Voluntourism is a rapidly growing industry. We all know people who have participated in these programs, skipping off to a remote village for a couple weeks and returning home wide-eyed, with a dozen pictures of themselves hugging foreign children.
Don't get me wrong, a desire to make a positive change should be encouraged, but people interested in international volunteering need to get a realistic grasp on the situation.
Last year, I worked in Latin America for a North American company that facilitates overseas volunteer experiences. I reviewed applications, helped prepare volunteers, and followed up with evaluations. When there were complaints, it was most often that a volunteer didn't feel they were needed at organization X. The vast majority of volunteers I encountered did not make a valuable contribution to their host organization and this is the main problem with these programs. They are not focused on sustainable change.
International volunteer companies are most popular with recent high school and university graduates, who have limited or no relevant experience to the placement they express interest in. In these cases, a volunteer may unwittingly end up fulfilling a role that a local could have been compensated for, or the volunteer's work might result in a reduction of a paid employee's hours. Volunteers going abroad who can do meaningful work and provide specialized assistance represent a small fraction of participants.
Some volunteers are looking for an opportunity to beef up their resume, and gain a taste of the work they think they may want to pursue later in life. Others go into their placement for as little as several days and think they are going to change somebody's life. A few may be aware that their role is minimal, but opt for the experience for the cultural experience. In many of these cases volunteers are extremely dependent on the host organization's staff, who often end up spending more energy on accommodating the volunteer than he or she is actually worth.
This is, of course, also the fault of the company offering these services. These programs come at a cost, and many of these companies would much rather accept a volunteer lacking skills than turn away his/her money.
From my experiences, both as a volunteer and volunteer coordinator, I would make the following recommendations. If you are deeply interested in volunteering abroad, realize that it is for your own benefit, and that you may not be helping anyone else. Otherwise, wait until you have both the time and skill set to make a valuable contribution.
I would also recommend cutting out the middleman. If you wish to volunteer abroad, consider an area where you know there is need, research local organizations and contact them directly. This makes some people nervous, but if there is truly need in the area you are in, there won't be a shortage of opportunities to volunteer. A longer time commitment might be expected of you, because making a positive impact at anything, anywhere, requires a time investment.
Taking this route will also allow you to personally find out if you meet the organization's needs. And you'll save a great deal of money that you otherwise would have spent on the organization responsible for finding you a placement. By contacting an organization directly and finding out how you can help, you're also making the important recognition that you need to adjust to the local needs and expectations, which avoids being just another traveling volunteer group that imposes their plans and values on a community. This requires a great deal more initiative, but if you don't possess the independence that this requires, you're likely not prepared for this experience. Doing this would increase the likelihood of finding an organization that actually needs volunteers.
Finally, if you're interested in volunteering and you don't have any experience, consider volunteering locally. This might be unappealing to those who are particularly interested in traveling, but if you don't have any applicable skills that you can transfer, you might be of better use in an environment you're familiar with. If you still want to make an international contribution, consider educating yourself on international causes and fundraising on behalf of one whose mandate resonates with you. The reality is that if you don't have a particular skill set to offer abroad, your money will likely go further than your time, especially when you only have a couple of weeks to spare.