sure you do your homework to ensure the agency is reputable and measurable outcomes are being achieved.

So, does overseas volunteering do more harm than good? Are short-term missions or volunteer trips a waste of resources? I guess I need to go back to the start and hang on to my initial response: It all depends.