If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or my blog posts, you know this is unfailingly true: I love Fathom Travel. I love Fathom here; I love Fathom there; I love Fathom everywhere! (Editor’s Note: Fathom only travels to the Dominican Republic and Cuba.)
Unfortunately my love of Fathom didn’t make a good business model, because it is going out of business at the end of May. I am, of course, devastated—I had a minor breakdown when I heard the best travel experience I’d ever had was leaving forever. But then I plucked myself up off the heap of my broken dreams and realized I just needed to find other tour companies that were doing the same “impact travel” as Fathom.
Welp…that was faaaar easier said than done.
Fathom has been the best example of voluntourism I have ever discovered. (Voluntourism is traveling to volunteer. Pretty nifty, eh?) If not done well, voluntourism can not only have zero impact, it can have negative impact. So here are the do’s and don’ts of good voluntourism companies. I'll use Fathom's examples of how they achieve successful voluntourism; this way you can assess the next voluntourism company you check out.
Do Work with Existing Non-Profits/Don’t Set up Your Own
Fathom managed, er, manages—they’re still in business through May, folks!—to have an amazing impact on the Puerto Plata region of the Dominican Republic because they work with existing, local non-profits. In fact, they initially wanted to set up in Haiti, but no local non-profits existed, so they scooted on over to the DR. Working with a group that is created and curated by locals means the volunteer activities fit the region’s needs.
Not only that, the locals understand the nuances of their culture because, duh, it’s their culture. One example of a successfully executed activity is Fathom’s concrete floor project. A lot of people in the area have dirt floors, because concrete floors are too pricey. Some well-intended person (like you or I) might make the mistake of going down to Puerto Plata and saying, “Hm, why stop at floors? Why not build all these people houses?” Well, the people receiving the concrete floors have almost always built their own homes from the bottom up. They take great pride in the fact that they’ve had the ability and means to build their own house. And while we might look upon their houses and think, “We can build something better,” it wouldn’t be the same. We’d be giving them a house, but dealing a blow to their independence.
It’s not a bad idea—and it comes from a good place—but it has the potential to be a very low impact project.
Do Provide Helping Hands/Don’t Take Away Jobs
Two of Fathom’s impact activities involve working for co-ops—one paper, one chocolate (both fun!). I was highly skeptical of these two projects when I first heard of them. I don’t want to go on vacation to take away jobs from impoverished people. Fathom figured out a great way to help the women without hurting them!
At the chocolate co-op, our work helped increase production. And this was important, because they did not have the funds to hire other employees. In fact, our help allows them to pay back their business loan more quickly. For the recycled paper co-op we did much the same thing, and on both occasions we also became customers!
A danger with voluntourism can be to take jobs away from unemployed or underemployed locals. It’s one thing if you are offering temporary relief to help a business (i.e. the chocolate co-op) or providing a service no one can afford (i.e. concrete floors), but it’s another if you are actively stealing work. When researching a voluntourism company, ask them (or have your travel agent ask them) if they’ve researched their economic impact on the area. If not, skip ‘em.
Do Attempt Physical Work/Don’t Attempt Skilled Work
Have you ever been with a mission group or voluntourism trip where you erected a building or made something for the locals to use? When you were building/making did you ever feel like, “Wow, I have no idea what I’m doing.” If you have, you’ve not been on a very good voluntourism trip.
Skilled work (like building, making, teaching, etc.) requires—not shockingly—skills. If you are trying to do something that takes more than an hour or two to learn how to do, you could be causing more harm than good. Buildings can fall down. Poorly made water filters can be ineffective and make people sick instead of well. Children can get ineffective lesson after ineffective lesson and eventually learn nothing. Fathom does an excellent job making each job easy enough to learn and execute correctly in the time given.
When helping build the concrete floors, a lot of unskilled work is done by you, the traveler. You might help pass buckets or help carry things, but you do not need the knowledge of how to properly lay a concrete floor. And when it comes to making water filters, the process is so simple and well-supervised that you can make an effective, safe water filter in the allotted time!
Do Work with Children/Don’t Go to Orphanages
Children are great fun to work with on voluntourism trips! They’re eager to learn, to have new experiences, and they aren’t afraid to laugh at you if you do something silly. (And it’s impossible not to do something a child finds silly!) Fathom offers two impact activities with children: English language learning & Creative Arts, Music, & Sports (CAMS). English language learning is exactly what it sounds like. You’re not replacing teachers—you’re coming in and giving the students extra time to practice their English. Plus you engage in cross-cultural interaction and change lives (usually including yours). CAMS is a summer camp and therefore only functions in the summer. Again, you’re not taking away jobs—the school system can’t pay for a summer camp.
There comes a time when you’re searching for voluntourism activities and you might come across opportunities to visit or help out at orphanages. And this may seem like an amazing opportunity! You get to help children, and not only that, you get to help orphans. Who doesn’t need love more than orphans?
The sad truth of the matter is many, many orphanages linked to voluntourism are simply there to make a profit.
They take advantage of your desire to do good (or someone else’s desire to get a photo-op) and make money for themselves, giving nothing back to the children. One way to be extremely wary of orphanages is if they’ve popped up right after a natural disaster. After the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, orphanage tourism became very popular. So popular (and profitable) that children with parents were being sent to the orphanages so parents could make some money. Unless you’re going with a non-profit you find to be highly reputable, just avoid volunteering at an orphanage abroad altogether.
I know you want to do good, and you want to do it all throughout the world. But if you’ve not properly researched (or had your travel agent research), there’s a good chance your work will be meaningless. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, after all. But with the right knowledge you can spread your light all across the world!
Now get out there and go!