You know the world is headed in a good direction when interest in using vacation time to volunteer helping others is at an all-time high. Voluntourism is a growing trend among international travelers, with enthusiasm largely steeped in the desire to make a positive impact on the people and places they visit.
However, for both the volunteers and the recipients of their efforts to get the most out of the situation, it’s imperative to carefully research, prepare for, and choose the right trip.
These preliminary steps can make all the difference in the quality of the experience and the effective use of everyone’s goodwill and energy. While voluntourism organizations do provide amazing resources, some of the responsibility of volunteering responsibly has to fall on the volunteer. And that begins before you ever leave home.
So how do you choose the right volunteer vacation for you? We’ve got a few tips…
STEP 1: Choose a Reputable Company
A memorable volunteer vacation begins with choosing the right company for the job. This means studying their website fully, reading reviews and blogs from former participants, and asking pertinent questions, such as how your fees will ultimately be dispersed. It’s important that your views about sustainable travel and responsible tourism are in line with the organization’s; otherwise, the experience will likely fall short of your expectations.
With the rise in responsible travel, there has unfortunately also been a rise in people taking advantage of those wanting to make a real difference, as well as those in need of help. A well-organized company with clear itineraries and transparent practices is obviously a better choice than one with a vague description of what the day-to-day life of volunteers will be. Look for organizations with long-standing relationships in local communities and strong ties to established aid groups.
Realistic expectations from both volunteers and hosts are integral to these arrangements. Volunteers should not expect to change the world (or even be given a great deal of responsibility) over a two-week trip.
Volunteer vacations are a chance to particpate in a greater movement– one that’s being run by highly skilled professionals who devote a great deal of time to these causes. Any organization assigning major responsibilities to short-term volunteers is highly suspect. Effective charities are not run by untrained people working in two-week intervals.
STEP 2: Pick a Volunteer Vacation Project
A quality voluntourism company will offer numerous options to their clients, because organizers know how important it is to match volunteers with projects that will inspire them personally.
As a volunteer, your prerequisite duty is to research and choose a trip that is appropriate for you. This means honestly assessing your own skills and interests, and then matching them with the vacation that will most likely benefit from your involvement and give you the best personal experience. It might be a trip focused on traditional culture, community building, environmental conservation, or shared family experiences.
Every volunteer has his or her preferred areas of interest. There are ways to help with just about any skill set, from assisting teaching or building homes to conserving animal habitats. Vacation volunteers aren’t expected to be professionals in these fields. But those with experience, enthusiasm and energy will undoubtedly enjoy and engage in the projects more. With the right attitude from you and solid guidance from your agency, having a positive impact becomes that much easier.
Realistic volunteer travelers understand their limitations. For those with no experience or interest in education, running a classroom of 8-year-olds isn’t going to go well. Someone with no construction experience won’t be able to design and build a house on their own in a week. However, this isn’t to say that these undertakings wouldn’t greatly benefit from enthusiastic participants willing to give an A-plus effort and follow the instructions of those with a little more know-how.
STEP 3: Choose a Destination
A volunteer vacation is different than a typical vacation. How you approach choosing the destination should also be different. In other words, just because a place has beautiful tropical beaches or great cuisine doesn’t necessarily make it the right place for you to volunteer.
While volunteers will undoubtedly get time to enjoy such attractions, good voluntourism provides travelers with a much deeper exposure to a country, its culture and local inhabitants. So it’s best to have some sense of kinship with the place and the people where you are going.
You may not have a great deal of knowledge about all the destinations available, but choose one that has some relevance to you. Maybe you have a lifelong interest in Himilayan cultures, or a love of animals found in a South America. Volunteers who have or develop a true interest in and knowledge of the destination where they’ll be traveling will ultimately get much more out of the vacation. Those who put effort into understanding where they’re going and why they’re volunteering there are also more helpful, and develop a greater connection to the place and its people.
Real responsible travel and volunteering starts long before boarding an airplane. Travelers who do their homework— whether that means reading a book about the place, studying the history of a particular indigenous culture, or learning about current conservation efforts—make for more empathetic, engaged volunteers. And those who put in some time before choosing their destination will be much more likely to find a place well-suited for them and, in return, a place they are better suited for helping. –Jonathon Engels
BIO: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer & teacher currently on a slow travel trip from Central America to Patagonia, volunteering his way throughout the journey. He’s also the founder of The NGO List, a compilation of grassroots NGOs seeking international volunteers. His work can be found at Green Global Travel and Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad.