“Voluntourism,” or volunteer travel, has been a growing trend over the past few years, especially among younger people.1 I know from experience—having completed three separate week-long Habitat for Humanity builds across the US—that when I’ve incorporated volunteer work into my travel plans, I’ve always come away feeling gratified, with fresh perspective on what’s important.
I’ll explain the different kinds of voluntourism you might choose for your own vacation plans, and how to make sure you (and the community you’re visiting) get the most out of the experience.
Voluntourism 101: Why do it?
People have asked me: Why travel to volunteer if there are organizations that need help in your own town?
First, travel can have a big impact if you go somewhere with an urgent need, like an area recovering from a natural disaster. Another advantage is you can bring back best practices to your own community. So, for example, if you are involved in educational charities, maybe you spend a few days working at a school or organization in a different region. While there, you learn new approaches that you can bring home, increasing your impact locally, too.
Of course, it goes without saying that voluntourism can be a great way to experience a new part of the world, meet new people and spend your day helping others.
Three main types of voluntourism
1. Action-oriented travel: This is when you’re actively traveling somewhere specifically to help with a volunteer project. Often, this includes urgent-need travel like disaster relief.
2. Learning journeys: The point of this kind of travel is for donors and potential donors to gain more insight into issues affecting a certain region and how to better assist. You might do some active volunteering, but the point is primarily to observe, via site visits and tours.
3. Leisure voluntourism: Maybe you’re already planning a vacation and want to volunteer for part of it. This is an especially popular tactic for families with kids. Consider volunteering for a half day in your location of choice. Your kids can learn the importance of giving back—even if you’re there primarily for leisure.
Once you understand which of these three categories your travel falls into, consider whether you’d rather travel with an organized program or do something more customized. Of course, group travel (such as with a school or religious organization) can alleviate the burden of planning, whereas doing it yourself means you can decide where to go and which organization to work with.
Plan your voluntourism experience
If you are setting up your own volunteer plan—let’s say you want to volunteer at a soup kitchen for one day of your trip—make sure you’ve contacted the organization in advance so they know when you’re arriving and how you’re planning to help.
Once, when I was a student on a group trip, our organizers didn’t plan as well as they should have. We showed up and the charitable organization had nothing for us to do that day! The organization hadn’t realized they’d have students showing up every day for five days—they thought it’d just be one day—so they had to scramble to figure out how to keep a group of ten students occupied. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the most successful or rewarding experience for anyone.
If you’re planning a volunteer experience for yourself, you can call an organization to say how many of you are going and what kind of work you’d like to do. For example, I’ve done a lot of volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. If I were going to be in a certain city with a group of friends, I might give the local Habitat for Humanity office a call to see if they have a site where I and my traveling companions could work for a day or two.
Recognize your strengths and abilities
Do you or anyone in your group have any particular skills or limitations? For example, at each build site, Habitat for Humanity usually asks who has ever used a power tool before; they’re unlikely to hand a circular saw to a total novice. Habitat will allow people under 18 to volunteer, but in my experience minors won’t be allowed to go on ladders or roofs or use a nail gun. If you’re planning this experience as a family, consider everyone’s age and ability.
Perhaps most importantly, remember to have fun. Volunteering while traveling (or traveling while volunteering) shouldn’t feel like work. Instead, it offers a way to explore a destination and connect with new people while making the world a little bit better.