Principles of Ethical Service


“Service Is Good, 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, 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 your community, 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.

Service leaders and organizations can make the mistake of assuming what is best for a community without sufficiently including community members as partners in service planning. This is detrimental to the community and can create imbalanced, “benefactor” and “beneficiary” relationships.

Consider the following questions:

  • 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?

Information Sources and Further Resources:

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.

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 Medicine91(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.

Volunteers may serve with communities they have never lived in or populations they haven't learned much about before their service experience. When that is the case, it is important that you remember you are visiting as a guest in someone else’s community or life and must learn the context in which you will be serving.

Consider the following questions:

  • 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?

Information Sources and Further Resources:

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.

Perez, M. (2016, May 9). Things no one tells you about short term mission trips. In Relevant Magazine. Retrieved from

Is the work directly contributing to the local economy, providing income for local workers, and fostering growth? In contrast, is it crippling the economy by flooding it with free commodities?

Consider the following questions:

  • 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?

Information Sources and Further Resources:

Davenport, Cheryl (2012, April 10). The Broken “Buy-One, Give-One” Model: 3 Ways To Save Toms Shoes. Fast Company Magazine. Retrieved from

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.

A vulnerable population is a group of people who are at higher risk of adverse effect due to individual, community, or larger population concerns. Examples of vulnerable populations include children, individuals with special needs, the elderly, those with physical or mental illness, or other individuals who need protections. When serving with vulnerable individuals, service experiences should include precautions that protect and safe-guard the well-being of that population.

Consider the following questions:

  • 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)?
  • Are volunteers trained in appropriate use of social media such that community members' dignity, privacy, and consent are preserved? (See the Radi-Aid Social Media Guide:

Information Sources and Further Resources:

Hartman, E. (2015, Dec 4). Seven red flags when considering an international volunteer program. Matador Network Website. Retrieved from

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.

Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund. How To Communicate The World: A Social Media Guide for Volunteers and Travelers [Radi-Aid webpage]. Retrieved from

Volunteering with Children: Our Guidelines. Responsible Travel [website]. Retrieved from:

Media (photos, websites, fliers, social media) that represents the poor or vulnerable as requiring external assistance for help are sometimes called poverty porn or stereotype porn. This kind of representation feeds off volunteers’ desire to make a difference but damages the respect that volunteers should afford the people with whom they are working. Programs that see the communities they're working with as partners and knowledge-bearers won't represent their volunteers' help as superior to the community's ability to help itself.

Consider the following questions:

  • 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)?

Information Sources and Further Resources:

Cole, T. (2012, Mar 21). The White-Savior Industrial Complex. The Atlantic Magazine. Retrieved from

Collin, M. (2009, July 1). What is “poverty porn” and why does it matter for development. Aid Thoughts [website]. Retrieved from


Hartman, E. (2015, Dec 4). Seven red flags when considering an international volunteer program. Matador Network [website]. Retrieved from

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.

Reputable organizations should have a clear, detailed breakdown of their finances publicly available online. The allocation of fees associated with going on a volunteer trip should be thoroughly explained to volunteers and the majority of said fees should be invested back into the community.

Consider the following questions:

  • Do all partners in the service experience (volunteers, organizers, local communities, interested financial parties) 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?

Information Sources and Further Resources:

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.

Service organizations offering volunteer trips should emphasize that they’re creating a culture where the focus is on service, not drinking, nightlife or being a tourist. Respecting and working with the host communities should be attended to first and foremost, before volunteers consider any travel interests. Drug and alcohol use on volunteer trips should be prohibited so as to promote focus on the purpose of the trip.

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.

Medical volunteer trips often fail to have a positive impact on the community, especially when volunteers are unlicensed.

Consider the following:

  • 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?

Information Sources and Further Resources:

  • Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). (2012). Medical School Graduation Questionnaire: 2012 All Schools Summary Report. Washington, DC. AAMC. 

    Holland, A. & Holland, T. (2011). First, do no harm: a qualitative research documentary. [Vimeo video]. Retrieved from

    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:

All human beings deserve high-quality medical care, dental care, legal representation, and other professional care. Service organizations should consistently and publicly denounce any unlicensed professional practice. Volunteers should never be allowed to perform procedures or consultations that they are not licensed to do in the country they’re visiting.

Consider the following:

  • 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)

Information Sources and Further Resources:

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

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

Global Health Essential Core Competencies. Joint US/Canadian Committee on Global Health Core Competencies.

Volunteering abroad in orphanages can be harmful for the children the trip is intending to help, can perpetuate disruption of families, and can support profit-generating systems that do not have children’s best interests in mind.

Consider the following:

  • 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).

Information Sources and Further Resources:

Orphanage Volunteering–Why to Say No. (2016, May 1). Better Volunteering Better Care. 

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:

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.

*MEDLIFE KU has since been renamed HEAL KU and disaffiliated from the national MEDLIFE organization

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