What better way to spend the summer than gallivanting with your buddies on a tropical Thai beach drinking piña coladas out of a coconut at a raucous full moon party?

Well, in fact, it turns out that the hedonism of a backpacking holiday does not always offer the kind of fulfilment that a growing number of people are looking from a gap year these days.

Many young people today instead opt to base their trips on something more meaningful. Doing something positive and constructive, like helping out at a rainforest conservation project or teaching at a disadvantaged school in a developing country, has become an attractive option for those looking to immerse themselves in another culture at the same time as learning valuable skills and gaining worldly experience.

The Volunteer Industry

A growing volunteer tourism industry has sprung up to cater to people looking to get involved in social and environmental projects. A whole host of companies now have emerged claiming to offer all-inclusive trips to far-flung areas of the globe to intrepid volunteers looking for authentic and meaningful experiences. Many of these companies have flashy websites featuring images of satisfied and engaged volunteers helping out in the pursuit of worthy causes – all for a hefty cost, of course.

It all looks great, but is everything always all that it seems?

The answer to this question really depends on the program that you sign up to. Experiences have been known to vary widely, so it is a good idea to check out what you are paying for before you take the plunge.

The Good

The best volunteer programs will go out of their way to make sure that you receive a valuable apprenticeship in whichever area you are volunteering in. The program will be well-managed, and there will be tones of guidance and advice from helpful staff who know what they are doing. You will be looked after physically and emotionally during your stay and leave with a sense that your money has been well-spent on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thankfully, the experience described here mirrors that of the vast majority of people who participate in volunteer programs.

The Bad (and the Ugly)

While most paid volunteer programs offer a great experience to grow and learn, a small number of them are not what exactly what was advertised on the website. Unprofessional and badly-organized outfits are unfortunately not that uncommon and will leave volunteers disappointed by what the experience they provide.

Then, we have the dark underbelly of volunteer programs. A quick search online will pull up a number of volunteer horror stories about scam operations that have acted in an unprofessional way toward their clients. As always happens in any industry, there will always be a tiny minority of operations that are out there purely to make money from the goodwill of unsuspecting volunteers.


The programs offered by volunteer programs are not free, with prices for room and board tending to be quite expensive. If you are going to invest a large amount of money in a volunteer experience, you will want assurances that you are going to get what you are paying for.

Do not let the horror stories on the internet put you off – if you do your research beforehand, checking for testimonials and certifications to verify the quality of the program, you should have the time of your life and learn some useful skills while you are at it!