By guest blogger Leah Mayor, PhD
Volunteering abroad can be one of the most rewarding travel experiences. Choosing a pre-organized group trip means valuable knowledge, resources, and information will be available to help you integrate and immerse yourself in a new destination.
After living and volunteering abroad for more than three years in different countries as well as conducting years of research on the subject, here are a few tips to help you make of the most of your experience traveling abroad both as an individual and group traveler.
Think about long-term impact.
Even if you are only volunteering for a few weeks, aligning yourself with an organization means that you are a part of an on-going relationship with a community. Choose an organization that reflects the kind of relationship that you want to share with that community abroad and hopefully you will find ways to be a part of it even after returning home.
Know why you are going and align your motivations with your actions.
Not long ago, I spent 6 months helping volunteers acclimate to their new surroundings in Mongolia. I worked with a woman who espoused that her main motivation was to immerse herself in another culture and learn from intercultural interactions. Unfortunately, she spent most of her time in her tent avoiding the heat, the flies, and the very kinds of interactions that led her there. Clearly, her actions were not in-line with her goals. When volunteering abroad, you can expect to have to put more energy into situations simply because they will feel "new." Defining clearly your goals and intent will help you to reach out to more situations and opportunities so that you can achieve your goals and will lead to a more satisfying and transformative trip.
Consider your skills and the destination.
Choosing a volunteer destination is not just about where you want to go on vacation. While many of us dream of riding through Mongolia on horseback or circumambulating Mt. Kailash this is not what the volunteer vacation is about. If you really want to travel to make a difference then your skills can help you determine where we go. Consider the kind of impact you can make abroad. When you are researching groups to volunteer with tell the organization about your skills and what you have to offer and see if they have any suggestions. Making an impact will help you to have the trip of a lifetime!
Do your research.
Nothing is more important before departure than knowing what you are getting into. Talk to people who have done the trip before, learn what kind of support you will have in your volunteer experience. Learn what you can about the kinds of people who choose the trip. Often Web sites and promotional materials show the best face of an organization. Talking to people will help you to assure that this is indicative of the actual experience there. There are some organizations that don't follow through in providing the kind of relationship with tourists or the community that they say they do. Figuring this out is part of your job in ensuring an amazing volunteer experience.
Look inward and outward.
I have spent years working with international organizations and individual travelers to understand their motivations and experiences. While most of us emphasize the cultural understanding gained through travel, the truth is that our deepest insights are personal. Travel is a marvelous opportunity to come to a clearer sense of our own cultural lenses and to cut through limiting aspects of our own culture. When seen this way, time abroad can open an opportunity to live more authentically and free from cultural expectations. But it is important to not simplify the cultural codes of others. It is one thing to believe that "Life for Mongolians is simple." It is another to understand the meaning of this more closely resembles "Coming to Mongolia has simplified my life in ways that I hope to retain when I return home."
Leah Mayor holds a PhD in Adult Education from Cornell University and continues to conduct research and write about travel.
Update: View all Responsible Travel's 2004-2016 Tourism Award winners.
Now here's the mother of all lists for anyone interested in volunteer vacations, eco-tourism, sustainable travel, or simply preserving either the environment or local economies. Who isn't in favor of at least one of those?
Get inspired by Responsible Travel's 2006 Responsible Tourism Awards. The list will make me you want to toss work aside and dream up a vacation to help the planet stay glued together. The award list gives a brief analysis of the unique qualities that made category winners win. In considering a destination with environmentally sound practices - this list can serve as a great resource.
- Overall joint winner: Intrepid Travel (an organization that sets the bar for travelling responsibly and involving local communities)
- Overall joint winner: Ol Malo Lodge and Trust (an eco-lodge in Kenya)
- Best tour operator: Intrepid Travel, UK
- Best large hotel (more than 50 rooms): Orchid Hotel, Mumbai (zero garbage hotel)
- Best small hotel (fewer than 50 rooms): II N'gwesi Community Lodge, Kenya (40% of profits go back to the 600 plus families that share lodge ownership)
- Best transport initiative: The Bittern Community Rail Partnership, UK (increasing visitor traffic to small communities/businesses and decreasing car traffic on roads)
- Best in a mountain environment: Whistler Blackcomb Mountain Resort Ltd, Canada (exemplary habitat conservation efforts)
- Best marine environment: Wakatobi Dive Resort, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia (reef preservation efforts)
- Best for poverty reduction: Ol Malo Lodge and Trust, Kenya (eradicating disease, training locals to do the same)
- Best protected area: Napo Wildlife Center, Ecuador (national park preservation)
- Best for conservation of an endangered species: Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa (helped reintroduce cheetah and wild dogs to the reserve)
- Best for innovation/technology: Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN), South Africa (recycling and refurbishing abandoned bikes and giving tours sans pollution)
- Best volunteering organization: Biosphere Expeditions, UK
- Best destination: Aspen, Colorado (for leading the environmental effort for a ski destination by pushing for affordable housing, investing in local farmland, and more)
- Person who has made greatest contribution to responsible tourism: Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61 (a man passionate for trains and other alternatives to flying)
The list was nominated by a combined total of 1200 readers from Responsible Travel, The Times, and Geographic Magazine.
By guest blogger Suzzanne Lacey
So, you say you're a giver. Giving up your vacation time for a good cause could be the most satisfying way to spend a week or two of your life. But how should you spend it? Which volunteer opportunity fits you best? I've led countless group trips and have learned a few lessons along the way. Here are my tips for volunteer vacationers:
1. Core mission matches your values: Do you agree with and support the organization's mission? Consider this first before agreeing to join a group. It takes patience and commitment to volunteer with a non-profit, and altruistic as the cause may be, you should believe 100 percent in what you're doing since you're giving up free vacation time and money. There are many types of volunteer vacations: counting sea turtles, excavating a Roman fortress, tutoring children. You can also travel solo or take the family. Overall, it's important to remember that this is work. Tax-deductible work, but work nonetheless.
2. Commit to the trip: Organizers of such trips (educational tours, for instance) need volunteers to be committed and available so they can assist on the trip. Be prepared to do the work needed on the trip and sign up only when you can fully commit. It's helpful for (yourself and) the organization. If you're making cheese on an organic farm in France, spend time researching the region. If teaching English in China, head to a shelf at your library or bookstore that will enlighten you on China's history.
3. Donations, in addition to fees, help: Yes, you're giving your much appreciated free time to help a worthy cause, but often the non-profit still struggles with funding. In many instances, volunteer vacations require that you pay part or all of your way. However, for those that don't (you're lucky if you find this) you can still donate money to the cause. Most non-profits include administrative fees in the trip price to offset overhead costs, but like all "good causes," anything extra, even in-kind donations (accounting advice or an old scanner in good condition) can help. Expect to pay fees from $600 to $3500 for a volunteer vacation.
4. Sleeping situations: Get ready for an experience. You're on an adventure and chances are you'll have an opportunity to sleep anywhere from a dorm room to a tent—and you'll have a roommate if you don't travel with a friend or family. Please be kind and know that you're on a peace, educational, or environmental mission and your time, as your roommates' time, is valuable. But standards may be different than what you expect. Keep an open mind and go with the flow.
5. Keeping in touch: I don't go anywhere without my laptop. As group leader, it's not only necessary for my work, but also how I keep in contact with friends and family. Skype is a brilliant technological invention. Simply plug in a microphone and headphone and talk anywhere in the world for pennies, or even for free. When I was in Austria last May, I spoke to my parents, two friends, and a colleague for $1.50 total. If you don't carry a laptop with you, many cyber cafés around the world are Skype-ready. If you really feel adventurous, for about $12, you can acquire a local phone number where people can call you around the world for free.
6. Free time: Expect some free time. All volunteer vacations build in time to get to know your surroundings. It is expected that you'll want to do some exploring, since the destination is likely new to you. Just as you would prepare for any other vacation, research places to go during your free time. When you're at the bookstore picking up that sea turtle book, grab a destination guide, too.
7. What to wear/bring: Find out what clothing is truly appropriate for the trip from the organization ahead of time. Don't be caught in the Amazon without rain gear or in Mississippi with only long-sleeve shirts in the heat of August. Ask what you should bring and what you should leave at home. Any good organization will have a list ready and should be more than happy to pass it and other information along. They should also be willing to respond to any preparation question, no matter how small. Ask away!
Most important is being open to new experiences. There will be moments of shock and awe. You'll also become aware of your weaknesses and strengths.
There are still moments on my trips that surprise me. I spent some time in the southern U.S. this past summer and learned there was such a thing as a "flying, giant cockroach." This turned out to be a problem for many on the trip. But as we ended up laughing about our irrational fear of something so much smaller than us, I still slept with the sheets wrapped around me like a cocoon and my walkman headphones tucked tightly on my ears. It was a comical couple of days on the program. It was also the only city we left on time and the first one we laugh about at reunions. Volunteer vacations are made of lasting moments that don't fall into any itinerary or description. But you can count on them being more than worth the time or money for the unique adventure.
Suzzanne Lacey is a freelance journalist and Founder and Executive Director of Museum Without Walls, a non-profit that plans and gives educational tours around the world.
There has been an increasing interest among travelers in having meaningful and impactful experiences during their trips, along with a noticeable shift towards more responsible and sustainable forms of tourism. This includes a desire to engage in activities that positively contribute to the local communities they visit. Consequently, volunteer vacations, also known as voluntourism, have become a significant segment of the travel industry.
Voluntourism is particularly popular among younger travelers, including Millennials and Gen Z. These groups often seek experiences that are not only unique but also allow them to give back to communities or causes they care about.
The variety of volunteer opportunities available worldwide—from wildlife conservation to teaching, healthcare, and community development—makes it an attractive option for a wide range of travelers with diverse interests and skills.
The rise of social media has played a significant role in popularizing voluntourism. Travelers often share their volunteer experiences online, inspiring others to engage in similar activities.
While volunteering on vacation is popular, it has also faced scrutiny and criticism. Concerns about the sustainability and actual impact of certain volunteer projects have led to calls for more ethical and responsible practices in voluntourism.
Several group travel companies are known for leading voluntourism trips, offering a range of experiences in various parts of the world. These companies often stand out for their commitment to sustainable practices, community engagement, and providing meaningful volunteer experiences. Some of the notable ones include:
Projects Abroad: A leading organization in volunteer travel, Projects Abroad offers a wide range of opportunities, including teaching, medical work, conservation, and more, in various countries around the world.
International Volunteer HQ: Offering affordable volunteer travel experiences, IVHQ has a wide range of projects, including teaching, wildlife conservation, community development, and more, in various destinations.
Global Vision International: Known for its focus on impactful and sustainable volunteer projects, GVI offers projects in wildlife conservation, education, and community development in multiple countries.
Plan My Gap Year: Specializing in gap year travel, PMGY provides a variety of volunteer opportunities in areas such as teaching, wildlife conservation, and medical work in various countries.
Earthwatch: Earthwatch can customize trips to fit the needs of your group. Help sustain the environment by working with scientists on expeditions in the field. Group leaders go for free (on select expeditions with 6 or more people going).
Habitat for Humanity: When you volunteer with Global Village, you will learn about adequate and affordable housing needs from the local community’s perspective and will also contribute to safe and affordable housing solutions.
United Planet: United Planet will partner with your group to design a volunteer experience that offers cross-cultural field experience and that is built specifically around your group's interests, goals and budget.
Responsible Travel: Responsible Travel maintains a catalog of over 100 volunteer travel options covering everything a wide range of activities and trip durations.
So find a cause you believe in, choose an area around the world to explore up close, and give your time and talents on the vacation of a lifetime. Plan the trip with family members or other band of like-minded folks and the trip will be even more memorable.
Finally, we really appreciate the thoughtful comments we've received on this article:
Will V. wrote to share, "As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I believe this is an excellent trend in travel. However, sometimes the cash-costs associated with voluntourism seem (to me) to be inflated. In the same way that buying 'green' or recycled goods should bot be more expensive than buying 'regular' items, I don't think the costs for doing good work should increase your vacation. Once travel operators can figure out how to make money AND encourage their visitors to do some good, I think we''ll see this trend explode. Then, all we have to worry about is whether the 'good deeds' vacationers are doing are what's best for the locals!"
An anonynous reader, wrote, "Philanthropic Travel is an alternative to Voluntourism for families who desire an authentic cross cultural connection with locals and the humanitarian outreach projects that enhance those locals lives. Many travelers prefer not to use their time in a foriegn country while sleeping in spartan accomodations Peace Corps style. Instead, they are choosing to enjoy the experience, accomodations, ambience and cuisine they expect while dedicating a morning or afternoon to personally connecting with the people their generous tax deductible contributions will support. Philanthropic travelers have funded in projects like these in Zambia, Burma, Tanzania and elsewhere in the developing world."
And Andy W.B., who works for Global Visions International, reached out to share more details about GVI's programs: "We send out approximately 1,500 volunteers per year on a variety of responsibly run projects and expeditions. These include programs in about 30 countries, with themes from teaching in indigenous communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia to wildlife conservation in all the same areas. Examples include working with orangutans in Sumatra, desert elephants in Namibia and vervet monkeys in South Africa alongside teaching programs all over the world from Ghana to Nepal, Guatemala to Peru and even unique and extensive TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) programs run in Tulum, Mexico."
Article updated November 2023.
I can't think of a better way to give back to communities, society or the environment than by doing a volunteer vacation. I don't mean voluntarily taking unpaid days off (OK, those are often mental health days that we all need, but let's classify those as "personal care") but rather, vacations with a greater purpose where you volunteer for a cause while seeing the world.
Why bother? The benefits are immeasurable. You help a local community in need. You help scientists make progress. You gain insight into cultures and industries that would otherwise be hard to obtain. One of the most impressive volunteer vacations I've ever heard of was a co-worker going to Vietnam with a group to plant trees where landmines had formerly been. There are countless other ways to volunteer.
A friend of mine went on a couple of trips through Earthwatch, a non-profit that offers one-of-a-kind experiences where you do hands on field work to help sustain the environment. Hearing her stories inspired me. She went to Greece with a group of friends to preserve Greek ruins by documenting artifacts on an archaeological dig. Go her.
The idea stuck with me and I still plan to either go count butterflies in the mountains of Spain (I'm not making this up - scientists actually need this data to determine the health of a region's ecosystem) or help little baby turtles safely get to the ocean from their hatched egg on the beach (keeping animals of prey at bay).
Another friend of mine runs a non-profit that takes students to areas where social injustice has occurred to educate them on racial inequality via historical accounts by those who lived through them. Volunteers join her as escorts to help organize the group while on the road. Go them.
I volunteer for causes I believe in and donate money when I can. But I'm not surprised organizations have started soliciting volunteers to help fight noble causes on the ground or help with scientific research. And I'm not surprised that people are converting their hard-earned vacation time (and money) to improving society.
Globalization makes the world seem smaller (theoretically). And when the world shrinks, its needs become more real to us all.
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