Whether you are on a university break, professional sabbatical, or retired, or somewhere in-between like Kati and I, combining volunteering with your traveling can bring a valuable new dimension to your cultural immersion. You may be lucky enough to be liberal with your travel itinerary and hear about a volunteering opportunity wherever you currently are located. This is an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in local life and make a positive impact beyond being a fleeting tourist. Kati and I have made the conscious decision to include more volunteering with our travels in the future.
Informal volunteer opportunities are unplanned, so many people choose to engage with formal volunteering organizations and then build a travel itinerary around this component. From our experiences and learning from other volunteers, you need to invest some time and do a bit of research. Not all volunteering opportunities provide for real social and economic improvements. Ask yourself some critical questions and then find the right organization to make your volunteering aspirations a reality. We hope to make that trek a little less challenging for you with reflections on our own experiences in volunteering while traveling abroad.
Voluntourism – Is it worth it?
Voluntourism is a term that was coined roughly over a decade ago when volunteering became a legitimate business that combined social and environmental projects with traveling. The poor reputation attributed to voluntourism evolved from critics asking what real impact a person can have in two weeks? Despite the nay-sayers, there is a lot of good that voluntourism can bring to a community, but it is the responsibility of you, as a travel consumer, to make good choices. For instance, volunteering with orphanages should be considered with extreme caution as, unfortunately, many times these places use children to lure in money.
If the projects are set up and managed properly, you should be able to slot in, enjoy your time assisting whatever project’s goal is, and then leave the whole endeavor crumbling. That is what makes a voluntourism project, and the associated positive impacts, sustainable. If a project solely relies on the actions and funding of volunteers to function, then the sustainability of the project goal should be in question.
Some volunteer companies provide a rather simplistic view of the impact that voluntourism can have on interconnected and complex issues such as poverty or development. The main this is to research the organization you want to spend time with and see what earlier volunteers have to say about their time, as well as any reports they may publish about their endeavors. If someone is up to no good, it usually comes out, especially in the days of social media. If you want to dive headfirst in the research done on the topic, look at how some of the more prominent companies have not always marketed their volunteering with a consistent message.
What to consider when planning your trip
What are your skills and what is it you enjoy doing?
You don’t have to be an engineer building multimillion-dollar clinics and water irrigation systems or a rural doctor saving lives with immunizations in the thick of the jungle. Unskilled volunteers can do an array of useful tasks that can help a community. Involving yourself with the advancement of reading and writing skills, facilitating adult education workshops, vising old age homes or rehabilitating conservation areas by picking up rubbish are all incredibly worthwhile.
If you have a specific cause that you care about, then volunteering is a great way to immerse yourself in that cause from a new country’s viewpoint. Keep in mind that while a volunteer organization may say that you are ‘saving the lion population’, you will likely be assisting with data collection rather than bottle-feeding cubs; however, from a conservation perspective, this is a much more responsible form of volunteering.
The cost of volunteering
Consider how much money you can dedicate to your volunteering goals. Even if you find a project that doesn’t have a fee for participating, you still need to accommodate and feed yourself for the duration. Travel insurance is an absolute necessity, particularly with medical coverage that includes medivac if you are in rural areas with no hospital. Depending on the country’s immigration laws, volunteering may require a specialized visa as it is essentially unpaid work.
Volunteering in a formal organization can range in cost from $50 a day to $1000 a week. Paying to volunteer may seem like a strange concept, but volunteer mission projects incur costs, paying for the wages of local people who manage the projects, general overheads, project material costs and the expense of your room and board. If you are on a teaching project or building a clinic or a school, part of your project fees may be going to paying for school supplies, medicine, or equipment that would otherwise not be feasible for the local population. Never underestimate how you and your money (however minimal) can impact a community for the better.
If you are heading to a particularly conservative country, you should familiarize yourself with the customs and laws of that country to avoid uncomfortable or offensive behavior. You may need to wear clothing that covers shoulders and legs and possibly even head coverings. Swearing or particular language can get you into trouble in some places, just as showing the bare soles of your feet in Thailand is offensive. If you don’t like the idea of having to cover up or watch your language, then better to choose a different location for your volunteering and traveling as you are not meant to come in to change societal norms.
How long have you got to dedicate to the project?
Of course, the length of time you spend volunteering could be heavily influenced by the project cost. But if you are on a sabbatical or retired and have 6 to 12 months spare, then there are unpaid, voluntary positions you could assist. Teaching English is a common one, but whatever your skill is you could impact an organization or a community by dedicating real time and energy to a project goal. Suppose you only have a couple of weeks. In that case, then you can certainly assist, but have realistic expectations that you are not going to ‘solve’ any humanitarian problems in a short period but this doesn’t mean that you, and those you work with, are not going to experience real, significant change.
What is your motivation for volunteering?
Many university applications now expect a great candidate to have volunteered before embarking on tertiary education. This has seen the ‘gap year’ voluntourism industry explode with thousands of youngsters trying to garner as many golden stars prior to submission and some may not really understand (or perhaps care) about the project or its outcomes. Similarly, being motivated by social media accolades – #blessed #volunteeringisgoodforthesoul – should never outweigh the good that volunteering can do. Many volunteer organizations now rightly limit photos taken of people while on their project for the express reason to stop exploitation.
You may also find yourself in a forward-thinking company that has volunteering as part of its corporate social responsibility or corporate community engagement programs. In this case, we applaud you for landing this position (pat yourself on the back) and despite your company paying for you to volunteer, this still has a lot of scope for overlapping your skills with a volunteer organization that can benefit from them. There is even a rise in virtual volunteering so you don’t even need to initially leave the comforts of your home or office to start making a difference on the other side of the planet. This can you from being on the ground while later project phases are being implemented are your expertise is more valuable.
Regardless of your original motivations, if you have an open mind and embrace your surroundings you can come away with a life-changing experience, or at the very least, some great new friends and a new appreciation for your ability to make a difference in the world.
Volunteering opportunities on the fly
If you happen to be traveling for some time, making your dream road trip on Route 66 in America, or backpacking from one side of Australia to the other, you will almost definitely find an organization that can use your help along your way. You may not need to find projects online – ask some locals that may have information for you, like wardens at a National Park, town councilors or local charities. From archaeology digs to walking seldom-used trails, to manual labor on farms, let your world be open to new and challenging experiences.
Volunteering and traveling are great ways to learn about different cultures, experience different lifestyles and live in new environments with the potential to do something good for others. Whether you pick up litter on a walking trail, weeding a cabbage patch, or reading to the elderly in care homes, you can leave a positive mark on your travels and also be rewarded with the knowledge that you have helped someone or some cause. A well-researched trip and choosing the right organization for your volunteering needs is key to having a great time while volunteering and maximizing your positive impact with informed decision making and actions. We have included below a few personally vetted volunteer organizations to get you on your way.
WWOOF – Get free room and board in exchange for working on an organic farm. This worldwide initiative links volunteers with growers to promote an exchange of education and culture. You can become a ‘WWOOFer’ even in America.
African Impact – With projects located in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zanzibar and encompassing a wide range of topics from conservation to girl power, there is likely a position which would pique any traveler’s interest. Paid for volunteer opportunities can be as short as a day to a few months in length.
School Club Zambia – This grassroots NGO has its base in a remote village along the banks of Lake Kariba in Zambia. Located on a working crocodile farm, the of the projects they undertake focus on improving sustainable access to education for the rural population. This is a great option for self-motivated individuals or those that would prefer to be part of a smaller, hands-on organization.
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