Why we don’t use the ‘V-word’ – complexities around international volunteering

Why we don't use the 'V-word' - complexities around international volunteering
Ignite’s Co-Founder Ryan with ‘reading partner’ in Zambia

Volunteering time and resources to help others is a good thing. It’s something people and businesses should participate in whenever and however they are able. It results in a positive impact in communities while simultaneously providing a rewarding experience to those involved. Most of us have proudly done it and admire others who are deeply committed to it.

But when it comes to traveling abroad, “volunteering” is a complicated idea with sometimes unintended consequences. When we launched Ignite, we set out to offer experiences that benefit humanity and the planet, and although the topic has already been discussed at length, we’d like to offer our perspective and approach based on a decade of experience in the space.

When traveling to many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, it is important to recognize the role that Western colonization has had in contributing to the current socio-economic reality. While it is complicated and different for each country, that legacy of paternalism should minimally create a sensitivity to visitors stopping in for a few days to build a house or paint a school, when local workers are better qualified and need those jobs to support their families.

“In some cases, volunteering abroad has stemmed from a ‘Western Saviour‘ mentality that further propagates dependency and destructive power dynamics”

In some cases, volunteering abroad has stemmed from a ‘Western Saviour‘ mentality that further propagates dependency and destructive power dynamics. In the worst scenarios, volunteer travel has even cultivated devastating examples of “orphan tourism” or had other damaging effects. Due to the negative implications that volunteering can have in an international context, we don’t even use the ‘v’ word and intentionally avoid interactions that perpetuate these issues. But this is only part of the story – it’s much more than a semantic distinction. Traveling with purpose can be a positive and worthwhile endeavor, and we’re excited to share our approach and how we’re different.

Traveling abroad to experience cultural immersion and to meaningfully contribute to a local community can be a powerful force in building a better world. This approach begins with authentic connections and the willingness to listen. It grows as we share our stories and learn from each others cultures, values and traditions. Ultimately, these genuine exchanges and new relationships shape our perspectives, develop us personally and professionally, and inspire our future.

At Ignite, our journeys are designed to create a mutually beneficial and culturally empowering experience for both the travelers and our in-country hosts. This begins by first identifying local partners who are on the front-lines of addressing social, economic and environmental issues. All of the community engagement we help to facilitate is therefore rooted in the projects and initiatives identified and needed by these local partners. For example, the 1-on-1 student reading program travelers participate in at a community school in Zambia was designed in partnership with the school’s head teacher and is used as a reward for good attendance year-round.

This community engagement is only a piece of the broader experience as each journey begin by learning about the history and context of the country we are visiting. Before departure, travelers are provided with educational information on the community, our partner, and important cultural topics. The first day of every trip includes time spent with local leaders, who paint a clear picture of the opportunities and challenges faced by the community and what their daily work does to move things forward.

Since the entire experience is rooted in deep and long-standing relationships Ignite has with in-country partners, participants truly get to know local business and community leaders. They learn from the conversations and exchanges, and share fun and powerful moments together. One of the top activities on every experience is time spent sharing meals together. On our Mexico experience, for example, travelers are invited into the home of the town’s mayor and his charismatic wife Eva, who makes everyone feel at home and facilitates a cooking lesson.

At Ignite, we are not simply avoiding the word volunteer, we are taking a holistic and constructive approach to international community engagement, and we are using appropriate language that supports it. Experiences that prioritize deep cultural immersion and meaningful community engagement have the potential to connect, inspire and transform. We intend to contribute to the growing momentum around sustainable and responsible travel and hope to encourage others to do the same.

Stephanie Denzer is the director of marketing at Ignite.

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