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The Complete Guide To Volunteer Tourism

by Christina Heyniger Jul 23, 2007
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 VacationIf 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 WorkIf, 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. 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.”


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.


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!

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