How To Choose a High School Service Trip

In my previous two posts, on the Truth About Service Learning and the Problems and Controversies of Volunteering Abroad, I discussed some of the issues and inconvenient truths associated with many students’ inherent desires to travel abroad to “do good” on a high school service trip. Some of the issues I focused on include:

  1. The reality that development work is incredibly complex and that short-term volunteers are unlikely to have much meaningful, long-term impact on their host community
  2. The fact that volunteers extract educational value from the experience so their “service” is not necessarily as altruistic as we might like to think
  3. The potential for poorly conceived projects to do more harm than good by disrupting local labor markets, causing divisiveness between communities, and other problems
  4. The tendency, in their marketing, for some companies that offer service learning programs to prey on the sensibilities of students and parents that want to “make a difference” while failing to shoot straight with them about the above issues

In this post, I want to dive into some tips and suggestions to help teens and parents choose an appropriate high school service trip.

In-Country Partners

High school service learning programs are especially vulnerable to some of the pitfalls mentioned above, because they typically operate just in the summer for relatively short time frames and consequently trip leaders and students may not have any idea what’s really going on “behind the scenes” with the service projects. A tight relationship with their local partner is key, yet many programs still use a middle man to coordinate the service project through an inbound travel company (i.e.; in-country tour operator that is contracted by a US company for logistics, tours, etc.). These tour operators are making good money off of the “voluntourism” industry and, consequently, some projects are setup simply to provide volunteers with something to do that will make them feel good, without any consideration for long-term poverty alleviation. Put differently, the US company may have no direct relationship to the actual service project – it is just another service purchased through the inbound agent. Consequently, a program you’re vetting may not really have a good handle on the projects their in-country partner oversees. So find out if they have a direct relationship with the project, how it was developed, and other good questions on this point. Definitely ascertain the name of the organization actually overseeing the project and then try to track down independent information on that organization. Where else do they work? How are they funded? What is their long-term track record?

The Service Project

What is the nature of the work the student will be doing? Projects should be part of a broader development plan. I’m talking about education, healthcare, clean water, agriculture, and other initiatives that build a foundation for multi-generational change. Ad hoc projects not part of a coordinated effort for improving the well-being of local people are unlikely to have any meaningful long-term impact. However, consider the fact that truly impactful service projects are difficult to organize and fund. It’s a lot easier to have volunteers slap some paint on a school than it is to build a school, train teachers, and fund its operations. As volunteers (and consumers of a travel product), people should be demand more than painting and a pat on the back. Here’s one classic quote that underscores the futility of so much of the service work that volunteers do:[pl_blockquote cite=”African leader summing up the feeling of many in his community regarding short-term American missions”] You know, Americans always want to paint things. They want to paint buildings, so we have a building we let them paint. Usually we have to repaint the walls after the Americans leave because they don’t do a very good job. [/pl_blockquote]

This quote is excerpted from Rethinking Short-Term Missions for Long-Term Impacts by Mary Faulds.

Another archetypal example of a service project that should raise a red flag are programs that feature volunteering at an orphanage. I sincerely hope there are some programs that have found a way to make volunteering at an orphanage work towards the benefit of the children, but most of the examples I hear about are not particularly encouraging. For one thing, there’s the somewhat systemic issue of a parentless child’s need for stable, consistent relationships in their life, which are fundamentally not being addressed by the comings and goings of short-term volunteers that leave the child confused and questioning why the people don’t come back. An even more trouble example is the emergence of an orphanage industry that has sprung up in Cambodia to serve  the “demand” from western volunteers.

There are plenty of other examples of service projects that a discerning parent should question as they investigate the nature of the service work that their son or daughter will complete while volunteering abroad. The takeaway here is to be inquisitive, ask the difficult questions, and don’t be afraid to probe deeper just because a company tells you that they’ve been working with the same local partner or project for years and they’ve got it all figured out. There may be a good reason the project hasn’t changed in a long time, but it could also be a sign of laziness: it takes time and resources to develop a new project or partnership, and since most volunteers don’t ask the hard questions, there’s no incentive for the organization to change.


We’re a really niche program, so it’s convenient for me to assert this, but it takes a tremendous amount of skill, dedication, and resources to do something really well. Travel and education are both industries where the little things matter a great deal. I know from experience how hard it can be to get the little things right even in the best of circumstances, and then when you throw the unpredictable dynamics of teenagers, weather, transportation, and other factors into the mix, it’s what separates out great programs from good programs. Careful planning, creative itineraries, sound educational principles, and a great group of motivated students are going to be much more consistent across organizations that focus on only doing a couple of things really well rather than trying to be all things to everybody. So, if a company is offering pre-college programs, teen tours, foreign language immersion, and service learning trips, I’d be pretty skeptical that they’re doing all of those things well. Similarly, if they’re claiming they can provide intensive language immersion, leadership development, and meaningful community service all in a single 2-week trip, you’re being sold.


What information will you provide to us before trip departure? I don’t just mean what to pack, I mean what information will you provide to the student to help orient them to the service project and travel experience. Good organizations will provide you with more than just a list of things to bring and vaccinations you might want to get. Any educational travel program, at minimum, should do some sort of front-loading with regards to the culture students are preparing to enter. Suggested books and articles, information about cultural norms, and similar contexts should be provided. For service learning programs, I would want to see the organization also provide some context about international development work, in general, as well as some specifics on the project, the community, the in-country partner, etc. If you’re vetting a program and they don’t do this, I would look elsewhere. They’re not taking their responsibility to the community or their students seriously.

Curriculum and Educational Standards

Well-run educational programs will measure their learning outcomes and seek to improve on their results. Ask organizations what metrics they look at to gauge how they’re doing and what they’re trying to do better. If you get vague answers or assertions that they’re perfect, that’s a pretty big red flag. You might ask if the company has a syllabus or curriculum. If so, ask if you can see it. Also inquire about student deliverables and activities that are designed to reinforce learning. If there are none in place and students are simply expected to magically become “global ambassadors” or some similar type of fluff, you’re not sending your kid overseas for an educational experience; you’re sending him or her on a tour that will irresponsibly reinforce a perspective of cultural superiority among other issues.

Risk Management

Every organization that runs these types of trips will tell you that safety is their number one priority, but ask them to show not tell. Sustainable Summer has a detailed risk management plan that covers everything from food and sanitation issues to environmental hazards. We’ve invested in our risk management practices by participating in the Risk Management Training offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), an organization with over 40 years of experience managing risk in wilderness environments. We also contract one of the leading consultants on risk management and travel medicine in the study abroad industry to run a part of our staff training. I could go into a lot more detail about what we do specifically, but parents should ask pointed questions about any organization’s staffing, training, and field practices in this regard to ensure that providers take this seriously, and don’t just have a bunch of fancy window dressing.

Non-profit or for-profit?

You wouldn’t send your kid to a for-profit university would you? Why then do so many parents choose a for-profit service learning provider when there are so many non-profit organizations out there doing the exact same thing?! The benefits of working with a non-profit are clear:

  • Non-profits generally have slightly lower tuition and more robust financial aid and scholarship resources, so you will have a more diverse group of student participants.
  • Non-profits have to make their finances public, so there’s an element of transparency with how the organization spends its money, as well as benchmarks on compensation, marketing, and other non-program expenses, so you’re typically going to have a greater percentage of your tuition going towards program costs.
  • Non-profits are required to have an independent, uncompensated board of directors that oversees the organization’s operations and ensure its adherence to its mission.

I don’t want to suggest that all non-profit service learning organizations are amazing and all for-profits are evil and out to milk volunteers for every dime they can. However, I do find it rather incongruous that there are so many for-profit service learning programs out there spouting gibberish about changing the world and empowering young people through education and this, that, and the other thing, yet meanwhile the owner is pulling down ten to twenty times the salary of the person running your local community college or community development organization. Also, don’t be fooled by the many for-profit service learning programs that are whitewashing their profit motive through a charitable foundation or scholarship program they’ve established. This is not the same as being a non-profit; not remotely. In most cases, it’s a way for the company to fill unsold spots in a program at cost. If the company does have an affiliated foundation, you can usually track down the its Form 990 tax filing to get a much better picture of the organization’s actual charitable activities. There are a handful of service learning company’s that put meaningful effort into their scholarship programs, but the majority are happy to put up the pretense of philanthropic work and call it a day.

Closing Thoughts

There’s obviously a lot to consider, but if finding a meaningful high school service trip is important to you, do your homework and you’ll be rewarded. This post (hopefully) makes clear that it’s not easy to sift through all the glossy marketing to find the organizations that really do a good job with service learning. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, service learning programs, when done correctly, can provide an impactful educational experience to the volunteer and a meaningful benefit to the host community. I’d rather not dwell on the problems and controversies of volunteering abroad, but if you’d like to dive a little deeper, check out this post. There’s also some great resources on “rethinking volunteer travel” at and at And please know that there alternatives to service learning, such as Sustainable Summer, if you’d like to have a purposeful travel experience in a developing country, but would rather leave the paintbrush at home. And finally, for some suggestions and reviews of high school service trips, check out this post.