Volunteering demonstrates the best of our shared humanity.

Whenever we donate time, talent, or specific skills to a community organization, we have the chance to make the world a better place and impact real people in a responsible and meaningful way.

And as our awareness of and connections with different parts of the world only grow exponentially, it’s no wonder that international volunteering is on the rise. When we see others in need, it’s natural as human beings to want to help out in whatever way we can.

But volunteering overseas – and especially in Southeast Asia – is fraught with complications that many well-meaning people don’t think about before they purchase their plane ticket. In particular, predatory “voluntourism” can have more negative consequences than positive ones – undoing any impact that a volunteer had hoped to have.

So how do you sift the good service opportunities from the bad? Responsible volunteering requires research. Information and awareness are key when you’re scouting out – and participating in – the right international volunteer positions.

This article will discuss what defines an ethical or responsible volunteering opportunity and how you can decide which organizations deserve the donation of your time – and which don’t. We hope it’s helpful as you decide where to volunteer abroad.

Ethical volunteering in Battambang, Cambodia

What Is Responsible Volunteering?

Responsible volunteering or ethical volunteering is defined by three major traits:

  1. Long-term sustainability
  2. Community impact
  3. Appropriate placement for foreigners

Consideration #1: Long-Term Sustainability

As a volunteer, you hope to leave substantial, lasting change in the country and community you serve. It’s not just about your own time there, but what happens long after you’ve boarded your flight home.

So, when you’re considering international volunteer opportunities, think about the future. Is there reasonable potential for this project to continue moving forward after you leave? What tools or training need to be handed off to locals or other volunteers in order for the positive change to remain sustainable over the long term?

Responsible volunteering opportunities will often consider the following:

    • Training local staff to continue the project
    • Building up long-term fundraising capacity
    • Creating sustainable systems for the local organization to meet community needs

If your term of service is very short, then it should probably focus on training. Otherwise, it’s better to carry out short-term service in your own local community instead.

This emphasis on long-term sustainability is why Phare Ponleu Selpak prioritizes volunteers who can commit to 3 months or more of service.

Consideration #2: Community Impact

In addition to long-term sustainability, it’s important to evaluate volunteer opportunities through the lens of community outreach and impact.

Volunteering is a great way for you to create meaningful connections with people far from home, but it’s worth asking if you’re volunteering just to meet new people and enjoy yourself or if your actions are actually helping local community members. You’d be surprised how many predatory volunteer opportunities are more about helping the volunteers have a good time on holiday than improving the lives of the locals.

For instance, a volunteer opportunity that allocates jobs and resources away from local community members is often predatory and not sustainable in the long term. It also greatly reduces any potential positive impact on the community.

A common example of this pattern in Cambodia and in other developing countries is when well-meaning volunteers are tasked with constructing a local school. Let’s take a closer look at why this practice doesn’t have as much community impact as volunteers often think.

The school itself is beneficial to the local community, but the building process is a labor-intensive effort that requires past construction experience and in-depth trade knowledge. If a volunteer wouldn’t be qualified to build a school in their home country, then they probably shouldn’t build one while overseas either. In this case, the volunteer effort also robs locals of a chance for gainful employment.

Instead, let’s look at a better long-term solution: Those same volunteers could help raise money for building materials and then employ already-skilled local construction crews to complete the school. Not only does this alternative solution have a larger, more sustainable economic impact, but locals also have a greater sense of pride in having built the school with their own hands.

Responsible volunteering within local communities is definitely possible, but it requires research and critical thinking on the best way to have a sustainable impact.

At Phare Ponleu Selpak, we always weigh potential volunteer projects against what’s best for the community in the long term. Usually there’s a great fit for someone’s specific skills that also ensures the community remains empowered and fit for the future.

S'Art Urban Arts Festival volunteers and staff

Consideration #3: Appropriate Placement for Foreign Volunteers

The last consideration in ethical volunteering is finding the most appropriate place for you to serve as a volunteer.

The most responsible post where you can serve is one that uses your existing gifts and talents. Volunteering in Cambodia or Southeast Asia in a capacity where you don’t have the skills, knowledge, or experience often causes more harm than good. Learning and growth are great, but those should happen in your home country where you’re less likely to cause accidental damage.

For example, many people volunteer in Asia as English teachers even though they don’t have any language teaching credentials or experience. Not only does this potentially harm students with a haphazard or incorrect education, but it also takes away employment opportunities from locals who are qualified to teach and who know the local language as well.

Consider these contrasting examples of responsible volunteering with the above:

    • Volunteers with finance or banking experience would best serve a local NGO with their bookkeeping or financial analysis – in addition to training local staff on those specialized skills.
    • Potential volunteers with a writing or communications background might best help a non-profit with their social media management and fundraising efforts with foreign donors.
    • Engineers might best help out a local organization with challenges like drainage, electrical setup, or building schematics since these skills might be in short supply within some community organizations in Asia.

While playing with local kids and teaching them basic English might sound more fun as a volunteer opportunity, your valuable education and work experience are far more impactful when it comes to volunteering. Using your specific skillset also is one of the best ways to leave an imprint on the organization that continues well after your time there is over.

This consideration is why Phare Ponleu Selpak vets all volunteers for their professional skills and experience to determine if a potential volunteer meets an already-defined need on campus.

Learn about international volunteering opportunities in Southeast Asia

How You Can Spot Predatory Volunteer Opportunities

A predatory volunteer position – including “voluntourism” opportunities – will exhibit a number of red flags. For the most part, these detrimental postings will have all the opposite characteristics of responsible volunteering listed above.

One potential red flag is if the non-profit organization asks you to pay a fee to participate and volunteer. You are already donating your time as well as the cost of airplane tickets, accommodation, transportation, meals, etc., so if the NGO requires a fee above and beyond your personal costs, you should start by asking why.

On the harmless end, these volunteering fees might be to help with things like visas, background checks, safety and security costs, hiring staff to coordinate volunteers, or other reasonable costs for a non-profit that accepts overseas volunteers. Some organizations like Projects Abroad provide a volunteer cost breakdown that illustrate how and where volunteering fees are directed. In cases like these, transparency often equals trustworthiness. Reputable organizations will always be able to explain in detail where the fee is going – if they charge one at all – and how it will be utilized in the field.

However, if the cost of a volunteer opportunity is exorbitant in proportion to the potential position, that’s likely a red flag. Or if an organization can’t explain to you where the fee goes, then they might be taking advantage of your desire to help while lining their own pockets. This is why responsible volunteering requires research.

Phare Ponleu Selpak never charges a fee of any kind to our volunteers. As long as you can take care of your daily living expenses, participating in our long-term volunteer opportunities is completely free of charge.

Another major red flag of predatory voluntourism is that that their volunteering work will only provide a short-term impact in the local community. If there is no training or infrastructure to continue the work after you’ve gone home – or if the work would have to be continued only by more short-term volunteers – then the organization is more about providing a feel-good vacation experience than about creating sustainable, positive change over the long term.

In some sad cases, this pattern of short-term, feel-good tourism is deliberate. This pattern is meant to perpetuate the cycle of voluntourism for profit – at the expense of your good intentions and at the expense of local communities in need. Let’s take a closer look at a specific example.

Sustainable and responsible volunteering in Battambang, Cambodia

An Example of Predatory Voluntourism: For-Profit Orphanages

Predatory volunteer opportunities often come at the expense of society’s most vulnerable populations, especially children. In Southeast Asia, these organizations often take the form of for-profit schools and orphanages.

In recent years, there has been an alarming number of for-profit orphanages and schools operating in Cambodia. These volunteering opportunities bring in short-term, well-meaning volunteers, often with little-to-no teaching experience and in worst cases, dubious intentions. These predatory schools and orphanages are marketed as caring for children and families in poverty, yet these organizations perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty by offering families no further support, education, or resources.

Children require stability and healthy, consistent relationships with their teachers for their long-term development. Those relationships cannot be provided through short-term volunteering. Rather, revolving volunteer teachers often cause emotional harm by disappearing regularly from a child’s life. Furthermore, changing teachers in quick succession can put children in vulnerable situations with ill-meaning sexual predators who often aren’t background checked before being placed in a classroom.

The above reasons are why volunteer teachers at Phare Ponleu Selpak always require a police certificate or background check completed in their country of residence before the volunteer opportunity begins. And Phare always requires a long-term volunteer commitment for anyone who could be teaching minors.

Volunteering can be a meaningful and impactful experience, but it should never come at the cost of children or other vulnerable populations. Children are the future, and predatory volunteer opportunities exploit volunteers’ desire to help in order to make a profit and potentially harm children more than help them.

Fortunately, there are also organizations fighting against these predatory for-profit schools and orphanages. Cambodia Children’s Trust (CCT) works specifically to break this cycle of dependence created by for-profit orphanages who take advantage of short-term, predatory voluntourism in order to make money. CCT operates the local Battambang restaurant Jaan Bai as a social enterprise to help fund their efforts – giving tourists and volunteers an ethical way to support a good cause and provide local employment.

So, if you ever come to visit or volunteer at Phare Ponleu Selpak, we encourage you to support social enterprises like Jaan Bai – and many others – who are working against the negative impacts of voluntourism.

Volunteering at Phare Ponleu Selpak ensures you have long-term sustainable impact

But I Want to Help! How Can I Volunteer Responsibly?

There are plenty of meaningful and ethical volunteer opportunities in Southeast Asia and around the world. Good organizations need your help! The key is putting in the effort to find them.

The best way to begin your responsible volunteering journey is to consider your own interests and strengths. ConCERT Cambodia is a Cambodian NGO focusing on responsible tourism and international volunteering within Cambodia specifically. ConCERT is a resource with a plethora of information regarding vetted and ethical attractions and volunteer opportunities, with specific information for those looking to make a difference within Cambodia.

It’s also important to consider the time you’re able to commit to an organization or community. Short-term volunteer opportunities may not always involve direct interaction with a target community (such as children or the elderly), but will lead to a more sustainable future where those vulnerable populations are protected from bad actors. Even better, long-term volunteering ensures that an organization doesn’t have to complete a lot of overhead and administration work every time a new volunteer comes and goes.

As stated above, find overseas volunteer opportunities that play to your strengths, education, and background. Volunteering in finance, fundraising, and specialized training are incredible ways to strengthen local organizations from the inside while leaving a lasting impact.

Learn how ethical or sustainable volunteering can leave a lasting impact on communities in Cambodia

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Committing to an Overseas Volunteer Opportunity

Before you make a commitment to volunteer abroad, here are some important questions to ask yourself about your motives, the organization, and the potential long-term impact of your work there:

    • What population is served by this opportunity? Why do I feel passionate about this opportunity?
    • What are my skills and talents, and how can I best utilize them as a volunteer?
    • What is the cost of this experience (if any)? Can all expenses be accounted for in a reasonable manner?
    • Will my volunteer work take jobs away from local people, and/or negatively impact children or the environment?
    • Will this opportunity aid locals in their long-term learning and development?
    • Will this important task or project continue after my departure?

Asking and answering these questions thoughtfully ensures that you won’t be donating your time or talent to manipulative or predatory organizations who seek to do more harm than good.

The Phare Communications Team at the Sangker River Run

Consider Volunteering at Phare Ponleu Selpak

Phare Ponleu Selpak was born from the idea that the arts have the ability to heal and change lives – one person at a time.

All of our founders are Cambodian. Our roots have always been in Battambang, and from the beginning, Phare has always been about serving the needs of the local community. To supplement the skills and expertise of our Cambodian staff, we regularly welcome responsible volunteers from every corner of the globe.

We are always looking for artists and performers who can share their specialized skills to our students, staff, and teachers. To ensure the safety of children and other vulnerable groups on our campus, we always require a police clearance certificate or another form of background check prior to your arrival in Cambodia. And whenever possible, we prefer volunteers who can commit to a 3-month time window or longer.

Whether your expertise lies in communications, graphic design, visual and performing arts, plumbing, finance, physical therapy, or anything else, we encourage you to apply today.

At Phare, volunteers are the beating heart of what drives our organization forward. If you have skills or experience that you believe will provide long-term sustainable impact in Battambang, please join our growing family of diverse volunteers who’ve helped us change lives through the arts for 30 years – and counting!


Volunteering is about people helping people. The time, dedication, and passion that volunteers give to help others are sacred and thus need to be protected from exploitation.

Responsible volunteering is the best way to ensure that those gifts make a real, sustainable impact on the vulnerable communities that need them most. If you agree, then we hope to meet with you soon.


Looking for a responsible volunteering opportunity in a creative environment? Volunteer at Phare Ponleu Selpak and get first-hand experience changing lives through the arts.


Emma Perry, Communications Volunteer at Phare Ponleu Selpak
Emma Perry
Emma Perry is an American living and working in Battambang and is a part-time volunteer with the Phare Ponleu Selpak communications team. Inspired by her Cambodian heritage, Emma enjoys learning Khmer culture and spending time in the community. Emma is here as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and works at a local Battambang high school.