If you were on campus over the past few months, you might have seen lime-green flyers for Growth International Volunteer Excursions (GIVE) — an international volunteer organization with programs in multiple countries — in bathrooms, classrooms and academic buildings.
UNC has 400 study abroad programs across 70 different countries, but that number doesn’t include the countless non-University affiliated programs advertised across campus.
Organizations that offer individuals the opportunity to travel globally, combining volunteering and tourism — colloquially known as “voluntourism” — are sometimes criticized for contributing to unsustainable practices or promoting a “white savior complex.”
GIVE’s model of service
GIVE’s director of international operations, Daniel Trevor, said it is a for-benefit organization, a category of company that earns income, but gives priority to social missions. He said GIVE uses an asset-based community development model to partner directly with communities to address areas of concern.
“It’s much more of a grassroots approach and really, as opposed to a needs-based model, it’s focused a lot more on establishing what people’s goals are, not what they’re lacking, but more so what they already have,” Trevor said.
Trevor said there is no direct affiliation between UNC and GIVE, but students have the option to earn transferable academic credit with their university. Although the organization’s programs are open to people of all ages, Trevor said he estimates that 90 percent of participants are college students, a factor that he believes puts them in an especially beneficial position to appreciate GIVE’s goals of sustainable tourism and global citizenry.
“You can’t assume that you’re going to travel across the world and fundamentally change it in the short-term shifts that we offer,” Trevor said. “You have to go in with a real goal of learning more than anything else and trying to understand these bigger picture problems of global inequality and the part that we all play in this massive global economy that we live in.”
Appalachian State University sophomore Ally Boogaards participated in a two-week-long trip to Thailand over the summer through GIVE, in which she toured parts of the country, taught English to children and participated in permaculture projects.
Boogaards said she was initially motivated to apply because of her interest in seeing elephants, which had been advertised on the flyers across campus. Although she was eventually able to do so on the trip, she said she also learned about the downsides of elephant tourism, in addition to the importance of practicing sustainable tourism, through talks with GIVE staff and members of the hill tribe villages her cohort visited.
“It was really educational,” Boogaards said. “And it’s not something that I would have thought about in that way unless I was there.”
How GIVE reaches students and others
Michal Osterweil, teaching associate professor and director of internships for UNC’s Global Studies program, said the risk for harm can be substantial for international organizations that commercialize humanitarian volunteering.
“I think I’m not alone in concern about these kind of large organizations sort of marketing directly to people; appealing to their sense of adventure or their sense of wanting to help, or a little bit of both, without actually us having much knowledge about the impact on the ground,” Osterweil said.
Boogaards said her participation in the organization’s trip to Thailand was significantly influenced by GIVE’s advertising.
“I think the marketing plays a huge role in it, I think that’s what draws people in,” she said. “…More people are gonna be intrigued by, ‘See elephants in Thailand’ than, ‘Go volunteer on a farm.’”
As a public university, UNC’s policies do not limit the distribution of non-commercial promotional or written materials by hand from organizations not affiliated with UNC, according to the University’s Facilities Use Policy and Standard.
Trevor said anyone who promotes GIVE’s trips on a campus is a past volunteer and that participants frequently choose to become GIVE ambassadors when they return from trips to disseminate information about their volunteering experiences in their own communities. He said GIVE provides support and materials for past volunteers spreading the word about the organization’s mission.
“…In order to offset the carbon of our printed materials, GIVE invests in tropical reforestation, mangrove restoration and renewable energy projects in our host countries,” Trevor said in an email. “Of course, past volunteers organizing information sessions and outreach specifically about GIVE’s programs are fairly compensated for their efforts.”
He said he sees a lack of effort to incorporate the perspectives of the communities directly impacted as being a common issue within the larger volunteer travel industry, particularly for “customer-demand driven” organizations.
“I think it’s fine to use a market incentive to accomplish something worthwhile, like there’s nothing wrong with that social enterprise,” Trevor said. “But I think if you’re not involving the people that are meant to be helped, if you’re not really establishing partnerships at a community level and making decisions based on that first and foremost, then I think you’re really in the wrong industry.”
According to a study published in 2015 by the Journal of Sociology, the marketing practices of the industry often target college students, offering volunteer travel as an opportunity to build resumes.
“The mantra of ‘freedom’, packaged with the slogan of ‘making a difference’, is presented as an individual choice for the target audience, who are encouraged to ‘give back’ while experiencing the ‘exotic other’,” researchers Colleen McGloin and Nichole Georgeou said.
They claim these kinds of strategies can perpetuate a skewed power dynamic between volunteer travel companies and the communities their often short-term programs are being implemented in.
The costs vary
GIVE’s trips range from two to four weeks, but Trevor said participants can opt for “responsible travel-add ons” to extend their program.
Osterweil said Global Studies students could, in theory, receive internship credit for international volunteer programs, as she vets organizations on a case-by-case basis. However, she said as an internship coordinator and based on department policy, she would never advertise programs led by for-profit groups without an affiliation to the UNC System to students or on the Global Studies website.
Boogaards said she felt that the cost of her trip and tickets for flights — around $4,000 — was well worth it based on her experiences with GIVE, but she would caution interested students against traveling through volunteer organizations without doing prior research.
“You need to make sure you’re giving your money to the right places,” Boogaards said.
Trevor said GIVE partners with some universities to provide need and merit-based scholarships, but about 70 percent of participants choose to fundraise a portion or the entire cost of the trip, for which the organization provides informational materials and resources.
UNC junior Melissa DePierro said she paid $500 — excluding the price of plane tickets — to participate in an eight-week AIESEC trip to Peru the summer before her first year at UNC, an experience she would not recommend to other students. AIESEC, the largest youth-run nonprofit in the world, has 28 local branches in different universities across the country.
“I think it’s better to go with a program that is obviously more established and proven to be more beneficial to the community rather than those volunteerism groups that just put on a fake image, because there are a lot of those out there,” DePierro said. “I wish I had done more research on the program, but I was 17, I didn’t really know any better, and now looking back, I definitely would not have gone.”
DePierro said her cohort did not receive in-person training or preparation from AIESEC Chapel Hill for the trip prior to arriving in the country, and once in Peru, the program was fairly disorganized.
She said there were days when the schools the students were meant to teach in were closed without warning and the AIESEC Peru team would call some of the UNC students “the Chapel Hill Barbies.”
She was also sexually assaulted during her last week of the program, after which she said she didn’t receive support from AIESEC. DePierro said there was a disconnect between the actual experience and what it was presented as.
“I felt like it was, I don’t know if it was a waste of time, but just feeling like I wasn’t making as big of an impact as I could be,” she said. “But then they were always like, ‘Pose for photos for the AIESEC website!’ or ‘AIESEC Brazil wants photos of us doing stuff!'”
The ethical questions
Osterweil said she believes it’s important for international volunteer programs to consider a perspective that redresses structural and historical causes of inequities. She currently teaches a class called “Paradigms of Development and Social Change,” where she asks students to examine the ethical premises of doing service work on both a global and domestic scale.
“I’m not saying you can’t also address the sort of immediate needs of people also, but who is identifying what those needs are?” Osterweil said. “Is it going to be a sustainable — is it a project that is actually leading to sustainable and structural change, or is it dependent on this goodwill and the money of volunteers that’s going to run out when it’s not as sexy in a few years?”
Trevor said GIVE was founded on the premise that volunteer travel trips can institute “real sustainable solutions.” He said although he understands where criticisms of ineffective volunteer travel practices come from, he thinks current coverage tends to focus on “the worst extremes of horror stories.”
“I think instead of constantly bringing up the horror stories, let’s start telling the good stories, too,” Trevor said. “Let’s talk about what is working and how other organizations could change their structures to be more effective because I don’t think the demand is going anywhere.”
DePierro said she would also emphasize to students to look into organizations before participating in a volunteer travel program.
“I know there’s some good groups out there,” she said. “I know there are a lot of groups on campus, but I encourage everyone to just do research about everything beforehand. And also, brochures don’t always give the right idea of what you’re going to do.”