Take Your Own Voluntourism Adventure

You’ve read about my experiences as a global volunteer—here’s how you can do it, too

Teaching children in Nepal, caring for cheetahs in Namibia, building homes in New Orleans—exotic opportunities like these are why many travelers are volunteering around the world and throughout America. Here’s a nine-step plan for creating a memorable voluntourism experience.

Pick the Right Organization

Selecting an organization is like getting married: There are plenty of possible partners; the hard part is finding Mr. Right (or Ms. Right, as the case may be).

For basic info on some of the roughly 150 organizations that offer voluntourism trips, check out books like Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others and Lonely Planet’s Volunteer: A Traveller’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World. Also check out some of the organizations profiled on Voluntourism.org and visit sites like Voluntales.com.

To narrow the often-overwhelming options, start with these three essential questions:

  • What kind of work do you want to do?
  • Where do you want to do it?
  • How long do you want to stay? (Most programs range from two weeks to three months.)

Keep the questions coming. Think about living conditions: Do you want a communal dorm-like setting or do you need your own space? Do you want to use your professional skills or do something entirely different? Are you hoping to spend eight hours a day working or are you more interested in lounging on the beach?

These questions may seem obvious, but travelers often ignore them until they’re already in a foreign land, grousing about the living conditions or the work assignment. But the answers will help determine the place and the program that’s right for you.

Learn How Much It Costs—and Where Your Money Goes

On a travel site called Worldhum.com, a blog about voluntourism led to this cynical post from a reader: “If you pay to volunteer, you are a total sucker.”

Snide as that may be, there is something odd about paying to perform free labor. And those costs typically aren’t low. A two week trip in San Carlos through Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), for example, like the one my wife and I did, starts at $2,923. The Earthwatch trip in Ecuador starts at $2,795.

But there’s a reason why most groups charge these “program fees,” as they’re called. The fees typically cover not only the basics of your trip—lodging, food, security, local transportation—but also help pay the group’s basic operational expenses.

To find out how your money is being spent, ask the organization for a breakdown or check its website: most explain how the program fees are used. The fees for most U.S.-based organizations are tax deductible.

Some volunteers raise money to help cover their costs. CCS offers fundraising ideas at crossculturalsolutions.org/enroll/funding-your-program.aspx, including information on scholarships and matching gifts. Travelocity sponsors a contest offering a $5,000 “Travel for Good” voluntourism grant. For information go to volunteerjournals.com/volunteer-travel-grants.

Investigate the Organization

For a from-the-trenches view of a potential assignment—the living conditions, the food, the work projects—contact previous volunteers. “Talk to as many as possible,” says Charlotte Hindle, coauthor of Lonely Planet’s guidebook. “This is the one of the surest ways of finding out about an organization.”

The organization will obviously put you in touch with people who had a positive experience, so if you want an unfiltered opinion, search for blogs that might be commenting on a particular organization, or check travel review sites such as TripAdvisor.com or IgoUgo.com.

Find the Right Fit for Your Skills

A well-run organization, says Hindle, will send you a skills audit or questionnaire before matching you to a placement. You should also ask for a job description.

“It is really important that you volunteer with an organization that wants to spend time with you, working with you on finding the right placement,” says Hindle. “I, personally, would never volunteer with an organization that tries to tee you up quickly with a placement online or over the phone and one that doesn’t spend proper time understanding your skills and how they can best be used.”

Explore the Group’s Impact on the Community

One of the big questions with any voluntourism trip is whether the work you’re doing actually benefits the people it’s intended to help. But certain questions can help you determine how committed the organization is to the local community, says Christina Heyniger, founder of Xola Consulting, a company that focuses on the adventure travel industry. Do the group’s leaders speak the local language? Is the local community engaged in the projects (are they contributing time or money)? Is the voluntourism group creating dependency or building a self-sustaining program?

Equally important is why the project was started. Heyniger writes on her website: “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?”

Don’t Overlook Small Organizations

With so many volunteer groups to choose from, the appeal of bigger, more-established (and pricier) organizations such as Cross-Cultural Solutions, i-to-i, Earthwatch, or Global Volunteers is easy to understand. They’re safe.

“They do what they do really well, and they’ve got it down pat,” says Doug Cutchins, coauthor of Volunteer Vacations.

I stuck with the more established groups because they have longstanding partnerships with local communities. But sometimes the more rewarding experiences come from smaller, lesser-known organizations, says David L. Clemmons of VolunTourism.org. Clemmons points to organizations such as Conservation VIP, Conscious Journeys, Go Differently, and Voluntourists Without Borders, which typically work in no more than a handful of countries.

“You’ll likely be traveling with the founder of the trip,” says Clemmons. “You get to hear the stories of what it has been like to put it all together—the heartaches, the triumphs, the mistakes, the brilliant ideas. It’s like riding with Henry Ford in the first car he built. What could be more exciting?”

Your dollars also have a bigger impact with a small group, says Clemmons, since the organization has fewer overhead expenses, and the volunteers tend to be more adventurous and travel savvy. “They did some serious due diligence to come across one of these organizations, or it was a word-of-mouth referral from the creator,” says Clemmons. “There’s a positive attitude. You probably won’t hear something like, ‘Well, this wasn’t in the literature about this trip.’ ”

That’s the upside. But how can you make sure a small organization is equipped to follow through on its promises?

Look for nonprofits, says Clemmons. Most nonprofits will have to be registered with a governing body—the Internal Revenue Service, for example—and other countries have similar entities. You can also check up on them at sites like Guidestar.org or GlobalGiving.com.

If you’re considering a small for-profit organization or a tour operator, Clemmons suggests contacting tourism authorities or the governing bodies that represent those groups—the United States Tour Operators Association, the Pacific Asia Travel Agency, etc.—to see if they have information on the company. Have there been any complaints? Any reports of impropriety?

Watch for Warning Signs

Clemmons once received a letter from an angry traveler who was complaining about her voluntourism experience. The woman, a college student, was looking for “a cheap volunteer program,” which is exactly what she got.

Among her grievances: no running water in the dorms for over a week, no working toilets or showers, and promises that weren’t kept—from the placement (she was supposed to work in a hospital but was abruptly placed in a school) to dinners (supposedly covered by the program fee but never provided). She was led to believe that the organization was a nonprofit, then found out it wasn’t.

The volunteer missed several warning signs that this outfit was run more like the Three Stooges than 3M. According to Clemmons, the following actions might save you from similar problems:

  • Find out how long an operation has been in existence. “If you cannot find this somewhere on a website, or in printed literature, stay away,” says Clemmons. A new group may be just fine, but it is more likely to be working out the kinks of its program.
  • Realize that you may not get “true” answers from the company that you contact. If you can’t find information about the organization in articles or from other
    sources—if you’re going to Thailand and the local tourist authority has never heard of the group—this should be a clue that the organization is bit, well . . . mysterious.
  • Be aware that an organization isn’t necessarily a nonprofit just because its website has a “.org” address. If working for a nonprofit is important to you, ask to see a 990 form or an annual report.

Expect Good Customer Service

A voluntourism trip in a third-world country is obviously not the same experience as a therapeutic massage weekend at a world-class spa. But the lack of pampering and plush
five-star accommodations is no excuse for poor customer service.

“The idea that ‘roughing it’ during a voluntourism trip means that customer service and hospitality are expendable is a pitfall that numerous nonprofit organizations fall into,” says Clemmons. If an organization dodges your questions or doesn’t respond to phone calls or
e-mails in a timely manner, consider it a clear warning sign.

“Most organizations are small and understaffed,” adds Cutchins, “but they should still be professional.”

When You Volunteer, Act Like a Pro

“International volunteering is like taking on a real job,” says Hindle. “If you approach it any less seriously, there’s a greater chance that you’ll be disappointed.”

What’s your motivation for volunteering? If you’re at a school in Sri Lanka purely because you think it’ll look good on a résumé or a college application, that’s bad for the volunteer organization as well as its partner organization (and you’ll probably have a lousy experience, too). The volunteers who contribute the most are energetic, enthusiastic, and respectful. Remember: You’re a guest. Don’t go into a school or a research project and start barking out orders. If they want your input, fine, but don’t show up and tell them what they’re doing wrong. Follow their instructions and help any way you can. You’ll learn a lot and experience a culture and a place in a way you never would otherwise.