How to Volunteer Responsibly in Southeast Asia

Ana Pérez López / © Culture Trip
Photo of Iona Proebst
6 November 2017

Looking to travel with a purpose, make a difference or to “give back”? Great! Here’s our guide on how to volunteer responsibly while travelling in Southeast Asia.

The term ‘voluntourism’ has been in circulation for some time now, and although most volunteers come with good intentions some unintentionally do more harm than good. While many see it as an egoistic endeavour which hopefully produces some great selfies with “poor” people, this is simply the wrong way to go about it. Volunteering responsibly not only requires you to be altruistic, humble and have a skill set, it also pays to consider the following points.

Children living in a slum, Cambodia | © ND Strupler/Flickr

Pick your passion

Volunteering on an issue you are truly passionate about will be a much more rewarding experience for all concerned. Whether it be women’s empowerment, education, children or the environment, Southeast Asia has organisations working on an array of different issues.

Woman in Sapa, Vietnam | © yeowatzup/flickr


It pays to be a savvy volunteer that has done their homework and is not entirely “green”. Research the country you want to volunteer in and the issues they are working to overcome as well as basics like culture, traditions, weather, currency and language. It is also very important to research the field you wish to volunteer in and potential organisations you might volunteer for. Before selecting your organisation it pays to do further research and ask some important questions:

Questions you should be asking and/or researching

Is the organisation transparent and accountable about their spending?

Are they a reputable organisation or have alternative motivations?

Does the organisation have Child Protection Policies in place?

Do they have a good reputation in the local community and with other organisations?

Is the organisation working towards their mission?

Are foreign volunteers filling a much-needed gap?

Are the foreign volunteers skilled and qualified?

Is there active involvement from the local community?

Is the organisation working towards building capacity, not dependency?

Is sustainability a goal?

Volunteering with hill tribe children, Thailand | © COSA/Flickr

Time and money

Come prepared! You don’t want to be a drain on the organisations resources in any way, so preparation is key. Volunteering for a day helping to clean up Thailand’s beaches is beneficial, yet teaching in a classroom in Vietnam for a day is not necessarily sustainable. Many organisations have a minimum amount of time they require volunteers to commit to, if not this should ring alarm bells. Signing up to teach (or however else you are volunteering) for a few months rather than a few weeks will make a much larger and sustainable impact to the community you are helping. It is also advised that you come prepared to finance your stay and do not rely on your organisation for support as you do not want to be a part of the problem, rather part of the solution.

Happy volunteering!

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