Author’s note: This year, on Martin Luther Kind Jr. Day of Service in the US (January 19), I answered Dr. King’s question, “What are you doing for others?” by releasing Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, a free e-guide to mindful adventures. Months in the making, it’s an anthology of analyses and suggestions from two dozen experienced experts who have been working for many years to improve the volunteer travel industry.

The contributors explore the merits and perils of many established “voluntourism” activities and then provide practical advice to ethically-minded travelers about how to be sure of making a positive impact. It is, in short, a how-to handbook for compassionate people guided as much by the good you give as the good you get.

The following excerpt is part of my Editor’s Note to the book. If you nurture a free-spirited and adventure-minded desire for more to travel than just getting somewhere and being there, please register to receive your free copy at http://bit.ly/1wvCUDS.

Getting an Accurate Snapshot of Travel Generosity

Volunteer Linda Pritchard helps build a greenhouse for the Andean community in Machu Picchu, Peru.

When photographing an object in motion, you have three principal options: use an incredibly fast shutter speed for a crisp capture of both the moving object and the background, but not a sense of the motion; pan as the object passes to freeze just the object against an artistic blur of background; or, for background clarity and an object blur, simply snap the object without panning.

No matter what you do, though, something is missing: a sense of speed, or pixel-perfect detail of either the object or the background.

That was the challenge I accepted when I agreed to commission and edit contributions for Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good: the necessary omission of something essential. Should our snapshots of the ways in which travel generosity can be harnessed provide a clear sense of what’s happening today against the broader state of travel and tourism, but without addressing any sense of the need for growth and change? Or should it focus on one element (the ways for altruistic travelers to give back, for example) at the expense of another (the tourism context inspiring such responsible behavior) and preserve the sense of progress and development?

Travel-Inspired Community Service

The Inspired Escapes water safari engages in a local clean water project, shadowing local residents as they build clean water wells in their community.

For decades, high-minded, compassionate, and generous travelers have understood the virtues of sharing time and money with worthy projects around the world. Students have offered their vigor and energy. Skilled professionals have donated their services. People of all stripes have made good with their time and money to improve the lot of others less fortunate.

Today more than ever before, there’s a sweeping sense of travel-inspired community service, with a broad embrace of the whole globe as our community. It has prompted growing numbers of free-spirited, adventure-minded explorers to step out of familiar routines and then interact with the world around them in ways that make a positive and lasting impact on the people and communities they visit and of which they are a part.

But while there’s nothing new about the desire to give as much as (or more than) one gets, many of the means by which such charitable assistance can be delivered are quite novel. And these days the knowledge of how best to leverage both big-heartedness and the jargony lexicon used to describe it is constantly in flux. More than just a work in progress, the whole complex of thoughts and actions associated with voluntourism, volunteerism, volunteering, service learning, charity challenges, travel fundraisers etc. is constantly shifting its basic shape and its substance.

This is all the more true as volunteering and fundraising topics are no longer as standalone as they once were. The activities with which they are associated are being integrated into the broad and growing pool of commercial but no less authentic travel experiences so appealing to new generations of travelers.

Acknowledging Complexity

Happy children drink clean water in the Luwero village of Uganda, after the installation of a water well paid for through charity fundraising.

So how could all of this be tackled in one guide, knowingly surrendering to an incomplete picture while hoping to provide as broad and as deep a base of understanding as possible? How could this unwieldy topic be introduced without overwhelming the casual traveler or being too jejune? How could this be accomplished without painting with too broad a brush and misrepresenting the work being done — undermining the good or erroneously overvaluing the bad? How could it be part of a collaborative effort to #MendNotEnd voluntourism?

The trick, I think, has been to acknowledge the complexity of the topic and tackle it from as many perspectives — and with the input of as many voices — as possible.

That is most evident in Part 1 of the guide, called Good Actions: What’s Being Done, which is, in keeping with the photographic analogy used above, the snapshot employing a fast shutter speed, freeze-framing topics and their contexts. A chorus of authoritative voices weighs in on a selection of typical activities through which service-oriented and philanthropic travelers have been doing good — working with children or wildlife, shoring up infrastructure and contributing to community development. By tapping these deep reserves of knowledge and experience, this guide provides readers with a critical lay of the land.

In an effort to reintegrate a sense of percolating change, one that encourages readers to focus on future developments and how best to leverage them, the second section of the guide, called Good Intentions: What to Think About, encourages review of what to think about before, during and after acting.

Three Core Considerations

In both sections, a point was made of assembling information that covers three core considerations:

* the state of the service-oriented travel industry — contributors were asked to hold nothing back when describing what’s going on, how things work, and how successful they have proven to be;

* a sense of the pitfalls of which travelers should be aware — as nothing’s perfect (yet), contributors were asked to explain how to approach service-focused travel planning with a smart and critical eye, teasing out the areas of concern and finding ways to deal with them that help improve the space;

* the kinds of questions to ask when seeking to meet the needs of local communities and the emotional and philanthropic desires of donors — moving toward improvement means giving people the means to root out trouble and then steer well clear of it.

The result is, I believe, a potent resource for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure.

All photos are courtesy of Inspired Escapes.