Who gets the most out of voluntourism? Image by Ann Santori.

The ethics of so-called “voluntourism” have been a topic of discussion (both within the travel community and outside its boundaries, in the pages of more mainstream media) for a few years now.

Every time I come across another take on the issue, I remember an episode of Friends in which Phoebe and Joey were engaged in a fundamental, philosophical difference of opinion (I know, who would have thought it of those two?). The question at hand: Is an act of charity ever truly selfless if the giving makes you, the giver, feel good?

I have worked (and continue to work) in many different types of jobs (both paid and unpaid) in the social service sector. And, while undeniable that some (and maybe even most) of these positions were grueling and un-fulfilling enough to only reward me with monetary compensation,others have been so personally and professionally rewarding that the fact that I was collecting a paycheck felt almost too good to be true!

When it comes to writing and updating my resume, I feel strange including positions such as these (and my unpaid volunteer work). It doesn’t feel right to call an activity that you enjoy so heartily “work” at all . . . rather like listing “crochet aficionado from 2007-present.”

As regular Go Girl readers know, my last vacation took me through Utah and Arizona, culminating in a week-long volunteer stint at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

The Best Friends staff (who were, all of them, eerily friendly . . . maybe it was the altitude) showered us with gratitude at every juncture, despite the fact that, in my opinion, we were the ones getting the deal.


For under $100, just try and beat this view. Image by Ann Santori.

For $60 a night, a volunteer (or even just a visitor!) could rent an immaculately clean and well-furnished cabin on the premises . . . with its unobstructed view of the sparkling night sky.

For $5, lunch every day was an endless vegetarian buffet complete with coffee, tea, and dessert. Though, don’t get me wrong, after a week of even the tastiest and most plentiful pastas and salads, I was desperately craving a big, juicy steak.

What was Best Friends getting out of this bargain?

Even factoring in the cost of labor provided by volunteers (who were tasked with light chores such as preparing the animals’ meals and mucking horse stalls), they couldn’t possibly be coming out ahead . . . at least in the monetary sense of things.

Then again, the quantifiable necessities of a non-profit venture, especially one of caregiving, are not always the only factor. Undeniably, the animals at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary have a better quality of life than at most (if not all) other animal shelters.  They have access to acres upon acres of unspoiled land to explore, top-of-the-line medical care, and adoption events nationwide.

But even an extremely well-funded non-profit won’t have the manpower to provide the “personal touch.” A workforce supplied through “voluntourism” (with its revolving roster of employees), however, has several unique benefits.


It’s story time! Image by Ann Santori.

Not only is there excess time available for non-essential tasks (See a snapshot of “story time” above.), but it minimizes the “burnout” effect that strikes so many of those who do this kind of good, and draining, work. And, when the temporary workers leave, the regular workforce is still feeling the effects of their contagious passion for the cause.

Have you ever taken a voluntourism trip?  Whom did you feel benefited from your work?