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As travelers of all ages seek opportunities for truly unique, personal, travel experiences the popularity of volunteer tourism continues to grow.

In the past, volunteer travel typically meant a significant investment of time – generally requiring people to spend several weeks or months supporting a project.

Now there are a multitude of options for people interested in mixing smaller doses of volunteering in with their holiday travel.

The question for many would-be “voluntourists” becomes, “how can I find a good volunteer travel program?”

Xola Consulting has spent the past two years working with a range of organizations providing blended adventure/volunteer experiences to travelers as well as talking with so-called “voluntourists” from age 20 to 72, and here’s how we break it down.

We’ve got two sections: Finding a Volunteer Trip and Evaluating Trips.

Finding A Volunteer Trip

Guidelines for Scouting the Trip of a Lifetime

Given the range of options available, scouting your ideal trip will involve a fair bit of Internet searching. A couple suggestions:

Step 1. Assess Your Interests

Before you go crazy on Google, honestly assess your interests: do you want to spend more time volunteering, or more time touring?

Specify for yourself whether you want volunteer activities to comprise the main dish, so to speak, or the seasoning of your holiday meal.

Do you want to spend most of your time lounging on the beach and maybe a couple afternoons volunteering? Or are you looking for a more intensive volunteer experience, where the majority of your time is spent working, albeit in a foreign land?

This first decision will be crucial to how you conduct your search and how you select a program.

Step 2. Start Your Search

Ok, now the searching can begin. Most people start with an online search, and we still think this is an excellent way of sizing up the vast universe of opportunities out there, given that a definitive database of volunteer travel experiences currently does not exist.

Below, two approaches to searching through the options.

  • Emphasis on Vacation

    If you answered the first question with the decision that you want more holiday with a little volunteering thrown in, you can start your search by simply identifying trips that interest you – whether you’re searching by location or sport/activity.

    Then, from your short listed set of trips and tour operators that interest you, contact tour operators and ask whether they have any volunteer opportunities available on their trips.

    This may sound crazy, but many times good adventure tour operators, for example, have volunteer options – however, if it’s not their primary focus they may not be advertising them.

    Some suggested resources:

    Recommendations for blended adventure/volunteer organizations can be found at Off the Radar, a website Xola Consulting launched with a monthly newsletter dedicated to supporting excellent entrepreneurial adventure travel operators committed to communities and the environment.

    Off the Radar occasionally reviews and makes recommendations for more trips that blend volunteer service with adventure travel – stay tuned for the August issue where we’ll be covering a great volunteer cycle trip in Nepal this fall.

    Companies with volunteer service trips are also frequently reviewed by Voluntourism International a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and disseminating information about volunteer travel in their Voluntourist newsletter and on their website in the section dedicated to Worldwide Options.

  • Emphasis on Volunteer Work

    If, on the other hand you answered the first question with the decision that you want volunteering to be a primary focus of the trip, get ready for a deluge.

    If you do a google search on the words, “volunteer tourism,” for example, it’ll return more than 2 million results.

    Get more specific about your interests and search “volunteer travel and africa” for example, and you’ll still find nearly as many results – tour companies, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions with programs.

    Some places we like to start for the more volunteer-focused traveler:

    Transitions Abroad magazine dedicated to volunteering and working abroad. Their website is also a wonderful resource.

    Idealist.org with its vast and growing database of over 61,000 nonprofit and community organizations in 165 countries, is another excellent resource.

    Peter Greenberg’s travel site also has a good section on Voluntourism with links to some of the larger, global organizations such as Airline Ambassadors, Globe Aware and i-to-i.

    Great ideas and information can also be found from our trusted friends at Lonely Planet – they published a new title in June 2007 called Volunteer and also have plans for a new microsite.

    Bill McMahon’s book Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others is another good resource.

Evaluating A Volunteer Project Or Trip

How To Tell The Good, The Bad, and The Scams

Having spent months on the road experiencing a variety of volunteer adventure trips, one thing we see missing from the guidance being offered to travelers is how to evaluate the substance of the programs they’ll be supporting with their time and money.

Although volunteer travel can be extremely beneficial to local communities, there are instances where well-meaning tour operators or NGOs have initiated poorly designed and researched programs that ultimately do a disservice to the communities they seek to support.

In addition to all the standard questions about fees, accommodations, time spent volunteering, and nature of the work (ie. will you be doing manual labor like helping to build or fix something, or something softer like teaching English classes?), we recommend asking the program manager specific questions about the nature of the program and its impact in the community.

In Xola’s consulting work into “best practices” on this topic, some of the greatest challenges we’ve seen tour operators and NGOs face are corruption, sustainability, and what we’ll call the “law of unintended consequences.”

Corruption

Sometimes tour operators may not even know when their financial or material contributions are being mismanaged.

For example, they may take travelers to visit and volunteer at an orphanage, but may not know until too late that the orphanage managers are “hiring” kids from family homes in villages to pose as orphans in order to encourage donations.

Sadly, there are too many examples of this type of corruption worldwide. Here are some ways to assess whether the tour operator or NGO you plan to volunteer with is worthy:

  • How Long Has The Organization Been Operating?

    Find out how long the organization and/or its partners have been supporting humanitarian or environmental projects in the country you’ll be visiting.

    Then again, if the tour operator or NGO is brand new and has little experience in the region it doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of your support, but they might not have sorted out any issues of corruption with their programs.

  • How Do They Measure Results?

    Ask directly whether and how they measure the results of their program and whether they’ve had to face issues of corruption.

    They’ll usually be very candid with you and may share experiences they’ve learned from in the field, and ways they’ve had to modify their program to address these issues.

    If an organization can show measurable improvements over time, it’s a pretty fair bet that even with some issues, enough of the organization’s contributions and efforts are achieving their objectives.

    Remember, volunteering and doing business in developing countries can be very different from operations in developed countries.

  • Do They Understand The Local Language?

    Find out whether the tour operator or NGO’s in-country team speaks the native language; organizations can only really interact well and understand the social undercurrents in local communities if they speak the language and can establish trust.

    This may be especially challenging in countries where local people speak a variety of dialects.

Sustainability

The goal of most humanitarian and environmental aid work should be to build up communities to eventually manage projects that are self-sustaining and can continue without foreign support.

Strengthening local communities through education and economic development is a challenge that can take years, but keeping this goal in mind is crucial – think “a hand up, not a hand out.”

Some suggestions for gauging the sustainability of tour operator or NGO programs:

  • How Involved Is The Local Community?

    Find out how involved the local community is with any volunteer service projects. Is the community in full receive-mode or are they making some contribution of time and/or money as well?

    All the research suggests that unless local communities are invested in projects they will not value or maintain them over the long term.

  • How Self-Empowering Is The Project?

    Another serious issue with volunteer travel for communities located on a tourist route is that over time traveling volunteers may put local communities in a welfare state of mind, lulling them to a place of perpetually expecting and counting on the support of foreign volunteers.

    Programs aimed at self- empowerment are the best, so it’s good to ask about the organization’s long term goals and how they are working for sustainability.

The Law Of Unintended Consequences

Tour operators and well meaning NGOs may establish dependencies in communities for services or products they are not in a position to support over the long term.

Talk with the tour operator or NGO to learn the details of how their programs were created. Here are some key issues:

  • How Is The Project Need Determined?

    Did the operator simply cruise through the village one day and say, “Hey! Looks like these people need more tennis shoes, windbreakers, and blankets, I’m going to bring some of that through on my next tour!”

    Or did they take a collaborative approach, and work with local people to ask them what they need and then determine whether and how they might be able to support those needs?

    Donors and well meaning volunteers bring their own cultural perceptions of “need” with them when they travel, and can create needs that didn’t exist in communities, even though they have the best intentions.

  • Does the organization have a regular presence in the community?

    Tour operators that pass through periodically without having any regular presence in communities may be providing services or materials that establish dependencies in local communities, which they are not in a position to continue supporting over the long term.

    If you’re part of a tour delivering supplies to local communities, for example, think carefully about that.

    Once you deliver the school supplies or medical supplies and created a local “need” for these new products, is there anyone dedicated to providing them on an ongoing basis? Do local people know how to use the medical supplies provided?

Wrap Up

While we tried to cover most bases in this volunteer tourism guide, there are no right answers for every situations. Visiting the links mentioned above will expand your knowledge and help you find the perfect volunteer position.

Thanks for reading, and good luck!

Christina Heyniger is the founder of Xola Consulting and Off the Radar, an online resource for adventure travelers. Xola (which means ‘stay in peace’) provides research and consulting services to adventure travel companies and tourism boards around the world.

Do you have any more tips for volunteering tourism? Share in the comments!

Volunteer + Work

 

About The Author

Christina Heyniger

Christina Heyniger is the founder of Xola Consulting and Off the Radar, an online resource for adventure travelers. Xola (which means ‘stay in peace’) provides research and consulting services to adventure travel companies and tourism boards around the world.

  • http://www.traveling-stories-magazine.com Michael-Travel-Mag

    Excellent resource. I think that through following your advice and becoming involved volunteer work, traveler becomes so much more that transient backpacking.

    Thanks for the post!

    Michael

  • http://www.travoholic.com Kirsty

    Ya great post, thanks loads for all the info. Give me a lot to read over and think about.

  • http://www.women-on-the-road.com Scribetrotter

    These are excellent tips and the issue of choosing a good volunteer program is crucial. Volunteer vacations, or voluntourism, is one of the fastest-growing areas of travel so it will be tempting for unscrupulous operators to get involved. The best way to counteract that is through solid research beforehand. The sad part is that unneeded or poorly run projects can actually do more damage than good to communities that are already disadvantaged.

    I would add one thing to the above – talk to returnees. If an organization is proud of its work and track record, it should have no problem putting you in touch with returnees. The information will inevitably be a bit biased, but it will be first-hand.

  • http://www.volunteer-guide.com/ sabine

    Scribetrotters remark to talk with volunteers who have been there is a good idea. I just started a site where former volunteers can submit their stories for others to profit from their experience. Many organizations publish volunteer stories on their website, but our idea is to have a place where one can compare experiences from different projects and organizations.

    Volunteering is popular at the moment, and I think is a great way to learn from each other, from other volunteers and from the people you help – but that can not happen in 1 week.

  • http://www.teresaandkids.com/weblog Teresa

    I’ll echo the accolades and the advice to find references from past volunteers. I found one returnee just through an online search of blogs. Two others were given to me by GVN and I spoke to them on the phone. I also asked for current volunteers’ emails and exchanged questions with them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

  • Antonia

    The advice offered in this post is excellent for anyone looking for a volunteer program while travelling. Ensuring that an organization is truly committed to the sustainable development of a community is essential. Hostals and websites like craigslist can also be valuable sources of information; for example, I found the worker´s cooperative where I have been volunteering for the past year through a hostal. This is an organization started by people alienated from the formal economy and now over 100 families continue to run the cooperative, thus volunteers work directly with the people of the cooperative and not through a tour organization. If anyone is passing through Buenos Aires and is interested in checking it out, visit http://www.voluntarioglobal.org.ar It´s been an incredible experience for me that I was really lucky to find.
    Thanks a lot for the post!

  • Bonnie

    Excellent advice. I’ve experienced “voluntering”. It is also a HUGE business. This makes the world go around. Yet I like what I have read here and it can be a help for those who have a heart and desire to volunteer………to realize how what they desire to do will have the desired results. Get INFORMATION …….especially from former volunteers…Thanks for letting me speak

  • http://www.fazny-zavahir.org/ Fazny Zavahir

    Volunteering is the best way to contribute as a human.Time is worth more than money. Great post. I appreciate your work.

  • http://josierodgers.com josie

    great info… ive been on 2 volunteer trips they were both through my university so i had no idea how to do one on my own… thansk for all the info :)

  • http://www.voluntourism.co.uk Len Hough

    Hi

    We are trying to get all the “bono fide” voluntourism companies onto our site and as it has just launched we would like any comments on what you would like to see up there as well as tours and accommodation from providers that we have checked on for their ” responsible” credentials.

    thanks

    len

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  • http://www.pepytours.com Daniela Papi

    There is a new resources which we helped to create which has information about responsible volunteer tourism\

    http://www.voluntourism101.com

    Check it out – as it will also provide helpful questions to ask around this issue!

  • aslli

    Being a travel enthusiast we must learn first and dignify the beauty of our hometown then our country as a whole.We must initiates forms of simply educating our own community about the drive campain in promoting our own town scenic beauty and local products.You volunteer and be familiar of the cause you want to introduce in a community.

  • http://firsttimetravel.wordpress.com Claire

    This is a wonderful piece of write-up on voluntourism. Our organization, Hands On Manila (http://www.handsonmanila.org) has launched its Hands On Volunteer Vacations program, which is still in its infancy stage. We hope to come up with good projects that will benefit our local partners as well as provide meaningful volunteer activities to travelers to the Philippines.

  • http://www.themaralink.com Jeremiah

    Beautiful, beautiful article, with you certainly drove the points on volunteering home. I was very delighted to stumble upon your article because at the moment I am spear-heading several community based volunteer programs here in Kenya, with an organization by the name “The Maralink Eco-Volunteers”. It is still in it’s infant stage, though we have numerous & exciting projects we are abit short of Volunteers. Incase of any volunteers out there looking for volunteering opportunities in Kenya, Kindly visit our website (http://www.themaralink.com) and drop us a line.

    Kudos Christina :-)

  • http://www.volunteerteachersinternational.com Johannes

    First and foremost let me start by thanking you for putting across such a wonderful and enlightening article. For quite a long time I have searched for a comprehensive review on volunteering. One and a half years ago I conceive an idea to start up a volunteer organisation that would objectively supplement teachers in our local grassroots schools around Kenya. This was after I saw the problems that were encompassing Kenyan primary schools since the government introduced free primary education.
    Last year in November I was able to register tours and travel company (Interactive Travel Solutions East Africa) branded as Volunteers Teachers International, to specifically work with legitimate schools that are in need of volunteer teachers as well as offer travel experience to volunteers. Though we are still on the infant stage, we are happy to roll according to your recommendations. You can visit us at http://www.volunteerteachersinternationa.com for more information. Our site is currently under maintenance but should be up in the next two days.
    Thanks
    Johannes

  • http://www.mayatanfoundation.org David Harrington

    This is a great guide — too bad that this is one of the newer articles out there about voluntourism. I’m curious to know what others think. I work at a great bilingual school in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, a tourist town near major Classical Mayan Ruins near the Guatemala border. The school gives scholarships to 45% of students, which is unheard of for a bilingual school in Honduras. Most of those scholarships come from tourists who visit the town and happen to come by the school. We are far enough out of town that we aren’t obvious, and I was thinking of marketing the school as a real tourist destination. We also depend on volunteers to teach in English (paid a stipend, housing, and health insurance) and to do things like advise us on curriculum and help us plan expansions, etc. What are the pros and cons of marketing us this way?

  • http://www.links4change.com Victoria Leat

    Links for Change is a volunteer linking service. They provide you with volunteer options based on your requirements. They have a fixed-price service that covers all support throughout the placement period. Their fee is used to cover their costs and provide a free volunteer linking and advice service to their partner charities. They also donate 5% of their profits to charity.

    Visit their http://www.links4change.com or email info@links4change.com for more info.

  • Martijn

    Great to read an article that supports the true focus of volunteering even if its is a paid version where the local community, hostfamilies and the target group benefits!  Khaya Volunteer Projects focusses on working hand in hand with the projects and 15% of all costs go directly to the project, other costs are for accommodation, food, transport, coordinating and marketing. Good luck everybody with choosing any project and have a look on http://www.khayavolunteer.com

  • Howard Story

    One of the best and cheapest Volunteer Organizations around and probably the founder over 41 years ago has evolved to include Permaculture, sustainable living and great life skills with, usually great hosts. The organization is WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). They now operate in over 92 countries. They are a volunteer organization that offer the experience of living a sustainable life. The “how to” of growing your own food, local community contribution, local culture, people and foods. Life skills are included for free as is the accommodation. Give it a look in countries like Thailand. wwoofthailand dot com or Facebook WWOOF Thailand. You’ll be surprised at the options available, the skills and the adventures for your investment of time and little money.

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