When you travel to a foreign country to volunteer, your primary motivation should ideally be about having a positive impact on the place you’re visiting. The essence of volunteering is to embrace a cause outside of ourselves, and to focus on issues that our bigger than our own.
But that doesn’t mean that that the benefits of volunteering don’t directly affect travelers in powerful ways. It absolutely does!
While we work to help other people, we’re also working to help ourselves. Volunteering has a variety of positive effects on both the people who are receiving assistance and those who are assisting. The cultural exchange alone provides powerful and lasting benefits to volunteers and locals alike.
If you’re considering taking a volunteer vacation, consider the positive impact you can have on the people and the cause you’re going to support first. But then, consider the ways that volunteering can help you, too.
1) It provides a deeper understanding of the culture.
Everyone wants to have “authentic” experiences when they travel these days. But authenticity can be difficult to come by when you’re in a foreign place.
Most travelers wind up relying on the tourism industry to guide their decision making— taking tours and following the recommendations of how the promoters of a place want them to see it.
One of the benefits of volunteering is that you’re automatically given access to a deeper level of understanding. You work side-by-side with locals and become a part of the community, even if only for a short period of time. This gives you access to experience a place more like the locals do.
This kind of access is what allows us to open our minds and absorb the culture of a location, rather than just skimming over them and taking pictures of the surface.
2) It provides you with unique experiences.
Whether you’re building a resume or crossing off items on a bucket list, volunteering will provide you with experiences that you likely never would’ve had if you’d taken a traditional vacation.
When you volunteer, you’re meeting the locals, getting your hands dirty, and becoming a part of the community. You’re more actively engaged with a place when you volunteer during a trip. One of our favorite benefits of volunteering is the way that engagement gives you access to things that most travelers might never discover.
You never know what kind of adventures will unfold when you’re volunteering in a new place, meeting new people, and immersing yourself in a new culture.
3) It shows us the good in the world.
It can be disheartening to watch the news and see tragedy after tragedy reported around the world. It can make the world seem like a really scary place.
But once you travel to these places, you realize that they’re not so scary after all. You’ll meet people and realize that they’re not so different from you. You’ll spend time with locals and fellow volunteers and see the power of people coming together to do good things, for the Earth and for each other.
By participating in volunteer travel, you demonstrate the power of generosity and kindness to others and to yourself, and you see how much good is in other people, too.
4) It allows you to engage your body with a place.
If you spend all day in air-conditioned museums and hotels when you travel, are you really experiencing a place?
One of the more visceral benefits of volunteering is that it not only engages your mind and your spirit, but also your body. Particularly when you get to work on projects such as building schools and collecting garbage on the beach.
Physical activity not only provides us with another level of connection to a place, but also keeps us feeling healthy and energized when we travel. And when you’re enjoying the bountiful cuisine of a new place, it really helps to work off those calories!
5) It teaches us about ourselves.
How many times have you heard someone say that travel changed them? It’s a powerful experience to leave our comfort zone and experience something new. We can grow and expand our minds when we open them up to new people, places, and ideas.
But perhaps travel doesn’t change us as much as it allows us to better understand what we we’ve always been capable of. When we’re stripped of our daily routines and familiarity with our surroundings, we’re forced to look inward.
Maybe a volunteer vacation will change you. Or maybe it will simply allow you to see the work ethic, the bravery, and the generosity that was within you all along.
Doing good for others will only serve to bring out the best in ourselves. Then we can carry that new self and understanding back home when we return.
6) It builds connections with like-minded people.
It’s the people that make any place unique and special. And meeting those people is often the most powerful part of traveling to a new place.
One of our favorite benefits of volunteering is that we get to meet the locals, but also spend time with fellow volunteers who share our desire to see the world and help make it better.
Working side-by-side with people who share those values can lead to valuable connections. Fellow volunteers and locals can turn into new friends, professional connections, artistic collaborators, and more.
Volunteer travel does wonderful things for the world. But it also does wonderful things for the people involved… including you! By dedicating your time and energy to making the world a better place, you’ll find that the world will give right back to you in incredibly fulfilling ways.
And isn’t fulfillment ultimately what travel is all about? –Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.