“Service Is Good (SIG), we seem to assume—good for those of us doing the serving, good for those of us being served, good for everyone….We ought to wonder about service….service is not simple (SINS), no matter what we pretend.” - Adam Davis in "What We Don't Talk About When We Don't Talk About Service"
You want to volunteer. You want to give back, to help someone who needs assistance, to make a difference.
Volunteering is a great start to getting involved in your community, whether locally or globally. Service work is invaluable work, and contributing to our communities is an important way to work towards a better world for all. There are many possible positive impacts of being a volunteer. But negative impacts are also possible.
This page is devoted to helping current and potential volunteers and service learners participate in service that is ethical, especially in contexts that are culturally, historically, or geographically different from their own. The questions below are based on the principles of Fair Trade Learning developed by Dr. Eric Hartman, and they apply to U.S.-based and global service efforts. They were created as best practice guides for ensuring you’re making helpful, community-driven, capital-conscious contributions to communities.
7 Questions to Consider for Ethical Service
Volunteering can be helpful but it can also be harmful, and good intent does not always equal good impact. Before signing up for a volunteer experience, ask yourself the questions below. If you can’t answer the questions with confidence, research the volunteer organization and read the additional referenced materials as you consider the experience.
1. Does the service experience utilize a partnership approach?
Consider the following questions, adapted from the Fair Trade Learning Standards, to ensure a partnership relationship:
- Think about community impact. Does the service program work hand in hand with a wide range of leaders in the community you are serving?
- Do community members have clear teaching and leadership roles as well as clear roles in financial distribution, driving research direction, process, and publication, with fair authorship rights?
- Are visiting volunteers taking away opportunities from local young people and students?
- Do multiple community members and program leaders share the same long-term goals?
Melby, M. K. (2016). Beyond Medical “Missions” to Impact-Driven Short-Term Experiences in Global Health (STEGHs): Ethical Principles to Optimize Community Benefit and Learner Experience. Academic Medicine, 91(5), 633-638.
Ngo, M. (2013). Canadian Youth Volunteering Abroad: Rethinking Issues of Power and Privilege. Current issues in comparative education, 16(1), 49-61.
2. Does the program include volunteer orientations, ongoing trainings, and reflection?
- Does the service experience include pre-service training and orientation about the history, culture, language, and power structures present in the community or population with which you are working? Have you made efforts yourself to study the country, community, or neighborhood where you’re going? Do you understand the role that the U.S. or secular or religious groups have played in the communities you are now visiting?
- Does the service experience have opportunities throughout your service for you to reflect on and critically consider your experiences?
- After the service experience, do students continue structured reflection and commit to concrete action to continue their service?
Amerson, R. (2010). The Impact of Service-Learning on Cultural Competence. Nursing education perspectives, 31(1), 18-22.
Hartman, E., Morris Paris, C., & Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair trade learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism & Hospitality Research (14) 1 – 2: 108 – 116.
Illich, I. (1968, April). To hell with good intentions. In Conference on Inter-American Student Projects. Cuernavaca, Mexico. Retrieved from http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm.
Perez, M. (2016, May 9). Things no one tells you about short term mission trips. In Relevant Magazine. Retrieved from https://relevantmagazine.com/reject-apathy/things-no-one-tells-you-about-going-short-term-mission-trips.
3. What impact does the service experience have on the local economy?
- Does the service experience help support community organizations - by renting space in their buildings, for example?
- Does the service experience patronize local restaurants, host families, or locally-owned housing options when hosting traveling volunteers?
- Does the service experience avoid the distribution of free services or products when doing so would disrupt local business or employee opportunities?
- Is the service experience having volunteers do work for free when they could be providing a job for a local community member?
Greenberg, D. J. (2008). Teaching Global Citizenship, Social Change, and Economic Development in a History Course: A Course Model in Latin American Travel/Service Learning. The History Teacher, 41(3), 283-304.
Holland, T. (2015). First, Do No Harm. A Qualitative Research Documentary. http://globalsl.org/first-do-no-harm-a-global-health-documentary/
4. Does the service experience protect vulnerable populations?
- Are vulnerable populations clearly protected through appropriate safeguards and relevant training for all individuals involved in the partnership?
- Does the service experience require protections such as background checks, skill-level evaluations, confidentiality training, and other training before allowing volunteers to interact with individuals of a vulnerable population?
- Does the service experience last long enough that the benefits of direct volunteer interactions in the community will outweigh the stress of volunteer turnover—a suggested 4 week minimum for working with children (Volunteering with Children)?
Hartman, E., Morris, P. C., & Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair trade learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism & Hospitality Research (14) 1 – 2: 108 – 116.
Volunteering with Children: Our Guidelines. Responsible Travel [website]. Retrieved from: https://www.responsiblevacation.com/vacations/volunteering-with-children/travel-guide/volunteering-with-children-our-guidelines.
5. Does the program represent volunteers as saviors or heroes in its photos or media?
- Do recruitment or other outreach materials serve an educational function, shaping expectations for community-driven, partnership-based engagement?
- Does it reflect a “white savior” dynamic instead of showing the dignity of people in host communities partnering with outsiders to learn together (Cole, 2012)?
- Compare their photos to the examples of ethical photography from the GlobalSL website: http://globalsl.org/ethical-photography-contest-4-guidelines-5-examples-100-prize/
Cole, T. (2012, Mar 21). The White-Savior Industrial Complex. The Atlantic Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/.
Collin, M. (2009, July 1). What is “poverty porn” and why does it matter for development. Aid Thoughts [website]. Retrieved from http://aidthoughts.org/?p=69.
Ethical Photography & Global Service: 4 Principles, 4 Examples. GlobalSL [website]. Retrieved from http://globalsl.org/ethical-photography-contest-4-guidelines-5-examples-100-prize/.
Hartman, E. (2015, Dec 4). Seven red flags when considering an international volunteer program. Matador Network [website]. Retrieved from https://matadornetwork.com/pulse/7-red-flags-considering-international-volunteer-program/.
Hartman, E., Morris, P. C., & Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair trade learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism & Hospitality Research, 14 (1–2): 108 – 116.
6. Is the organization financially transparent?
- Do all partners in the service experience (volunteers, organizers, local communities, financial stakeholders) have access to information regarding financial commitments and disbursements that support the partnership?
- Do all partners have opportunities to openly and critically discuss financial commitments?
7. Does the organization prioritize volunteering over the travel experience and tourism?
3 More Questions to Consider before Volunteering Abroad
Voluntourism abroad is a multi-billion dollar a year industry, and over 1.6 million students travel abroad for service annually. Most of these students are very well intentioned undergraduates or recent college graduates. Because of the added complexity when traveling abroad, students should ask additional questions when considering a trip.
1. Does the program offer medical voluntourism, or short-term mobile clinic trips?
- Unsustainable, unethical distribution of medicine and healthcare in the mobile clinic setting can have long lasting negative impacts on communities. (Roberts, 2006)
- Short-term mobile clinic trips run by nonprofits or organizations not affiliated with the government fail to invest in pre-existing local healthcare systems. (Holland & Holland, 2015)
- Medical voluntourism brings local doctors out of local hospitals to provide shadowing hours to foreign volunteers, when local medical students could benefit more from that physician’s time. (Holland & Holland, 2015)
- Only 36.3% of matriculating medical students had medical mission trips on their resumes in 2015, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (2012).
- If you were a patient at the clinic you are volunteering in, would you be comfortable?
Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). (2012). Medical School Graduation Questionnaire: 2012 All Schools Summary Report. Washington, DC. AAMC. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/download/300448/data/2012gqallschoolssummaryreport.pdf
Holland, A. & Holland, T. (2011). First, do no harm: a qualitative research documentary. [Vimeo video]. Retrieved from http://globalsl.org/first-do-no-harm-a-global-health-documentary/.
McCall, D. (2014). Health Care Voluntourism: Addressing Ethical Concerns of Undergraduate Student Participation in Global Health Volunteer Work. HEC forum, 26(4), 285-297.
Roberts, M. (2006). Duffle bag medicine. Jama, 295(13), 1491-1492.
Sanguinetti, C. (2016). The Voluntourist. Retrieved from: http://compact.org/resource-posts/new-film-the-voluntourist/
2. Does the volunteer trip allow or tolerate unlicensed professional practice by volunteers?
- Are volunteers given the opportunity to observe trained and licensed professionals rather than providing unlicensed or untrained services? (AAMC, 2011)
- Does the trip keep the welfare of the patient/client as the priority over the experience of the volunteer? (AAMC, 2011)
- Does the trip provide appropriate training for volunteers’ supportive efforts (such as training volunteers to provide preventative health education)? (AAMC, 2011)
- Does the trip consider the challenges of language and cultural barriers to providing effective service? (McCall, 2014)
Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) (2011). Guidelines for Premedical and Medical Students Providing Patient Care During Clinical Experiences Abroad. Washington DC. (AAMC). Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/download/181690/data/guidelinesforstudentsproviding...
McCall, D., & Iltis, A. S. (2014, December). Health care voluntourism: addressing ethical concerns of undergraduate student participation in global health volunteer work. In HEC forum (Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 285-297). Springer Netherland
Resources. The Working Group on Global Activities by Students at Pre-Health Levels. [website]. Retrieved from http://www.gaspworkinggroup.org/resources/
(2009) Global Health Essential Core Competencies. Joint US/Canadian Committee on Global Health Core Competencies. Retrieved from: ,http://lane.stanford.edu/portals/ihealth-pdfs/BasicCore_Competencies_Fin...
3. Does the trip offer the opportunity to volunteer in an orphanage?
- Children can become attached to volunteers quickly, especially when they’ve already experienced separation from their family. Having multiple experiences with volunteers who stay for a short time and then leave harms a child’s ability to trust or invest in relationships (Orphanage Volunteering).
- Research has shown that unneeded orphanages are created in popular tourist locations in order to generate profits from volunteers (Orphanage Volunteering).
- Research has also shown that around 80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent (Csaky, 2009). Parents may give their children to an “orphanage” because they’re told it’s the best way for the child to access education, food, and healthcare (Ministry of Social Affairs). However, being in an orphanage seriously adversely affects a child’s health, development, and future, and greatly increases their likelihood of experiencing abuse (How volunteering abroad).
- Volunteering for the purposes of helping children is most effective and avoids harm when the service is focused on supporting families and communities rather than serving specifically in orphanages. (Orphanage Volunteering).
Orphanage Volunteering–Why to Say No. (2016, May 1). Better Volunteering Better Care. Retrieved from http://bettercarenetwork.org/sites/default/files/Orphanage%20Volunteerin....
Csáky, C. (2009). Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions, Why we should be investing in family- based care. Save the Children.
Guiney, T. (2015). Orphanage Tourism: The Need for Protection and Policy. Risk, Protection, Provision and Policy, 1-21.
How volunteering abroad in orphanages is harmful to children. (2016). Kindea Labs [Vimeo video]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/166530700.
Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation. (2011). A Study of Attitudes Towards Residential Care in Cambodia, 48 – 49.
This resource list was developed through collaboration between MEDLIFE KU and the KU Center for Service Learning. Special thanks go to Daisy Crane and Aly Lange of MEDLIFE KU for their primary curation of these resources.