Last summer, Becca Morrison, 21, was all set to volunteer at a community arts nonprofit in Zomba, Malawi. She'd work with the marketing team as a copywriter and social media manager.
Then the pandemic hit, and the trip got canceled. "I was peeved," she says. "I was so excited to travel. I had the whole thing planned."
Still, Morrison was determined to find a volunteer gig, which she needed to graduate as an international development major at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K. So she found another opportunity in Zomba, this time with a nonprofit group called the Sparkle Foundation. And it would take place virtually.
For three months last summer, Morrison helped the group — which runs a school and a medical facility for children in the community — do tasks remotely. She even personally raised $7,000 for the cause.
"I've done so much without even leaving my house, my room," she says. "I think the pandemic has changed the game completely for volunteering."
The pandemic has indeed transformed the landscape of international volunteering, say researchers. A February survey of 130 volunteer organizations and 239 international volunteers by the International Forum for Volunteering in Development found that the pandemic had spurred volunteer groups to offer more remote volunteering opportunities and consider expanding national volunteer membership in the future.
Even as some groups gear for a return to the way it was, others are changing their modus operandi — and some of these new ways of working are a step in a more sustainable direction.
"The pandemic has shown us there are different innovative ways volunteers are able to provide services," says Christopher Millora, an academic based in Iloilo City, Philippines, who is leading research for the U.N.'s next State of the World's Volunteerism report. This could lead to a "paradigm shift as to what kinds of relationships international volunteer organizations have toward local communities."
That's an important move in an industry riddled with criticism. Over the past few decades, critics and activists have been urging volunteer abroad organizations to rethink their business model.
They say sending volunteers from rich nations to low-income countries perpetuates the white savior complex by portraying volunteers as superheroes who will rescue the poor from their misery.
"There's this postcolonial narrative of young, aspirational, light-skinned people from the West thinking they can go to Africa for two weeks and change the world," says Konstantinos Tomazos, a senior lecturer in international tourism management at the University of Strathclyde. "That's the main criticism of the sector that plays into the idea of the white messiah."
They say projects can be harmful and exploitative.
One of the most popular activities for volunteers, say the experts, is helping children in orphanages. That demand, as a result, has created perverse economic incentives. "In places like Kenya and Cambodia, Nepal and Tanzania, orphanages are prolific. But the children within them are not orphans and in many cases are being placed in orphanages in order for orphanage directors to profit from the [volunteer] tourism demand to engage with orphans," says Leigh Mathews, founder of Alto Global, an international development consultancy group and the co-founder of Rethink Orphanages, a group that helps volunteer groups terminate their orphanage programs and repatriate children with their families.
And some critics question the helpfulness of volunteers.
In Ours To Explore: Privilege, Power and the Paradox of Voluntourism, author Pippa Biddle writes about a shocking discovery she made while volunteering in Tanzania as a teen. She and a group of young, inexperienced volunteers were assigned to help local workers build a small library at an orphanage. Days into the project, she found out that every morning, the local workers were taking apart the volunteers' shoddy work from the day before and redoing it correctly before they woke up.
"While my intentions to be helpful and encouraging and to give back came from a good place, my time at the orphanage did not even begin to address their real needs," writes Biddle.
Despite these criticisms, international volunteerism is a big business.
Since the mid-1800s, when trains and ships made it possible for the public to travel cheaper, faster and farther than ever before, people have strived to "voyage to less-resourced nations for pleasure and purpose," says Biddle.
The phenomenon of volunteer tourism is now a $3 billion a year industry, says Tomazos. The funds paid by participants go to the thousands of groups that coordinate the trips along with the development programs they support.
The money also benefits local economies. The volunteer organization Habitat for Humanity, for example, says their trips alone bring in an estimated $6.9 million to the drivers, hotels, restaurants and gift shops that serve international volunteers when they visit.
And while it's hard to pinpoint how many international volunteers there are in the world, the U.N. estimates that if volunteering were a full-time job, it would account for 109 million workers.
It's easy to understand the appeal of overseas service, says Biddle. There's a sense of adventure, and people feel good about helping those who are less fortunate. Studies have found that volunteers perceive the trips as a meaningful and transformative life experience. People often come away from the trips with feelings of improved well-being, purpose and happiness.
On a more practical note, "voluntourism" is a practical way for people — like Morrison — to gain experience in international development. Maia Gedde, author of Working in International Development and Humanitarian Assistance, says people hoping to start a career in the field "volunteer as a steppingstone to build skills, knowledge and networks to put them in a much stronger position when applying for humanitarian jobs in the future."
But not all volunteer programs are the same. In the world of international volunteerism, there are two kinds of gigs. One is volunteering with development programs, such as the Peace Corps in the U.S. and Voluntary Service Overseas in the U.K. These groups, often funded with government aid, assign volunteers to long-term projects around the world — a year or two or more working at a school in Malawi, for example, or supporting helping small business owners in India. Such programs typically provide the volunteers with basic accommodation and a modest allowance for food and other living expenses.
Then there's volunteer tourism — nicknamed "voluntourism" by academics. People pay to take part in shorter-term projects abroad, which can range from tutoring kids in Nepal for a week to spending a few months conducting nutrition workshops in Thailand to traveling with a church mission group to the Philippines to dig wells. Volunteers must pay for their journey, including flights and transportation, meals and lodging as well as fees to the organizations and the programs they support.
During the pandemic, both the development programs and volunteer tourism groups have had to recalibrate their efforts. And some groups have been surprised by how eager volunteers were to stay involved — even though their trips to the field were canceled.
One of the most well-known groups in the latter category is Habitat for Humanity. Its Global Villages program invites people — mostly from Western countries — to help out in 30 mostly low- and middle-income countries. Over the course of about two weeks, groups of 15 people, half volunteers, half local staff, build homes, hand-washing and health-care facilities as well as participate in other kinds of projects. Volunteers do not need special skills but do need cash. There's a fee of about $1,650-$2,500 per person to participate, often raised through donations from friends and family. About 12,000 volunteers participate each year. During the pandemic, that number dropped to zero.
Despite that, many of the 800 projects planned for 2020 still got done, says Jacqueline Innocent, senior vice president of integrated programs at Habitat for Humanity. Local staff and paid contractors — mason workers, for example — pitched in. It just took a little longer because there were fewer helping hands.
Innocent was also pleased to see that many of the volunteers whose trips were canceled did not ask for a refund. They let Habitat keep the funds as a donation. And many organized their own virtual workshops, events and music festivals — to raise funds.
Some volunteers even arranged "virtual builds." Dave Kovac is a 20-year Habitat volunteer veteran and teaches courses on international service at Oregon State University. He was scheduled to go on three trips with Habitat in 2020, including one with a cohort of students. When the trips were canceled, he worked with Habitat to create an online program where students "adopted" a Habitat build in Vietnam. Over 10 weeks, Kovac and his students met weekly to fundraise, learn about Vietnamese culture, get updates from local staff about the project's progress and speak to the family whose house was being built.
The program was so successful that Kovac says he is trying it out again in August, this time with Habitat Brazil. He says he likes the model because it targets "people who are interested in some kind of experience but can't go abroad due to timing, job, personal issues, family. So maybe they can tag along virtually."
The virtual engagement made Habitat realize something, says Innocent. "We're not as dependent upon cross-border volunteers as one would have previously thought. It has been surprising how much people are willing to do [for Habitat] even though they don't get that reciprocal experience" of being there.
"I suspect," she adds, "what we're going to see when we're able to come back is more hybrid approaches" — creating opportunities like the virtual builds for international volunteers, for example.
But, she says, "I don't see a scenario at the moment where we would want to eliminate the [field] experience." The trip is what people love, she says — and local staff rely on those volunteers to help carry out the projects more quickly.
These virtual opportunities with reputable organizations offer "a wonderful alternative to on-the-ground voluntourism," says Biddle. They "bypass so many of the issues voluntourism creates and require the volunteers to show true commitment to a cause and a community — even from afar."
For other organizations, the pandemic has affirmed a decision they've made well before the crisis: recruiting more local volunteers instead of Westerners, says researcher Millora. And the pandemic has driven home the importance of these helpers.
Voluntary Service Overseas is a U.K.-based development organization that hires and places skilled volunteers in long-term projects in nearly 30 low- and middle-income countries.
But over the last few years, the group has been recruiting more in-country volunteers. "They're the ones who can hold the government accountable, who know the context," says Papa Diouf, who heads VSO's global work in health and is based in Kigali, Rwanda. Many of these volunteers are graduates from the School of Education at the University of Rwanda.
In the first few months of the pandemic, VSO Rwanda had to send its 50 international volunteers home. Because the group had a preexisting membership of 200 national volunteers, it was able to carry out its education program, says Diouf — training public school teachers to improve literacy and numeracy skills among primary school students.
The international volunteers, who were brought on for their expertise in school leadership and education development, stayed involved ... virtually. Using Zoom and WhatsApp, they checked in with local volunteers, who were doing much of the in-person work — visiting schools and mentoring teachers. And when schools were shut in Rwanda due to COVID-19, it was the local volunteers who kept in touch with the schoolteachers via WhatsApp.
Diouf doesn't think VSO is going to end its practice of sending volunteers abroad anytime soon. The international volunteers have crucial expertise that the organization's projects need. In fact, now that some travel restrictions have been lifted, some of the international volunteers who were sent home from Rwanda at the start of the pandemic have returned.
But, he says, the pandemic helped him see how crucial local volunteers are, especially in times of crisis. VSO's Rwandan volunteers mobilized to spread COVID messaging in their country and track essential health services disrupted by COVID. Supporting "those local volunteers had already been a shift in our program thinking, but COVID-19 has only helped us move faster in that direction," he says.
Benjamin Lough, an associate professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a global volunteerism researcher, says VSO Rwanda's emphasis toward local service in the pandemic is "a great turn." But he has a caveat.
"The pandemic revealed both the strengths of relying on local volunteers as well as the limitations when support from abroad is lacking," he says. "We can't just pass on more responsibility to domestic volunteers without providing additional support" in the form of funds or manpower.
As vaccination rates soar in the West and more countries loosen COVID travel restrictions, volunteer groups have started offering trips again.
For many overseas service operations, those trips abroad are their bread and butter, says Tomazos, the tourism researcher from University of Strathclyde. "They have a business model. No volunteers means no money."
Volunteers also bring important knowledge into the mix, says Lough. Local staff from some volunteer abroad groups have told him: "We value the skills those volunteers are bringing into this community. We want them to come in."
And people have begun booking trips again.
But things are definitely different.
Kovac sees real promise in the virtual Habitat builds, because it may help people focus on the real reasons they're volunteering. "It's really for people who want to help because they want to help, not because they want to travel."
As for Morrison, she says she "feels lucky" that she was able to accomplish so much with the Sparkle Foundation last year even if she wasn't physically in Malawi. In fact, the group liked her work so much that they asked her back this summer as a paid intern working remotely.
In her bedroom in Norwich, she says that without the distraction of feeling "mesmerized" by an exotic location, she's been more honed in on her true purpose as a volunteer. And that's made her reevaluate the concept of overseas service.
"It's almost [discriminatory] that to make a real difference, you have to pay all this money to travel somewhere very far away," she says. "That's not how charity works."