Gen Z and Service Vacations: “First, Do No Harm”

Volunteer vacations, service vacations, “voluntourism” – regardless of what you call the growing trend of traveling with the intent of doing unpaid work to make a positive contribution, it seems almost custom made for Gen Z.  Service based travel, with revenues estimated at $2 billion and growing, ticks numerous boxes for Generation Z as they enter their college years.  It provides a way to see the world and feel good about participating in a community or environmental project.  It offers something different to do for the growing number who are taking ‘gap years’ and can be perceived as a way to beef up a participant’s college application.  On the surface, the concept seems to be a win-win for all involved.  However, the reality is much more complex and the results can range from being beneficial to having no true impact to unintentionally causing real harm to the communities that participants are striving to benefit.  Additionally, a lack of understanding—in terms of program impact and personal contribution—can work against a college applicant.

I spoke with a former Ivy League admissions officer who also spent time running a long-term volunteer nonprofit in Africa.  He asked to remain anonymous given the sensitive nature of our conversation but told me that during his tenure in the admissions office at one of the most competitive colleges in the United States, he saw literally thousands of “I volunteered in Africa” essays.  He went on to describe the majority of these as “devastating” where the authors naively overestimated their personal impact, missed the damage they might be causing, unintentionally perpetuated racial inequities, and more often than not drew the common conclusion that the people purportedly benefiting were “poor but happy”.  “That misses the whole point of the experience and takes a ‘we are right’ attitude without stopping to do some hard self-reflection and questioning.  For example, asking ‘Why am I surprised by that?’ or ‘Why, when I have everything I could possibly want, am I not happier?’  The communities are regarded as objects, like going on a ride at Disney.” he lamented.

Some critics argue that the potential for negative impact outweighs the benefits of volunteer vacations.  However, the flip side is that these trips do bring money into communities and have the potential to educate participants and build bridges across cultures.  Nevertheless, similar to the Hippocratic Oath the first consideration when selecting a service vacation should be “do no harm”.  If you are a member of Gen Z or the parent of a Gen Z teen searching for this type of experience, you should do a lot of research before writing a check and signing on the dotted line.

Five Questions to Consider:  This is by no means an exhaustive list given the complex nature of volunteer vacations, but there are a few important questions to address if you are considering signing up for a service vacation.

1. Are the organizational goals aligned with the best interests of the community?

It’s important to understand whether the community is driving the request for the service you are being asked to provide, whether there is a genuine need, and whether the proposed volunteer solution is in the best long-term interest of the intended recipients.  Absent this, there is the very real possibility of harm.  For example, there has been a backlash against organizations that sponsor volunteer vacations abroad to orphanages.  Research has shown that growing up in orphanages has detrimental effects on health and life prospects and also places children at higher risk for physical and sexual abuse.

Ironically and sadly, these volunteer orphanages perpetuate “orphans”.  Better Volunteering Better Care (BVBC), an interagency initiative that is spearhead by the Better Care Network and Save the Children UK and that promotes ethical volunteer initiatives to support families and children, estimates over 80% of children living in orphanages are not orphans.  They explain that in some cases these children have families that want to care for them but are unable to due to poverty or a lack of support for other reasons (for example, caring for a disabled child).  Other children may have been placed in orphanages to generate needed income for their family.  An even worse scenario is that orphanages, funded and served by well-intentioned voluntourists, can contribute to child trafficking.

2. What is the impact on the local economy?

The free labor that volunteers provide may sound like a good thing, but prospective volunteers need to consider whether their efforts to do good are taking needed employment away from locals.  As Lynne Mitchell from the Centre for International Programs at the University of Guelph in Canada said in a recent interview discussing ethical volunteering abroad with University Affairs “People get all excited to go build a school in Kenya, and all I do is say to them, ‘Is there no one in Kenya that can hammer a nail?’ And that alone — they hadn’t thought of that.” Although volunteers pay money to participate in these programs, there are many instances where the local economy would be far better served by creating jobs for locals.

3. Are the volunteers qualified to do the work they are being asked to do?

When considering a volunteer vacation, assess whether the work you will be doing is something you would be qualified to do at home.  This is especially important for Gen Z-ers who are still young and with limited work experience may not be qualified in their home country in professions such as construction or childcare.   If the task isn’t something you would be able to do back in your country of origin then think twice about whether this is the right organization to partner with.

The best-case scenario of unqualified volunteers can mean the work has to be redone.  In her now famous blog post titled “The Problem With Little White Girls (And Boys): Why I Stopped Being A Voluntourist”, Pippa Biddle spoke about the great lengths the program she participated in took in order to let the volunteers feel they were doing something truly meaningful in order to justify having taken their money.  She writes, “Our mission…was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.” The worst-case scenarios involving unqualified volunteers can be harmful to the host community.  Imagine what could have happened if nobody had redone Pippa and her colleagues’ shoddy construction work.

4. Is the volunteer program building the foundation for a better future or is it creating dependency on aid?

While giving away free labor or free items may seem noble on the surface, it may do nothing to alleviate the underlying causes of poverty and lack and can perpetuate the problem.  Considering that Gen Z has a socially conscious mindset with regard to their future careers—60% of Gen Z want their jobs to impact the world —they should naturally consider the ramifications of their volunteer efforts.  The risks include preventing the local economy and local jobs from developing or creating a dangerous ‘the savior versus the helpless’ power dynamic.

Jason Haber, social entrepreneur and author of the “The Business of Good”, talks about the journey that the founder of Tom’s Shoes, Blake Mycoskie, took towards this understanding in a recent article. The business model of Tom’s Shoes, the “buy a pair, give a pair” program whereby each pair of shoes purchased was matched with a pair given to a needy child.  But having a sustainable model required an ongoing supply of poor, shoeless children.  Critics of Mycoskie pointed this out repeatedly prompting his genuine self-reflection and as a result, new processes were installed such as the construction of manufacturing plants in Haiti, Ethiopia, and Kenya designed to create local employment opportunities.

Potential volunteers should research a sponsoring organization to understand their theory of change and evaluate whether their business model is based on increasing self-sufficiency within the host country or requires the dependency of the population served.

One organization that strives to successfully address these four questions is School The World, which aims to build schools in rural parts of Africa.  STW works with the local community and government to establish the need, uses locals for the main construction, and brings in young volunteers—who have helped raise the funds needed for the project—for tasks such as cosmetic painting.  Additionally, the program has ongoing local teacher and parent training programs and monitors student progress to evaluate their impact.

Lastly, ask…

5. Is the organization focused on what you can give as a volunteer or on what you can learn?

While initially counterintuitive, organizations that primarily talk about the good you can do as a volunteer are often the ones to be most cautious about.  “These organizations are speaking to the volunteer’s ego [and ultimately their—or their parents’—wallets]” explained the Ivy League admissions officer/volunteer nonprofit leader I spoke with before going on to say, “Focus on making a friend.  A true friend where you treat each other as equals.”  Organizations that talk about building relationships and learning are the most promising.  Additionally, consider the length of time spent in the endeavor.  While not everyone can go abroad for months at a time, recognize that it is difficult, if not impossible, to form genuine relationships during a ‘one-hit week’ volunteer vacation.

Annie, a Gen Z I spoke with who has participated in multiple trips with School The World, told me that the reason she keeps going back is because of the relationships.  “I really love it.  [We] get to go back to the community we worked with last year and see the students again.” And, in true Gen Z form, she explained that she keeps in contact via social media saying, “I’m friends on Facebook and Instagram with some of the local staff.”

In conclusion, Gen Z stands to gain a lot from both travel and volunteer work.  However, signing up for a volunteer vacation without doing the proper due diligence can have negative consequences.  It’s important to ask the right questions, do your research, and really think about your goals.  The best, most genuine and most worthwhile experiences are about personal growth and building relationships.


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