Letter to the Editor: Voluntourism’s Benefits Ignored

Dear Editor,

I am an alum from 1992. In addition to being the founder and executive director of Globe Aware, a multinational charitable organization, I am also the executive chair of International Volunteer Programs Association, an industry nonprofit trying desperately to raise impact, quality and safety standards for overseas abroad programs. Given the sheer volume of organizations that are irresponsibly or naively run, I understand the temptation to paint all volunteer abroad organizations with one brush. However, doing so is irresponsible; it’s essentially the same as equating the Jim Jones or Catholic priest abuse scandals with all church organizations.

Madison Stephens (21C) made that mistake in her Feb. 12 Wheel op-ed. The trick is to know how to differentiate problematic organizations from ones that benefit society.

The volunteer service world is well aware of many organizations that operate in the way she describes: marketing poverty, not making much of a difference and harming communities. But her op-ed suggests that the vast majority of volunteer organizations operate this way. This is quite unfair to those of us making a real difference, and I urge her to take a more balanced approach to the industry. For example, Globe Aware, like Habitat for Humanity, works in conjunction with locals; locals lead the projects and choose how we go about them.

Another area where many would disagree is to think these programs shouldn’t also benefit the volunteer. But they do. A member of a school or church (also a nonprofit) benefits themselves (and others) by volunteering. Some churches do better community work than others, but it is incorrect to make blanket statements. I generally do not respect organizations that run their programs for profit, because this allows them to hide where their money goes, since they are not required to disclose that information. Globe Aware requires local communities to choose the volunteer’s projects and make decisions about how they’re executed, to make sure already vulnerable populations are not further imperiled.

As an example, on Globe Aware’s website, it plainly states our approach to orphanages, an often exploited institution: we only interact with orphans in group settings, and we offer something that cannot be taken away, through a weekly event, like cooking them a protein-based meal. We have seen the conditions that Stephens refers to, most specifically in Cusco while working with a group that kept the children poor. We donated blankets and found they were sold the next day. We learned quickly how careful we have to be to make sure we are making a positive impact. So she is correct that how organizations interact with the community is important. Because of our near-constant presence on each location, we are continuously following up.

Stephens was clearly exposed to some organizations that didn’t do well, so she is trying to label all programs as the same. We stand behind what we do: build schools in Romania, build houses in Guatemala and provide stoves in Peru. Stephens doesn’t understand all the great programs out there. It is through initiatives like ours, Habitat for Humanity and the American Hiking Society that volunteers are working side by side with locals on meaningful projects and making cultural connections in a way it is difficult to do otherwise. By making the statements she does, Stephens is damaging organizations like ours and discouraging volunteers from being a part of a transformative experience for themselves and for recipient communities. The more responsible thing to do is to start giving pointers on what to look for in a responsible organization, and what to watch out for, rather than making blanket statements.

I invite Stephens to speak to some of our community recipients to get their direct perspective. Talk to the family that got a new roof, or the one that got a concrete floor in their home or to the landmine victims in Cambodia receiving wheelchairs about whether or not our work was helpful to all involved.

Sincerely,

Haley Coleman (92C)

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