Voluntourism and SOS

The stigma surrounding voluntourism, or volunteer work abroad, is as vast as the numerous countries available for volunteers to travel to and participate in such work. Many academics, journalists, CEOs, and anyone in between have seriously doubted whether or not voluntourists can make a truly positive impact on the communities to which they travel. Most often the critique is that voluntourists usually do more harm than good.


Common critiques of voluntourism include:  

  1. Voluntourists are taking away paying jobs from locals.  
  2. Volunteers lack of training slows down the process of the project they are working on.
  3. Voluntourists make communities dependant on their services and then leave abruptly.
  4. Trips are focused primarily on only the volunteers learning new things and making new friends within the groups that travel together. Basically, that they are downright selfish trips.  
  5. Voluntourism trips do absolutely nothing to address the structural causes of poverty.


This is a hard realization to swallow and unearthing these criticisms is not to say that they are true at SOS -keep reading- but to show you that this what some people are saying about voluntourism. These people may be your neighbours, your friends, your colleagues, your peers, your professors, or your parents.    


SOS is committed to not only providing the highest quality of volunteer support on campus and abroad, but also deeply committed to ensuring that from beginning to end, our Outreach process supports and integrates local actors, while providing beneficial projects to their communities.


SOS Outreach participants are voluntourists, by definition. They are participating in volunteer work outside of the country they call home. However, SOS does not facilitate the critiques listed above as a part of our funded projects, Outreach Trip processes, or our Outreach Trip voluntourists


Below are 5 components of our community development process that directly tackle the common criticisms above. Please do not hesitate to contact us as trips@studentsofferingsupport.ca with any further questions. 


  1. Employment


SOS provides jobs to local actors in the community and/or in the country in which the volunteers are present. Every construction site is accompanied by a foreman who tells volunteers what to do and ensures that their tasks are being done correctly. Our relationships with local non-governmental organizations provides income and skill building opportunities for their employees.  And local vendors are used to provide food, transportation, and activities to the volunteer group. On every Outreach Trip, community members are hired and trained to prepare meals for the volunteer group, providing a source of income they would not otherwise have.   




  1. Untrained volunteers


Outreach projects and Outreach Trip itineraries are crafted specifically knowing that SOS volunteers are not trained or skilled craftspeople. We do not pretend our volunteers have skills that do not possess. Therefore, every construction site is accompanied by a foreman who tells volunteers what to do and ensures that their tasks are being done correctly. SOS volunteers contribute manual labour which they are able to do.

Would it be faster to rent a excavator than to have 15 students digging a trench for 3 days? Yes, it would. But, not to mention the cost of the excavator, more importantly, our host communities and partnering non governmental organizations want, and enjoy, the presence of SOS volunteers. It is a key component of SOS establishing and maintaining a relationship with them.



  1. Dependency

There are no issues of dependency because our partnering communities know how exactly how long SOS volunteer groups will be staying. Different volunteer groups will travel to the same community until projects are finished. If for any reason volunteers cannot finish the projects themselves, SOS hires trained workers to finish the job.

Most important, issues of dependency are rare with SOS because of our long standing relationships with our partnering non governmental organizations. Partnering communities do not have to worry that SOS’s support will stop once the volunteer group returns to Canada, because the Outreach project plan is crafted in such a way that SOS is involved for at least a year before and after the Outreach Trip.

Furthermore, SOS is committed to a holistic and long term approach to community development, which is why we continue to work with our partners year after year. We work with the same non governmental organizations, in the same regions, to implement long term success. In our experience, communities need more than one educational infrastructure project and we prioritize try to meet these needs.




  1. Self-interested volunteering abroad

At SOS, we believe that personal development and learning are key outcomes of volunteering and of travelling abroad. We recognize  that this personal transformation has to be done gradually, and carefully, to ensure

partnering non governmental organizations and host communities have the same opportunities. We’ve found that because our volunteers live right in the community (they do not leave every afternoon to travel back to a hotel), there is more time for everyone (volunteers, NGO partners, and communities) to spend time together and learn about each other’s lives.

To participate on a SOS Outreach Trip, all applicants are screened and interviewed by SOS Head Office and our SOS Chapters on campus. We utilize this as an opportunity to ensure future SOS volunteers know and understand our organization and seek to support it. We do our best to ensure that our volunteers are not solely interested in their own personal development and that they know what is expected of them on an Outreach Trip. 

Our long term relationships with partnering communities and NGOs provide opportunities for us to develop initiatives to support their continued growth and development. We find new ways to listen to their needs and desires for growth and then try our best to meet them.



  1. Structural causes of inequality

SOS’s commitment to the quality of and access to education in Latin America does not directly change the structural causes of poverty faced by communities in Central and South America. However, if we build an accessible washroom, a classroom, or even an entire school, we are providing a space for students to get the education that 

they need in order to make those structural changes themselves. Worse than the critique that voluntourism doesn’t change structural dynamics is the idea that voluntourists ever thought that they could or that they should.

It is our hope that volunteer abroad programs will continue to develop and minimize the potential negative consequences on all those involved in the process. We recognize our areas for improvement, and will continue to seek out the guidance and recommendations of our partnering organization, host communities, and leaders in the field.

Please do not hesitate to contact us at trips@studentsofferingsupport.ca with any further questions