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Mission Trips That Make a Difference vs Volunteer Tourism

I’ve spent over 30 years trying to help people do short-term missions in a way that is beneficial to both those hosting the missionaries as well as the missionaries themselves. Too often those going may do more harm than good. We need to do a motive check and a strategy check before we go. Kayl…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

I’ve spent over 30 years trying to help people do short-term missions in a way that is beneficial to both those hosting the missionaries as well as the missionaries themselves. Too often those going may do more harm than good.

We need to do a motive check and a strategy check before we go.

Kayla Strickler saw a video that had close to 4 million views. It’s point? Many “well intentioned” short-term missionaries should reconsider their approach. In fact, they do more harm than good. Volunteer-tourists should stay home. She seeks to answer the question, Is the World Race “Voluntourism?” 

She begins by making this admission:  Up until coming on the World Race I would’ve emphatically agreed, and not even blinked. Because, all short-term trips, while they may have different goals, are all basically the same, right? Right? 

*     *     *     *

Kayla’s perspective: Most people out there may not even know how to tell the difference between what’s depicted here and what I have been a part of through the World Race. Lots of times the pictures look the same. We’ve been in orphanages, poor villages, next to African wells….name your cliche. Often, the service may sound the same on the surface. Heck, I’ve even taught English in plenty of countries–including in Cambodia (mentioned in the video).

I also know that just a year ago, even with the best of intentions, I simply wouldn’t have known the difference between what helps and what hurts. Therefore, no judgment whatsoever if you have ever been in a similar place. Here’s a free pass to think and discuss it with me!

To be perfectly clear, the danger I’m discussing isn’t voluntourism in and of itself; rather, the danger of when we overgeneralize all short-term trips as the same. This overgeneralization and way of thinking actually harms the champions we on the World Race work with on the frontlines in each country that Dr. Samantha Nutt herself says “are doing incredible things for humanity.”

To start, this is simply some of what I’ve seen and learned over the last 10 months, and why the World Race just isn’t voluntourism:

Voluntourism: “trips are largely designed to benefit the visitor–rater than the host communities–making a spectacle out of poverty and reinforcing outdated stereotypes about developing countries”

WR: trips designed to benefit the nations, the communities, serve like Jesus would, and bring Kingdom to Earth both in the spiritual and the physical needs we can help meet.

Voluntourism: trips benefit someone’s pocket, and often are directionless and unsustainable without long-term followup in-country

WR: We work alongside long-term frontliners in every place we go. The backbone of the WR is championing the causes of people who have specific ways for us to help advance their long-term goals. Sometimes they’re natives; sometimes they’re foreigners who have unpacked their bags there for the long-haul.

Voluntourism: “Feel-good” goal — the product people invest so much money for.

WR: “Feeling good” is never an expectation and never our motivation. (In fact, sometimes the things we do and see can leave us feeling a little messed up. The world is a rough place). I’m proud to say that I’ve seen the people I’ve journeyed serve to extreme lengths of discomfort, without a single “atta-boy” or “good job”

Voluntourism: Monetary goal

WR: Eternal goal 

Voluntourism: often extremely expensive and often comes with developed-world “comforts”

WR: We live with and alongside the locals, even if that means living without running water and eating the same four foods for a month straight.

Voluntourism: oftentimes no background check required

WR: DEFINITELY background check required, plus a multi-stage interview process and constant accountability throughout our whole time on the field

Voluntourism: Aimed at the foreigners

WR: Aimed at the countries and people in need 


Hopefully that cleared up some of the differences. But there’s much more to well-organized short-term endeavors.

I cannot understate the importance of partnering with a long-term effort in need on short-term trips. Through this, you can help bring global awareness but also champion local causes that really do benefit from the things you can offer. (Like in Rwanda, where just my upbringing in quality Western education systems was enough to qualify me to help the volunteer village teachers run their classes more effectively. There was no one else. And before you knee-jerk react to the inadequacy of the teachers being volunteers like I would have a year ago, I assure you there are often no other options. Volunteer adults that have completed some schooling are much better than children receiving no education at all in poor, rural, village communities.)

Other aspects of short-term service include things like the individuals that come across your path. For example, a Rwandan boy is now alive and fed adequate meals and has begun schooling because God led him into our lives. Mengae from Ethiopia can return to school for his Master’s Degree and help his country better because we were able to help him pay off the debt inhibiting him. These were  “additional” and not expected parts of our mission. But God had enabled us to help; we could, and we did. And even though we were short-termers, we had advantages on-hand that locals didn’t (like coming from a country where the average monthly salary is often more than they make in a year).

Additionally, in many Asian and African countries, important people and powerful officials are often automatically inclined to hear what you have to say simply because of their perception of foreigners. It means without even trying, people listen to you more. You automatically have an influence in those places to help local efforts that don’t have as strong of a voice on their own.

The fact remains: there aren’t always mission and aide workers in every corner of the globe to champion from afar with funds. Oh, how I wish there were more. The fact is, sometimes, you’re it. 

Maybe you identify with some of my prior sentiments: I get it. I used to get really bitter at the excessive dollars “wasted” on expensive international plane tickets that could’ve gone directly to basic food, water, and aide for those in need. I used to cringe at the thought of people taking groups to some poor area anywhere in the world to paint a school or haul some bricks— for one, unemployment is usually high in those countries, and the money spent on getting there could’ve supported entire families of workers more qualified to do the job in the first place. Double cringing occurred when no one on the trip had any kind of related practical skills to offer (carpentry, medical skills, etc). Triple cringing ensued if included in the cost of a youth or church trip was a day or two at an amusement park and some gaudy neon T-shirt. Anyone else? (Harsh, I know, but it’s honest. I know I’m not the only one.)

I’m so grateful God asked me to step out in faith into short-term missions anyway. 

Because, sure, I’m sure there’s plenty of well-intentioned spring mission and volunteer trips out there that mean well but unfortunately fall into “voluntourism.” Those trips are often just poorly orchestrated, and, sadly, sometimes ineffective. They definitely exist and not all short-term endeavors are created equal. But placing blanket negative judgments on short-term endeavors of all kind ultimately just harms the organizations and individuals around the world that really need it.


This world is in need. Period. We need to be smart about using our dollars wisely and being strategic and spiritually led with short-term missions. But when these criteria are met, not only do well-orchestrated short-term missions actually in fact deeply affect the right communities in need, but they also bring perspectives and paradigms crucial to the world’s well-being back into America and the developed nations.

And at the end of the day, one of the reasons I chose the World Race is because of their uncompromising desire to see the lost get found and serve the poor like Jesus did. That’s the goal at the end of every day. To be the hands and feet. And to help those around the world that do the same thing.

I can’t write this blog without noting how we’ve seen so many people come to faith in Christ all over the world and be encouraged in their faith. And that always makes an eternal difference.

So, in summary, can you really make a long-term difference on a short-term trip?



*Note: serving with the goal of feeling good has been scientifically linked to alleviating depression. I am not condemning types of volunteering outside of the paramaters I’ve discussed in this blog. Lots of good is done in the world and is a win-win for volunteers of all kinds that volunteer under all kinds of motives, religious and secular alike. Under these circumstances, I simply ask that you consider the concepts I’ve discussed when making decisions on how and where to serve and volunteer. Keep serving the world in all ways. 


Comments (11)

  • Heart condition. Those words were ringing in my ear as I was reading your blog. No doubt whether a “volunteerism” or a “mission” trip there is bound to be a mix of hearts in it that are prone to being there for the right reasons or not. I actually said I was all done with short term trips with groups in the past because of what you referred to on the negative side of things. No doubt God uses all things though and lives are changed on both sides of the table that wouldn’t have been otherwise.
    I love the gut check though- being intentional about keeping the heart right in the efforts. I certainly need it from time to time.
    I learned a bunch of years ago in a very humbling way that the rest of the world is not sitting around wishing they were America! If we can always maintain the heart of embracing a culture for the beauty it has and looking for Gods leading in our actions I think the “volunteerism” just takes care of itself.
    Great word Seth

  • Great stuff Seth. I believe everyone who travels outside of the US should read When Helping Hurts before steeping foot on the plane. We need to give thought to not only what we are doing within a foreign community but how we are doing it.

    I’m convinced that if we aren’t humble enough to recognize that we may have more to learn, than to teach, then we have no chance of empowering a people group to rise up and overcome the long-term challenges that stand before them.

  • So let me suggest a new book addressing this topic- Reciprocal Missions, by DJ Schuetze and Phil Steiner. Both are authors are friends of ours… one leads an international orphanage which hosts over 300 groups a year, and the other leads a ministry taking short term trips world wide. They wrote this to address how short term trips can be done well and benefit both the group going and the people receiving. It’s s good book, with lots of practical stories. At the end of the day, we are all part of God’s Kingdom and He designed us to serve each other and serve together. Thanks for sharing Kayla!

  • Yes, we need to check our hearts and our motives. We need to understand how we’re being perceived if we are to serve well.

  • Thanks for the recommendation, Heidi. I’ll look for it. And I like the example that you and your wonderful family set.

  • What a brilliant post by Kayla – thank you for sharing, Seth. You are so dedicated to paying attention to all of the people who go out on the mission field. I hope this post is shared with all those who need to hear the difference between real and fake. The World Race is the real deal.

  • I think of …”choose this day whom you will serve.” when reading this. Who you serve is where your service (whether to yourself or others) comes from.
    This was such a great perspective on being clear with the life we live in sharing the gospel and how we articulate it to others. “If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples John 13:35. I don’t want my life to mirror what voluntourism is talked about in this blog and then have me explain who I am. I want others to notice at first that it appears similar but sees me and my life as something so different that it draws them to look further and see Jesus.

  • Seth, somehow, only months after ending my World Race journey, I am just seeing this now. THANK YOU and I am very honored that you shared these words that I penned somewhere in Ecuador. THANK YOU as well, because it was through this very blog of yours a whole 8 years ago that I learned about the World Race in the first place. Now, of course my life is forever impacted by that wild and incredible year. Best, Kayla

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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