This paper looks at a key problem in some areas of volunteer tourism, a now fast-growing model of alternative tourism and alternative development. Combining volunteering with international travel, cultural exchange and learning objectives, volunteer tourism can educate volunteers and build relationships of understanding between diverse people and places. However, the ways volunteers make sense of their experience may actually reinforce cultural stereotypes that perpetuate colonialistic divisions of "us" and "them". Some have argued that projects need a more structured educational approach if volunteers are to learn anything of personal or social value. However, little research has studied the role of volunteer-sending organizations (VSO) in facilitating volunteer understanding of the complex and relational processes of poverty, globalization and inequality. This paper explores ways to improve the educational potential of programs through pre-departure and debrief sessions. In-depth face-to-face and email interviews reveal participants' experiences of volunteering in Vanuatu with an Australian-based VSO. Conclusions suggest that if short-term placements are to foster meaningful participatory action based on solidarity, mutual learning and relationship-building, the educative methodology adopted needs to occur throughout the volunteer process, pre-, during- and post-project while also bringing a pedagogical and developmental perspective to its practice.