David Clemmons, Founder of VolunTourism.org, Mural Amman

Image source: Voluntourism.org

Welcome to part two of my interview with VolunTourism.org founder, David Clemmons. Clemmons is one of those thinkers who sees the whole field. He balances the traveler’s perspective with business acumen, providing a holistic vision of what we want out of volunteering and tourism, how we can do it responsibly, and how it will evolve over time. In part two, we explore the role of the Internet in the voluntour landscape and learn why Clemmons does what he does. His keen analysis makes the voluntour multiverse a richer and more intellectually interesting place for all of us. Enjoy!

Clearly the Internet is a great tool for connecting volunteers with good organizations and for promoting new initiatives but it’s also vast and largely un-vetted. Voluntourism.org is an invaluable resource for learning how to do one’s own vetting, but do you think the voluntourism industry needs more regulation or oversight?

For the record, I am neither a fan of regulation nor of oversight. I have always been a fan of self-accountability and market forces dictating whether a business/NGO stays in business or not. So far, however, these market forces haven’t really come into play in the voluntourism space. Sure, there are review websites and portals directing people to certain programs, but consumers have done little to speak out on these matters, particularly when a program under-delivers or, worse yet, utterly fails.

Thus far, however, the regulations and policies that are currently in place have been, for the most part, either ignored or circumvented. In Tanzania, for example, I think part of the reason that the government raised the volunteer visa fee from $120USD to $550USD is because no one was paying it. How can public officials observe thousands of volunteers in their country and fail to see a corresponding inflow of volunteer visa fees showing up in the public coffers?

Voluntourism is about to reach a tipping point on a number of fronts. One of the most important fronts, if you will, is that of regulation and public policy. Governments are going to begin regulating voluntourism and applying public policy efforts (look no further than Tanzania’s volunteer visa), which may have serious implications for the sector. Significant lobbying on the part of NGOs bringing volunteers to Tanzania has had no impact on the government’s decision to raise the volunteer visa fee there, in other words, the Tanzanian government is serious. In terms of regulation, at least initially, governments could simply impose the same regulations for tourism across the entire voluntourism sector, including NGOs, as a means of rapidly imposing regulation. Such a move could cause significant disruption, much like that experienced in Tanzania.

Could the voluntourism sector step forward and work with governments to set public policy across the board? B-Corporation has done an excellent job in the US of developing a set of standards for its members and then lobbying the public sector to afford them a chance to set up a B-Corporation in a given state. California, New York, Vermont, and others have agreed to set up a B-Corporation option for those companies wanting to meet the B-Corp standards. It is possible that the voluntourism sector could come up with its own “V-Corp” label and do something similar with governments around the world. Taking a proactive, yet preemptive, measure like this could make a huge difference over the long-term. In my opinion, if the voluntourism sector approaches regulation in this manner, it retains, in essence, the means of self-regulation, even though governments would adopt the regulations established by the sector.


As a follow up, aside from VolunTourism.org, do you have any favorite sites or resources you’d like to recommend?

Although you are probably asking this question from the standpoint of other “voluntourism-related” sites out there that I would recommend, I am going to plug my favorite website for inspiration regarding things I like to discover in the world of societal & environmental advancement. Good.is – the Good Blog – receives a visit from me just about every day. The Good Finder is another way to keep track of updates in this space. I find that I enjoy reading “Good” news and there are some great efforts the world over that are showcased on the website. It gives me real hope for the future.


What is your favorite part of your job?

The favorite part of my job, and incidentally the most difficult responsibility I have, is answering questions. For the Media (journalists & journalism students, free-lancers, bloggers), preferably with some lead time to do so, I find myself wanting to assist them in understanding the breadth and depth of this subject. I try to offer information that simply does not appear in print elsewhere. With students, I attempt to field their questions regarding research, as these young people are poking, prodding, teasing, twisting, and, overall, dissecting voluntourism. They are the generation that will produce the most voluntourists, in fact, I find it plausible that just about each one of them will be a voluntourist at some point in their lives.

Families, of course, strike a real chord for me as I think about the transmission of values from adults to children and what a role voluntourism can play in giving families an opportunity to travel in a truly unique and unprecedented manner, especially via multi-generational adventures (grandparents with grandchildren, for example). Families are constantly asking questions regarding what voluntours would be most meaningful, yet approachable, for children of all ages. The implications of family involvement lead one to wonder what the future of voluntourism will be like if children are participating at such young ages – how many voluntours might they enjoy during their lifetimes?

Finally, there are the supply chain stakeholders – voluntourism providers, NGOs, and host communities – that make voluntourism possible. The questions asked by the representatives of these entities vary significantly. What often makes these difficult to field involves requests for our assistance in marketing and promoting their activities – VolunTourism.org is not a marketing outlet, it is an educational and information-rich environment designed to support the growth and development of voluntourism for all parties. Of course, and it goes without saying, we want to see entities

succeed in this space, but there are consultants and web portals dedicated to marketing these products and services, while our role is more accurately described as that of “VolunTourism Institute.”

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