Voluntourism. This trendy buzzword – a combination of volunteering and tourism – is a dream vacation for some and a dirty word to others. With so many companies and organizations across the globe requesting help, it can be difficult to pick the right opportunities. Follow these guidelines to choose a volunteer spot that will be rewarding to everyone and not a burden to already underdeveloped communities.
Consider your skills
Choosing a volunteer job solely based on what you’ll get out of the experience sure seems counterintuitive, and yet, people do it every day. If you want to give back to the world, take a moment and think honestly about what you have to give.
Animal lovers can seek out shelters and sanctuaries where they’ll care for creatures large and small. English speakers can work with both children and adults around the world in teaching and tutoring jobs. Lucky history buffs might find their way onto an archaeological dig, while medical professionals can participate in programs like Doctors without Borders.
Meanwhile, if you’ve never swung a hammer, much less built a house, then organizations like Habitat for Humanity probably aren’t the best placements for you. And winding up in an inappropriate position could ultimately hurt the community you’re trying to help.
Considering not just your interests and passions, but your background and qualifications will ensure that you’re not the only person who benefits from your time abroad.
Be ready to invest time and money
Rome wasn’t built in a day and you won’t be able to solve the world’s problems on a week’s vacation. While there are many packages on the market allowing you to sightsee for a week and volunteer for a day or two, many of these tours were developed to cater to tourists’ desire to pat themselves on the back instead of to local communities’ actual needs. Shorter projects should be approached with caution, particularly those that will put you in contact with children, who can get very attached to newcomers.
The longer you spend in one place, the more familiar you’ll become with it. You’ll have a better chance of making real, meaningful connections with the people you encounter, and understanding their needs so you can make a real impact.
Consider saving up to take a career break or a sabbatical to complete your volunteer placement. Volunteer projects can even make your time away from the traditional workforce resume-worthy, and help you make a career change.
In addition to investing serious time, you should also be prepared to invest some money in the placement itself. Many programs charge a fee, which can cover your food and lodging, insurance, and transportation, and may also include a donation to support the organization’s general operations.
Some of the best programs out there, like Geovisions and EarthWatch, charge program fees upwards of $1000, but don’t consider that cost a deterrent. You’d likely spend just as much on a traditional vacation, and most fees charged by US-based agencies are tax deductible.
Whatever program you choose, ask its program director every possible question you can think of. The more information you have about their operations, your role, and the communities you’ll be entering, the better.
Ask about the organization’s history, ownership, and management. Understand where your money will go. For a really thorough look, you may want to seek out a copy of the charity’s annual report or 990 tax filing. Learn where they recruit volunteers from – will you be working alongside your fellow countrymen, locals, or an international workforce? Is it mostly men or women, young or old?
If there are particular places and events you want to see during your time abroad, know when and where you’ll complete your volunteer project. For information about the specific program you’ll be entering, see if you can speak to not only a program manager, but also a volunteer who recently returned from his or her trip, ideally someone with a similar background to yours.
First and foremost, pick something you’re wildly passionate about. Unexpected things can happen on the road, and believing in your cause will keep you going when obstacles pop up.