We often use “service learning” to describe volunteer programs and international volunteer travel, emphasizing learning through service—service that teaches life lessons that help both the traveler and the world. The profound lessons that international volunteering can bring is one of the main reasons that academic institutions are incorporating it—and sometimes requiring it—in coursework.

But the concept of service learning is outdated. We are firm believers in the power of international travel to help people gain experience, perspectives, and skills that can help them improve the world, but think that going on a trip billed as “serving others”—when the travelers themselves are often the ones who disproportionately benefit—can undermine these effects.

Globalization, mass communication, and ease of travel have brought about a new sense of global interconnectedness, often accompanied by an increased sense of responsibility. Traveling to a place that exposes people to the realities of poverty and other global issues can spark complex emotions and a desire to take action. In our research on volunteer travel, we found that the motivation behind international volunteering was overwhelmingly the desire to “help” or “give back.”

But good intentions are often hard to link with good results. The international development sector knows this well, yet it is often teams familiar with travel, rather than international development, which manage service trips offered through universities and travel companies. Instead of marketing volunteer travel as the smallest intervention on the spectrum of international development offerings, organizations generally market service learning as the most “responsible” travel offering. Therefore, instead of judging service travel against international development impact criteria, people often view it as better or “more authentic” than the other end of the spectrum of mass tourism.

In fact, while some volunteer placement organizations admirably strive to educate and empower all involved, many are simply motivated by the increasing demand for service placements and potential profit. The race to attract more customers can result in increasingly simplistic solutions and tokenistic volunteer offerings that have negligible impact, or worse, do harm to the communities they purport to help (the worrying trend of orphanage tourism is just one example). In addition, teachers and program facilitators can be perpetrators in their request for or design of “feel good” experiences for youth. We have come across more than one teacher looking for a volunteer project that students could complete from start to finish in a few days and “feel a sense of accomplishment” in having done something meaningful.

The reality is that designing an intervention whereby young and inexperienced volunteers effectively and sustainably “help” a community overseas—one that speaks a different language and has different cultural assumptions—is extremely difficult. It is also very difficult to manufacture opportunities at scale where the volunteers’ impact on the ground significantly offsets the resources and time it takes to manage them. Reducing the negative effects of volunteering can be easier in some contexts (for example, some environmental cleanup projects which require less cultural understanding), but even then, a reputable organization committed to vetting, training, and supporting both volunteers and host organizations is necessary to make the program successful for all parties.

This is becoming increasingly important because volunteer travel is no longer a niche activity but a burgeoning sector appealing to millions of eager, high-paying travelers who want to help make the world a better place. Our research is showing that far from achieving this, many young volunteers return home disillusioned and frustrated by the complexities they have uncovered, and lack support in transforming this into future positive action.

Our programs need to not shy away from this complexity but embrace it as an important learning experience. We need to shift the way we measure impact and reframe service travel marketing. Organizations sell the vision of a volunteer disembarking from a plane saying, “Hi, I’m here to help you!” but we believe the message needs to be “Hi, I’m here to learn from you about how I can help—now or in the future.” This shift means seeing these travelers not as “volunteers” serving local “beneficiaries,” but rather as humble foreign visitors who are looking to learn from local people to understand context, culture, and history that they can use to valuably contribute—either during their trip or after they return.

We are not suggesting that foreign communities should be testing grounds for learning, though we indeed could describe many of today’s volunteer travel offerings that way. In our proposed model, it is implicit and essential that:

  • Volunteers make a positive contribution during their time through the work they support or solidarity others feel—and at minimum avoid causing harm
  • Local organizations invite volunteers to contribute to and learn about the project they want to participate in and related issues
  • Programs support the translation of that learning into action—either through personal lifestyle changes or through global action that continues after they return home

We suggest literally flipping the concept of service learning on its head to become learning service, where learning is not the outcome or byproduct of serving the world but a fundamental part of it. It focuses on learning that comes first and throughout, allowing travelers to recognize that to help others, they must be open to changing their own perspectives. Organizations running these programs must help travelers learn about the context, issues, and people of the place they visit, and engage with the necessary research and questioning to seek out responsible organizations with which to partner. In this way, we can measure the success of international exchanges by the traveler’s increased ability to effect change in the future, while providing solidarity and support, and causing no harm, along the way.

The current model suggests that service travel aiming to support global development is altruistic, whereas travel designed for personal development and learning is selfish. We argue to the contrary: Far from always being the morally superior option, traveling abroad to “help” can in fact display a lot of ego. Educators and volunteer travel providers can communicate this to people by asking them to compare two concepts:

  1. Inexperienced volunteers who paint a fence that no one needs or who inadvertently support a corrupt organization
  2. Travelers who go overseas with the express purpose of listening to and learning from the people they meet so that they are more able to take action on the issues about which they learn

We can deconstruct these examples by asking: Is it altruistic? Is it effective? And for whom?

The learning service approach requires more commitment than a two-week stint abroad, but it can help diminish the “hero” complex often associated with volunteer travel. Success then relies on finding a suitable placement, where there can be a meaningful learning exchange, and a framework and support for future action. By reminding participants that personal development and global development are intrinsically linked, they can apply this approach to all aspects of their lives, the choices they make, and the world around them. If we as educators and travel providers can focus on building opportunities for students and others to learn the skills and experience they need to make a positive impact on the world through everything they do, their long-term contribution can far exceed the tourist spectacles currently passing as volunteer opportunities.