You may have heard the terms “volunteer vacationing,” “volunteer travel,” or “voluntourism” and wondered what they are all about. While there is a wide spectrum of journeys from mission trips to homestays and long-term projects to few-hour stints that fall under these terms, they all basically involve some sort of charitable give-back from your travels. Volunteer traveling is especially popular with young adults and retirees, but a lot of professionals and families are also realizing how rewarding such experiences can be.
While there are a lot of sites out there offering advice on how to go about using travel for good, there are also a lot of misconceptions about what it’s all about and what you can expect. With the years of experience gained through my nonprofit volunteer travel organization Go Eat Give, I’ve put together a few myths and facts you must come to terms with before you embark on your journey.
MYTH: A Week is Too Short to Volunteer Abroad
Most volunteer vacations range from 1-6 weeks depending on the project. Even if you can take out a day or a few hours from your trip, you can still make them count towards fostering community efforts. During Go Eat Give’s 1-week yoga retreat in Bali, Indonesia, we spend a day doing sanitation, nutrition, and exercise workshops at schools, and have lunch with the staff of Bali Children’s Project. These kind of activities can give travelers insight into social issues in the community that they probably would never know about otherwise.
FACT: Volunteer Travel is Suitable for All Ages
A volunteer trip can be a great bonding experience for a multi-generational group as you work together towards a common goal. Kids as young as 8 years can help with cleaning animal habitats, picking up garbage on park trails, or taking part in arts and crafts with other kids their age. When they see how children in other countries live, most of them without iPhones and video games, they learn to understand different cultures and grow up to be informed global citizens.
Tip: Always check with the program to see what is the minimum age requirement for volunteers.
MYTH: Volunteer Opportunities Only Exist in Third World Countries
While touring rural areas and helping the poor is often highlighted in voluntourism, volunteer opportunities are everywhere in the world. In Spain, you can teach conversational English to professionals while residing with them at a resort in the countryside. In Italy, harvest olives in the fall while staying at a sustainable “agrotourismo” farmhouse outside Florence. In the Caribbean island of Bonaire, your resort could be the perfect place to dive off to lend a hand at a coral nursery.
FACT: No Special Skills Are Required to Volunteer
Most volunteer projects are quite generic in nature and don’t require special skills. For example, you don’t need to be a farmer to plant trees in Cuba, or a computer programmer to teach how to draft emails and surf the internet in Kenya. However, skill-based opportunities for doctors, nurses, teachers, and business consultants also exist. Be selective about not embarking on activities that take jobs away from locals, such as construction work and those involving manual labor.
Tip: Do you enjoy making a difference to wildlife, marine life, nature, the elderly, kids, or women? Select a program based on who or what you’re passionate about.
MYTH: It’s Better to Volunteer Through a Well-Known Large Organization
Empowering the local community means understanding their needs and aiding them in fulfilling their mission. At Go Eat Give, we always partner with small established local NGOs that already exist and have an experienced staff. These organizations generally have a better feel for what the immediate needs of their communities are and how best to fulfill them while being culturally sensitive. You’ll find that larger global organizations often have a one-prong approach across countries and are more focused on doing highly visible work that can generate funding.
FACT: Travelers Pay to Volunteer
Yes, travelers are required to cover the cost of their trip, as well as any fees associated with staffing, guiding, and operating the volunteer projects. In many cases, there will be a dedicated staff person and/ or translators coordinating the efforts, which most nonprofits don’t have a budget for.
Think of volunteer travel as a meaningful vacation you would book through a travel agent. Check what the tour operator offers you in terms of lodging (5-star hotel, homestay, hostel), meals (nice restaurants, home cooked, prepare your own), sightseeing (destination highlights, entry tickets), activities (cooking classes, dance lessons, live music), and transportation (airport transfer, tours to other cities), then add the cost of guides, translators, and coordinators to get a better idea of how much you should pay for your tour.
MYTH: It’s Hard to Make an Impact in Just a Week
You may not be able to teach someone fluent English or build a new school in one week, but it is a start. When Go Eat Give volunteers teach job skills at a women’s shelter in India, they share ideas across geographical and cultural backgrounds. The women may only spend a day or two with the visitors, but the fact that someone traveled halfway across the world and took time out of their vacation to teach them something makes a long-lasting impact. It makes them feel loved and encourages them to learn new skills.
Tip: Make sure the charity you volunteer with carries on the mission throughout the year and not just for the time you are there.
FACT: Travelers Get More Out of Volunteer Vacations than Receivers
You can see the good and the bad things experienced by citizens of the country, form meaningful relationships with locals, and get out of your comfort zone. Most travelers return with a broader perspective on life, are grateful for what they have, and share interesting stories with their friends.
Go any tips on volunteer travel you’d like to share with us? Let us know in the comments.