For many travelers, the chance to combine tourism and volunteer work sounds like the making of a great itinerary. It’s a nice and noble gesture, a chance to leave a good footprint in the places we trample for our own pleasure. It’s a chance to combine a passion for travel with a desire to give back and, hopefully, make a difference.
It’s often said that travel is the best education because it gives us a chance to connect with other cultures in a multitude of ways. Voluntourism provides a greater opportunity to make this connection. Over the past decade, voluntourism has developed into a revenue stream for travel companies and charities. It’s a product that gives them an opportunity to court tourists and travelers who want to get away and do good works at the same time. Sounds simple enough.
But where does your money go?
It’s the first question you might want to ask. If you sell travel, it’s the question you want all the answers to before you recommend voluntourism options to customers. It’s the question that’s brought a lot of controversy to voluntourism, because the high price a consumer might pay—and some of these experiences can be pretty pricey—don’t always have a high level impact on the people and places where the good Samaritan work is being done.
Last month, The Journal of Sustainable Tourism published a study that revealed the more expensive a trip product, the less responsible it was. It also discovered that the less expensive the experience, the greater the impact. The study also found that just because a product is labeled as a volunteer tourism opportunity, it doesn’t mean the end results will be positive.
So what’s a traveler with pure intentions to do? According to Victoria Smith, lead author, and Dr. Xavier Font, who conducted the study, there are a few key things to look out for:
How is your money being used?
Basically, you’re looking for pricing transparency. If a company doesn’t publish this information, ask them to break it down for you. You want to know where your money is going and how the community or conservation effort you’re serving is benefiting from it. Most companies will take a cut, and that’s understandable, but it shouldn’t be more than 20%.
How does this project make a difference?
If you’re going to put in the time, you want to be sure it was well spent so it’s good to know the goals and details of a project up front. You also want to be sure that the project you sign up for will, in fact, use the skills you bring to it, or that you actually have the skills that might be needed. Depending on the project, you could be doing anything from chipping paint, to data entry, to teaching English, for example. It’s preferable to know in advance what you’ll be doing.
What is the length of the project?
In order to make a difference, we typically need to put in an investment of time. From students to baby boomers, people who commit to volunteer projects realize that to have any kind of impact, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for shorter-term experiences and that good things can’t be done in 48 hours. Where there’s a will—and a desire to give back—there’s a way, and travelers who’ve set their sights on charity work who can’t commit to extended lengths of time often use any vacation opportunity to connect with volunteer opportunities wherever and however they can.
It’s not about me.
Remember, life begins at the edge of your comfort zone. Voluntourism isn’t vacation and any company that markets an experience this way should probably be avoided. Anyone looking to enjoy a bit of down time may want to cover that part of the trip first. This way, your needs are out of the way. Being of service is about following someone else’s lead; it’s about putting the needs of the community or the task at hand before your own. You’re there because you want to make a difference and the gift of giving is in knowing that your commitment contributes to the overall impact of a project.
Committing to volunteer work abroad isn’t something that should be done on a whim. In addition to researching the company you book with, and depending on where you’d like to serve, you may need a visa, vaccinations, and possibly a background check. Doing your homework will help you identify the project that’s right for you.
Since his volunteer experience in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Ken Budd uses his vacation time to lend a hand around the world. It’s part of his mission to live a life that matters. Anyone who’s ever thought about volunteering, whether at home or abroad, may want to read his travel memoir, The Voluntourist. For a listing of credible organizations that market to individual or family volunteer experiences, Peter Greenberg Travel Detective is a good source. Voluntourism.org is a resource with loads of info, and TripAdvisor is another site to review volunteer experiences.
Whether you want to stay local or travel far. Whether you can commit two nights, two weeks or two months to help make a difference, it’s all good.