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Is Volunteering for Perks Really Volunteering?

July 19, 2011

In a recent article titled “Budget Excursions for Volunteers,” Michelle Higgens offers a new take on volunteer-tourism:

These days, it seems that just about every travel organization — from tour companies to luxury resorts — has a volunteer component, whether it is tracking iguanas on Grand Cayman or doling out food at soup kitchens in Moscow. You can even customize your trip, pitching in as much or as little as you want, while staying at upscale resorts…

[But] while it’s great to give back to the communities you visit, programs that offer vacationers a discount in exchange for their efforts are harder to find… Still, it’s possible to find a program that not only fits your vacation schedule but also gives you a little something in return for your time.

That little something? Higgens isn’t referring to a spark of warmth, that fuzzy feeling that comes with doing good. No, in this age of financial meltdown, she appeals to a sentiment that is far more universal. Discounts, coupons, and monetary perks are her lingua franca, and while these financial incentives may be inviting, are they consistent with the activity that Higgens intends to promote?

The Collins English Dictionary defines volunteerism is the “principle of donating time and energy for the benefit of other people in the community as a social responsibility rather than for any financial reward.” By this standard, volunteer activity is divorced from financial incentives, including those that Higgens seems to highlight.

Her article features several different programs that promote volunteer activity, and for each program, she explains “What You Get” out of the experience. From her discussion of the Appalachian Mountain Club, a conservation group that sponsors volunteer-trips to clean up trails,

What You Get: A super-cheap vacation. On St. John, for example, volunteers stay in 10-by-14-foot tents with a solid floor and mosquito netting for $330 a week, or roughly $55 a night (tourists pay about $90 a night). Volunteers work about four to six hours a day carrying 20 to 30 pounds of tools and materials, clearing drainage ditches, brushing back vegetation and building rock stairs. Afternoons are free for swimming, snorkeling or lounging on the beach.

Higgens is even more explicit when discussing a program at offered by the Marco Island Marriott Resort, which encourages visitors to volunteer at a local YMCA:

What You Get: 15 percent off room rates through Sept. 30.

Now, undoubtedly, someone will read Higgen’s article, book a room, and spend a couple hours at the Y. Because of her piece, some vacationer will spend less time at the beach and more time with a broom. And, undoubtedly, this is a good thing.

Though Higgens may not have intended for her piece to start a philosophical firestorm (or at the very least, if she did, the New York Times should have offered better real-estate than the Travel Section), her approach to volunteer-tourism raises new questions about the definition of volunteerism itself: must charitable work stem entirely from altruism? Are economic incentives absolutely verboten? The United States has long offered tax deductions for charitable giving. Do incentives necessarily corrupt the purity of volunteerism?

No matter what position one takes on this issue, volunteer activity is distinguished from financial activity by some degree of motivation. And for all the criticism of traditional volunteer-tourism (which often goes to the refrain of “Western tourists need to stop gaping at local communities while performing make-work projects that achieve nothing”), at least these practices appealed to a something higher than financial motive.

Higgens’ article, by contrast, seems content to ignore the heart-strings and settle instead for the purse-strings. Her approach may be more rational, but it also obscures the meaning of volunteerism. In many ways, volunteering is a non-rational activity, but then again, where would be the world be without the crazy ones?

Further Reading:

Poverty Tourism and the Problem of Consent,” an academic analysis by Kyle Powys Whyte, Evan Selinger, and Kevin Outterson to be published in the Journal of Global Ethics (h/t Chris Blattman)
How can I take an ethical vacation and still have a good time?” by Slate Magazine
Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s Four Guidelines for Volunteering Overseas

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