This article was published by our friends at The International Ecotourism Society, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article on their Your Travel Choice blog.
Volunteering abroad, also known as voluntourism, is on fire. More and more, all kinds of people are looking for travel experiences where they can serve the under-served, globally. Who can disagree with such noble intentions? In fact, voluntourism is often hailed as one of the most constructive forms of tourism out there.
Like anything new and fast-growing, voluntourism can go awry. Opportunistic travel companies commercialize what should be kept in the non-profit sector, charging voluntourists a hefty premium. NGOs use voluntourists as a fundraising mechanism, taking more advantage of their willingness to pay than their willingness to work. As voluntourism gains scale in certain destinations, it can even affect local labor markets in ways the voluntourists never imagine. Rightly so, skeptics have started blowing whistles and calling for best practices.
The economics of voluntourism is a hot issue in the larger debate about voluntourism’s impacts. Where are voluntourist dollars going? How much stays with the coordinating organization, and how much enters the local economy in a meaningful way? If you’re thinking about volunteer travel, these are the kinds of questions that are worth asking. If you’re an organization that is coordinating volunteer tourists, these are the kind of questions that are important to answer. Transparency is key.
Volunteering with Sustainable Bolivia in Cochabamba
Sustainable Bolivia is a registered non-profit organization in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city. Here, it partners with 28 local non-profit organizations to coordinate volunteer and internship opportunities for international students and professionals. The organizations span a number of fields of development: public health, the environment, education, human rights, and social services.
Volunteers choose which organization they would like to get involved with, depending on their experiences, educational background, and interests. With its diverse network of local non-profit organizations, Sustainable Bolivia is in a good position to match volunteer skills and resources with the places in and around Cochabamba that could use them the most.
Engineers who want to work on appropriate technology solutions find a good match with Energetica, which works on alternative energy sources in the rural communities of Bolivia. Doctors and health care professionals have a number of choices for applying their skills, like Atendi where they can work with kids with disabilities, or Centro de Salud Cerro Verde if their interest is in reproductive health. For creative types and performers, Sustainable Bolivia has an artist residency program and a partner organizations like Performing Life, which provides underprivileged youth with workshops to develop juggling and other circus show skills.
The Mini Grant Program at Sustainable Bolivia
In 2009, the administration of Sustainable Bolivia started thinking about how they could make volunteer impacts more transparent. They realized that volunteers were the ones who were working directly in the field, in close contact with local partner organizations. The volunteers could see firsthand the most pressing needs on site at their projects.
In February of that year, the innovative new mini grant system was introduced. It’s a system where volunteers can decide exactly how their money is used in the community, and Sustainable Bolivia has one more way to measure and report contribution its to parter organizations. How does it work? For each month that a volunteer works with Sustainable Bolivia, $75 goes toward a mini grant. So, a volunteer that stays for three months has $225 to use toward their volunteer project in the way they think is most appropriate.
In order to apply their mini grants, volunteers are required to fill out an application explaining their project plans and budget. Then, once it has been approved, the volunteer is also required to submit receipts. This process allows for an organization-level reporting system on how volunteer money is being spent.
In keeping with the transparency that Sustainable Bolivia values, it publishes all mini grant activity on its website. On this fascinating page, viewers can see what each volunteer has done with each local partner organization. You can see a short description of the project, the application form, and the receipts showing where the money was spent. More than an ingenious system that ensures transparency about volunteer funds, it’s an elegant composite portrait of the kinds of activities that volunteers can do at Sustainable Bolivia and what the organization is about.
Blogging and Hula Hoops
I applied to spend time at Sustainable Bolivia through their artist residency program, asking if online content creation counts as a form of art. They were happy to accept me as their resident writer. Once I arrived, I had a meeting with Michelle, the national director, about the best way to use my volunteer time. Their website blog had become a little neglected, she said. I loved the idea of helping bring it back to life. By the end of my three month stay, I had five new posts published on the blog.
As my time there passed, I was looking for ways to apply my own mini grant funding. The mini grant program inspired me to close my laptop and get involved on the ground level. My first week there, I had seen a show put on by Performing Life, amazed by the talent of its kids in juggling, diabalos, and unicycles. Since I’m a circus hobbyist myself, I was especially impressed by 13-year-old Scarlet and her fire poi spinning skills. I wanted to learn from her. I noticed that the organization could use some hula hoops to make its circus equipment more complete, and I started planning a project for my mini grant resources.
With my mini grant money, I went to the massive La Cancha local market and bought everything needed to make high-quality, performance-level hula hoops. I found PVC tubing, connectors, duct tape, electrical tape, and even some shiny decorative tape to finish the hoops with color and flair. My mini grant funding went a long way in Bolivia. By the end of my time there, I had made 15 new hula hoops, which were a big hit with the Performance Life kids.
All the materials for hula hoop construction had only cost about $75. There was still more mini grant funding left. I wanted to donate it directly to Performing Life, but Michelle explained to me that it rolls over to the next volunteer working with Performing Life. In this way, they can keep things totally transparent and visible about how the funding is spent. It gave me another idea – maybe I’ll go back and be that next volunteer myself.