Note: an abbreviated version of this post was published on Everyday Ambasador.
At Omprakash, we constantly try to encourage meaningful reflection and dialogue about the risk for international volunteers to do more harm than good. (See my reflection on the ‘Gap Yah’ video for more of my views on this.) In this spirit of inquiry, I was pleased to read this post a few weeks ago on the blog of Voluntourism.org. The author grapples with the core ethical question of ‘profitability as it relates to voluntourism,’ and seems to resolve that there is no inherent ethical problem with seeking profits through the act of helping people fulfill their urge to volunteer and ‘do good’ in faraway places.
I happen to agree: there is nothing wrong with profits in and of themselves, not in the ‘voluntourism’ space or any other. Indeed, as anyone buzzing about ‘social entrepreneurship’ will probably tell you, profit-generating enterprises sometimes offer the most sustainable and high-impact opportunities to address thorny social problems on a global scale. However, what I found missing from this discussion of ‘profitability as it relates to voluntourism’ was any real consideration of the different incentive structures that are bound up in any profit-generating (let alone profit-maximizing) model.
There are quite a few things that make Omprakash distinct from most voluntourism or ‘volunteer placement’ organizations, but what might be most significant are the incentive structures at the core of our model. The easier argument—and certainly the more easily visible differentiating quality—is that Omprakash is unique because our volunteer opportunities are ‘free,’ i.e. volunteers do not need to pay any overhead administrative fees in order to browse our network and connect with our Partners. Yet what I want to argue here is that this point about access and affordability—though certainly an important characteristic of our ‘no fees’ model—is actually less significant than the fundamental shift in incentive structures that our model achieves.
Consider a situation in which you are running an organization that ‘places’ volunteers for a fee of a thousand dollars. Regardless of your good intentions, it is undeniable that you have an incentive to find a placement for every person who wants to volunteer. If you encounter a case where an individual might not actually be suited to volunteer, the potential profits that can be made by ‘placing’ this person act as an incentive to find a position for them, regardless of the suitability of this placement.
The potential for profit by running people through ‘your’ channel can also become a disincentive for enabling travelers to connect with each other or to connect directly with their host projects. As prospective volunteers browse different projects, they might benefit hugely from talking to someone who lives or has lived in one of the communities they intend to visit. It is likely that such contacts could help the prospective visitor plan his or her trip, but by doing so, they would be competing with your company—and thus you don’t have much incentive to enable such dialogue, even if the net result would be a more affordable and high-impact volunteer experience. Thus, volunteers who engage in overly ‘packaged’ trips might end up never talking to someone ‘on the ground’ until they have already paid their fees and arrived.
Likewise, imagine you are running a school or a clinic in a foreign country, and you work with a placement agency that gives you a cut of the profits they earn by sending volunteers to your project. In a situation where the potential volunteer in question is not a good fit for the needs of your project, you still have a powerful incentive to host this person. This sub-par candidate might end up being a helpful guest who learns a lot, builds some meaningful relationships, and does no harm in the process—yet in less ideal cases, this person might end up draining your time and resources and offending your local constituents with his or her insensitivity.
Finally, imagine you are a person who has paid a thousand dollars to go volunteer somewhere. Where is your incentive to ‘earn’ your position by being humble, flexible, and hard-working? If your invitation to visit somewhere revolves around your payment of a fee, it seems hard to avoid feeling like your host ‘owes’ you something in return, regardless of your skills or your work ethic.
In contrast to these three scenarios, now consider the incentives at play when someone volunteers through Omprakash. First of all, since we do not make money by ‘placing’ volunteers, we have no real incentive to encourage poorly prepared volunteers to engage with our network. Nor are we concerned about losing value by enabling our volunteers to get tips from others, and to communicate directly with our Partners on the ground. Secondly, our Partners are given the full authority to choose how, when, and for what reasons to source volunteers from our network, and they have no real incentive to invite potential volunteers who are unwilling or unable to meet their expectations. Finally, our volunteers arrive at their host organization without any sense that the host owes them a service in return for the exorbitant fees that the volunteer has paid. Instead, our experience has suggested that the lack of overhead fees provides incentives for the volunteer to work harder and to be more flexible and open-minded about how they can be put to use, and to be more likely to fundraise on behalf of their host Partner in the future.
Omprakash has operated for the past eight years within a model that does not seek to earn revenue from the services it provides to its users, but it is entirely possible that this model will change. We are constantly strategizing about how to monetize certain aspects of our network to generate revenue that will increase our sustainability and our impact. The point, then, is not that we are opposed to fees or ‘profits’ per se. Rather, our core concern is that our network continues to facilitate exchanges that are fundamentally about mutually educational human relationships. If we can generate profits without straying from this core mission, we will attempt to do so. However, if a potential strategy for generating profits disrupts the incentive structures that enable the relationships we hold to be most important, we will not pursue it. Nothing comes for free, and we want to make sure that our model remains financially viable– but as we work towards a more sustainable future, we try to remember that the our strategic calculations cannot be simply monetary: they must be human as well.