VolunTourism: Combining Volunteer Work with World Travel

VolunTourism Defined:

The conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history and recreation — in that destination.

Voluntourism doesn't have to involve overseas travel - In this photo, FEMA volunteers stack sandbags in Iowa. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

While Eco-Tourism & VolunTourism have been popular catch phrases in the travel industry for quite some time, they both have the potential to be a wonderful means of Responsible Travel and are an integral focus of my personal global adventure. Some refer to the latter of these gigs as Volunteer Vacations, which may be appropriate for those on shorter term travel routes. For long-term stays, I prefer the term Philanthropic Cultural Immersion. Whatever you choose to call them, consider these volunteer gigs to be a fulfilling and positive way to impact & experience the cultures and people you will encounter on your journey. Whether your stay is for one week or one year, bringing some kind of tangible benefit to and connecting with the communities you visit creates a ‘win- win’ travelling adventure.

A Volunteer works with children at Casa Guatemala

Unfortunately, there are some less-reputable organizations that just want to make a quick buck off well-meaning travelers looking for volunteer opportunities abroad.  So how do you avoid the scams’ & nightmares in the world of voluntourism? How do you find a reputable and trustworthy organization, (often thousands of miles away from your home) with whom to donate your time, energy, and finances? There is no doubt that the internet will fast become your best resource for current information. The second, and more important resource, will be actually communicating with other people who have already or who are currently volunteering in the area you wish to travel. Expect to put in some serious online hours researching the place you want to go and the opportunities available in whatever area your chosen volunteer destination.

Teaching, Building, Social, Environmental, Conservation, & Medical programs abound. You can teach (not referring to TEFL job or a gig where you get paid – as that is not volunteering), work with local orphanages, put your agriculture or ecological sustainability skills to use, help build homes, etc. There really are limitless choices to suit your background and personality. It’s quite like finding a pair of keeper jeans – you have to take some time to filter through the masses to find a perfect fit.

A Medical Volunteer helps a family at Casa Guatemala

Keep in mind that many of these places are already struggling to stay afloat and most likely cannot include your cost of living into their budget, nor should they be expected to. For this reason, most places will require a fee of some kind to cover your accommodation and food while you are volunteering. In all fairness, if you plan on committing some serious time to a place, and you will not be earning an “income” during your stay, it is possible to find a place to volunteer for free or a low cost program. The length of your stay will be a major consideration in this case. Many places will require a minimum commitment of six months to a year in return for reducing or waiving any volunteer fees – which can be a bit risky if you have not been to the site in person to assess the situation & living conditions personally. Here is where speaking with other volunteers often comes to the rescue.

Before heading to Casa Guatemala, I received first hand advice and reflections on the realities of everyday life here, as well as expectations for my time here, by communicating with people via Facebook & email long before I arrived. If a place can be found online, their administration should also be involved in Social Media– if they have a Facebook, Twitter or Blog, start interacting and developing connections with previous and current volunteers as soon as possible. The more time you have to observe what’s going on, the more informed you will be about your decision and the more likely both you and your chosen outreach will have an enriching experience.

Here are two really good resource links to get you started and hopefully answer some initial questions to find out if Volunteer Travel is right for you:

Got a great Voluntourism experience to share with The ‘Buzz?  Get in touch and tell us your story!

Lisa DeChavan

About Lisa DeChavan

Lisa recently jumped fearlessly down the rabbit hole and traded the color-coded pushpins in the World map on her wall for a one-Way ticket to Latin America. She lives for solo, eco-friendly, indie travel, coupled with a focus on philanthropy. Lisa’s main goals are to immerse herself in each culture she encounters through volunteering & to share her adventures through both written word & media.