Voluntourism vs Volunteering, Part Two: The Differences and Why Voluntourism Doesn't Work

Every African Sunrise blog begins with us giving a little statement about who we are and what our purpose is. We do this because it's essential for us to portray ourselves and our company honestly and transparently. Not only that, we want potential volunteers, interns and students to get to know us more.

African Sunrise is an all-female Pty company based in Cape Town, South Africa. We work with volunteers, interns and field studies students who travel from Sweden, usually to coincide with a higher education degree.

Unlike many other companies that work with volunteers, African Sunrise doesn't have a tourism aspect to our business. Our primary focus is providing meaningful experiences where every person can make a real difference. And although there is always a fun element to visiting Cape Town to volunteer, undertake an internship or field studies exercise, primarily, our people are here to work.

That's why the practice of ‘voluntourism' is particularly problematic for us. The two things – volunteering and tourism – don't sit well together, which we'll cover in more detail in this blog. We previously wrote and published a blog around the differences between volunteering and voluntourism, which you can read here.

An article that was published in The Guardian in 2018 by Tina Rosenberg was a catalyst for us to revisit the subject and write this blog article, and we agree with her work on exposing voluntourism. There are some points that we don't fully subscribe, and we also feel that volunteering and its benefits get dragged into the same conversation as voluntourism because of the ‘white saviour' myth.


Homes of Safety – How They Differ from Orphanages –

The first place we'll begin at is to explain what a Home of Safety is, and how they differ from orphanages or similar state institutions. After reading about the horrific conditions of the orphanages in Guatemala, it's a valid point that a lot of the children in those institutions should be with their families. We also found some of the stories Tina wrote about very heart-breaking, and at times, infuriating. It's difficult to comprehend how so much money can solve so little.

However, every country has similarities and differences, which is also true for different cities in the same region. The African Sunrise team works with several Homes of Safety in Cape Town, and there are processes and systems that you'll also find in a more traditional orphanage. Many of the children who stay at the Homes of Safety we work with sleep at the facility and spend most of their time there.

The following description is from our website and is an example of how a Home of Safety we work with operates:

‘This Home of Safety is for infants, children and adolescents, both male and female. Every infant, child or teenager is there from a referral by a social worker or workers and placed at the Home by order of a children's court.

The children are often removed from homes and environments where violence and substance abuse were commonplace. Many, if not all the children have suffered from physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse.

The Home is a full-time facility, and the children live onsite. They have a set daily schedule which includes education, sports and other activities. Everyone has regular sessions with a qualified social worker, who may also work with the child's family for family reintegration purposes.'

Hopefully, the differences between the Homes of Safety and a traditional orphanage are more apparent, in addition to the benefits involved with these facilities are more evident. A lot of focus is put on education, socialising, activities, and where possible, family reintegration. We'll discuss the vital role of the volunteer, interns and field studies students later in this article.


Voluntourism – Reasons to Avoid It and Vacation Instead –

It's difficult to know where to start with the issues that surround voluntourism, other than to state that it's something we flat out refuse to involve ourselves in. With some companies offering voluntourism packages that last two-three weeks in duration, it's a pointless exercise, both for the people paying for the experience and the users of the facilities and organisations involved.

Voluntourism is a money-making scheme with no benefits to the organisations they are supposed to be helping. And the companies that run these types of packages should be held under greater scrutiny. In Tina's article, she suggests that it would be more beneficial for the people who undertake voluntourism exertions to stay at home and donate instead.

We agree on this completely, especially as the work the voluntourists end up performing when they arrive at their destination is mostly redundant. In fact, if anyone was considering a voluntourism package, instead, they should go on vacation to somewhere like Guatemala and find a suitable local charity they can donate directly to while there. And if they feel further compelled to continue helping after they return home, they could become a champion of their cause and become a dedicated fundraiser for their organisation.

Voluntourism, at its core, is an impossible concept. Not only does the time period make it unlikely that any progress can be made, but the lack of structure and idea of splitting the time between volunteering and tourism also doesn't work. That's why volunteering is the only feasible way to make any form of meaningful contribution to any organisation that needs assistance.


African Sunrise – How Volunteering with Us Can Make a Real Difference –

The first thing that we need to discuss and address is the ‘white saviour' myth. Although this term rightfully adds context to why voluntourism doesn't work and that some people might be choosing to undertake these types of packages for gratification purposes, many people sign up from a genuine wish to improve the lives of others.

And in all honesty, it's not the intention of the people who pay for voluntourism trips that are the problem – it's the operators themselves. They're selling people false promises and at a very high price. That's why we don't use the term ‘white saviour' because it's aimed at the wrong target. Any company that offers voluntourism is at fault and the more voices that can be added in opposition to this the better.

Volunteering, on the other hand, is an entirely different setup, but this also depends on the credibility and ethos of the company running the programme. At African Sunrise, we made it our mission to do things differently. It might not surprise our readers when we state that we understand how unscrupulous companies work. That's because we previously worked in these types of environments and it was a soul-destroying experience.

Rather than regurgitate precisely what sorts of poor practices occurred when working for our previous employer, instead, we would prefer to state what we do as a company. Every organisation and project we list as part of our volunteering, internships and field studies programmes are thoroughly vetted. We employ a full-time Project Liaison Manager who is in continuous contact with every single NPO and organisation we work with.

We also have a full-time Volunteer Liaison Manager who looks after every single person who books with us for their entire stay. Our primary purpose is to provide meaningful experiences that our volunteers, interns and field studies students will remember for the rest of their lives. And as we mentioned earlier in this article – volunteers are here to work and make a real difference.

When a volunteer arrives, we work with them and their chosen organisation to create a volunteer schedule. The reason behind this is to ensure that there are structure and goals to work towards. They're encouraged to run their own workshops, organise day events, and many also fundraise for their project. All volunteers have a mentor they report to on a weekly basis, and while they're allowed to take a day or two off from their project, they must ensure everyone is informed about their whereabouts.

If you're thinking about volunteering and you're worried that you might end up in a situation where you book a voluntourism package by mistake, here are some basic questions to consider when you're in communication with an operator or company:

  1. How long is the typical volunteering package?

Note – you should be looking to volunteer for no less than four weeks, six is a preferable amount of time.

  1. Is the operator or company discussing a lot of tourist day trips and additional packages instead of giving you more details of your volunteering project?

Note – while there are lots of companies that diversify and have different departments, there should still be a separation between the two. If you're signing up for a six-week volunteering trip, you shouldn't be given lots of information and pricing on skydiving or shark-cage diving. You can always find out about additional activities when you arrive.

  1. Is the operator or company unclear, vague, or inconsistent with pricing?

Note – although it's always welcome to get a deal or discount, it should never be done in a flippant or salesperson manner. A firm answer with a list of prices shows that the operator or company is organised, and that's the type of people you should trust with your money.

  1. Has the operator or company gone through a thorough list of what each volunteering, internship or field studies package consists of?

Note – you should be fully aware of what you're signing up for before you commit to something contractually or financially.

  1. Has the operator or company guaranteed that there will be a dedicated person you can contact whenever you need to?


  1. Is the operator or company willing to provide a contract that stipulates their obligations, especially in the event of any issues?

The above points can easily have additional questions included, but the consensus is that the operator or company you're booking with should leave you feeling confident that you'll receive a quality and memorable volunteering experience.

If at any time during communications with a prospective operator or company do you feel uninformed, confused or they're trying to hard-sell you other unrelated packages or trips, take a step back and look at alternatives. Discuss things with your university or college lecturer and ask them to join the conversation, in addition to your parents or a guardian.

An honest company will always be happy to do this if they have your permission to do so. The African Sunrise team is in contact with university lecturers on a regular basis as it constitutes part of many internships criteria.

At African Sunrise, we believe in the powerful change that our volunteers make to the lives of some of Cape Town's most vulnerable people. Every African Sunrise volunteer makes a real contribution towards a more equal society during their visit. Additionally, many of our previous volunteers continue to fundraise and support the organisations they worked with after they return home. Some even return to us to undertake an internship or as part of a field studies group. 

Although our volunteers, internship and field studies students have mini adventures and have plenty of fun while they're in Cape Town, the primary reason for their visit is to work. While Cape Town is a beautiful city, it remains an unequal one. And voluntourism has no place in the fight towards a more fair and equal society, and its practitioners are merely opportunistic people who don't care about this city. Nor do they care about the people who pay them for their voluntourism packages.

If you want to discuss our volunteering programmes in detail, please feel free to contact us. We're always happy to go through our packages thoroughly, ensuring that you understand what a real volunteering experience entails.

Share this post