Voluntourism 2014: What to Expect in the Year Ahead

2014It is that time of year again. Time to pull out the crystal ball, the prognosticating diving rod, the tarot cards, the ouija board – anything we can get our hands on to figure out what lies ahead for voluntourism in the 362 remaining days of 2014.

It won’t hurt, however, to start by looking back at the things that we identified for 2013 and whether they came to pass, if at all, and to what degree. The five items on the 2013 List were:

  1. Shifting Demographics Means More Discernment
  2. Family Voluntourism To Continue Its Surge
  3. Geo-coding & Geo-mapping: A New Role for Voluntourists
  4. Higher Education Stressing Global Education for Students
  5. Domestic & International Voluntourism In/To The Developed World

Discernment – check. We definitely saw more discernment from working professionals connecting with voluntourism in 2013. Family voluntourism – check. More families than ever before determined how to engage in voluntourism in 2013. Geo-mapping – has not materialized on a broad scale. Higher education stressing global education – check (I took a Dean and a group of students throughout Bolivia discussing the challenges of voluntourism and the experience has now been incorporated into a course at the university – SDSU.). Domestic & international voluntourism in/to the developed world – check. (Italy, SaveVernazza to be exact, served as host to voluntourists who went to the village and volunteered to help in the restoration following the October 2011 mudslides there – we will showcase SaveVernazza in the upcoming issue of The VolunTourist Newsletter. We also saw the launch of Habitat for Humanity’s VolunTourism Center in Central Florida.)

Alright, so not too bad for 2013 – four out of five solid items, with one still in the works – geo-mapping. As for 2014…

Voluntourism in 2014

1) #TMOMs Voluntourism Year – this is an easy one because TravelingMom.com has already made it official that 2014 is the Year of Voluntourism for #TMOMs. What we do not know is what the ripple effects of this adoption will mean. We saw families really start clamoring for voluntourism in 2013, but with #TMOMs emphasizing voluntourism for moms – those lovely ladies who make most of the travel decisions for families throughout the world, it could seriously raise the participation rate for families beyond what we saw in 2013.

I also get the sense that #TMOMs will take voluntourism in new directions, uncover new territory, and will likely emphasize the importance of giving money, not only time, to causes and issues that are important. We may see a particular focus on children’s charities, for example. And because many #TMOMs engage in U.S. domestic travel, we could see a significant surge in voluntourism in the U.S.

Pay attention to how #TMOMs reshapes voluntourism in 2014.

2) Anniversaries for “Gen-2” Volunteer Vacation Companies & NGOs – As we enter the middle of decade #2 of the 21st Century, many of the second generation volunteer vacation companies and NGOs will be celebrating two decades worth of offering products & services. For example, i-to-i, which was bought out by TUI five-plus years ago, will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. While some of the voluntourism companies will only be celebrating their 1-decade anniversaries, the NGOs and companies which first brought us the “mission trip” sans religion in the form of (as an example) teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) back in the mid-90’s will be recounting their respective histories and rallying alumni to spread the word and draw new recruits to the fold.

Although many of these Gen-2 Volunteer Vacation companies & NGOs have changed their models and approaches since their respective inceptions, this has not necessarily resonated with all of the stakeholders. Will we see some clashes over idealism in 2014? Stay tuned.

3) The Rise of Voluntourism Centers – As we saw nations launch national campaigns around voluntourism in 2013 – see Thailand and Malaysia as examples, it is predicted that in 2014 we will see the first of its kind voluntourism centers launched around the world. These centers will likely be of two types.

The first type will be an NGO model whereby visiting voluntourists will be able to directly coordinate their desires to volunteer in a given destination through a non-profit organization that specializes in offering such a service. The second type will be a destination marketing organization (DMO) model. DMOs will elect to have a dedicated voluntourism center within their operations to meet the needs of business & leisure travelers seeking to volunteer within a given destination. Both models will be able to guide voluntourists through the visa process, planning their trips, identifying organizations with which they can volunteer, etc.

What is not known at this point is how many of these voluntourism centers will be developed in response to natural disasters, say in the case of the Philippines, for example. What may also be surprising is whether we see such centers spring up in the developed world as opposed to the emerging world. 2014 should provide us with insights as to how these will play out.

4) Higher Education & Voluntourism – Just as Stanford University has launched its D.School for designing solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, 2014 is likely to see the launch of a Voluntourism Institute that focuses on bringing together the various schools of thought on the intersection of voluntary service & travel. Service learning, volunteer tourism, international volunteering – to date, academia has split-off these silos to keep the grand cycle of publishing (not perishing) possible for academics seeking tenure. As integral & interdisciplinary theory starts to wend its way through the academic hierarchy, we will see a greater concentration on how students engaging in voluntary service and travel – regardless of what it is called – have similar motivations, similar expectations, similar impacts on communities, and participate in similar experiences via many of the same stakeholder channels – the travel & tourism supply chain, the public sector, the NGO sector, and local communities.

Despite these similarities, however, there is very little focus on integration – each academic institution is grasping for its identity amidst a new world order. With any luck, perhaps a lot will be necessary, we will see academics crossing lines and crafting a model for incorporating all of these points of view under one umbrella.

***Voluntourism Center/Voluntourism Institute Combination – It may very well be possible for a voluntourism center/voluntourism institute to be combined in a given location – thus offering a space for researchers, academics, and students to conduct research and at the same time engage in voluntary service and travel within a given destination. Other visitors would also have access to this same space, an available database, etc. The combination could be even better than having two separate entities as outlined above.

5) The Public Sector & Data Under Duress: 2014 The Year of Collective & Cooperative Data Publication – We have discussed the perils that voluntourism may face in the near-term as governments begin a crackdown on what we are calling “grey-black market aid.” If the public sector does move forward, as it did in Namibia in 2013 (see pages 17 – 21 of the referenced document), we may see a rush to cooperative data collection and publication by voluntourism outfits in 2014.

So far, we have seen no such organized, collective & collaborative publication of voluntourism data. NGOs and companies simply do not see the importance of it. If countries like Namibia, however, make it more difficult for individuals to acquire a visa to volunteer in a country, or crackdown on infractions, as will likely be the case in Nepal and Cambodia in 2014, we could see the impetus for publishing data.

In either case, 2014 is shaping up to be the year for a collective & cooperative data publication on voluntourism.

Final Thoughts…

Voluntourism has grown exponentially over the last decade. Despite the growth, voluntourism has never formalized itself and this is going to pose some serious challenges in 2014 and beyond. Instead of partnerships and collaborations, we simply get more fish in the sea – great if you are a shark, not so great if you are a fish in search of food.

As voluntourism continues to move out from under the umbrella of “alternative tourism,” there is a chance that countries and key decision makers will take it more seriously. If this be the case, then we can count on voluntourism centers and a voluntourism institute cropping up in the very near future. 2014 appears to feature the initial ingredients for making this a reality.


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