Updated February 2017 — While monetary contributions to charitable organizations are always welcome and effective, oftentimes people want to invest on a deeper level. Enter the idea of voluntourism — or a volunteer vacation.
"We're wired to learn things through experience," says Michele Gran, co-founder and Senior Vice President of Global Volunteers, a nonprofit based in St. Paul, Minnesota. "When you go to a community and you work side by side with people, you are invested in a way that your check could never invest you."
Then, culinary, cultural, or ecological experiences round out your volunteer vacation. Imagine celebrating Thanksgiving with a traditional turkey dinner complemented by Vietnamese cuisine and music at the Hanoi Legacy Hotel. What about ringing in Christmas in Romania while village children dance around a star-topped pole and sing Romanian carols? Snorkeling with sea turtles in St. John sounds pretty good, too, right? All of these are possible — after a hard day's work.
Focus on the need
Gran and her husband, Burnham Philbrook, founded Global Volunteers in 1984 and have created a network of volunteer programs across the globe. "All of our programs in every community focus on either providing essential services to families and children, or teaching conversational English, or both," she explains.
Gran is quick to eschew the term voluntourism. "The problem with the popular concept of voluntourism is that, generally, the emphasis seems to be on the volunteer. The purpose in doing this [kind of volunteering] is to help the community, not to see how the community can give you insights." Gran prefers to focus on the community and its needs, instead of on how much volunteers will learn. It's a subtle difference, but one that Gran feels is important.
As this field of travel continues to grow, Gran notes that there can be a danger of volunteers going into a charitable effort with a definite plan of what they want to do, only to find out that the community's real needs aren't being served at all. In some instances, she adds, a community might even be inconvenienced. Focusing on the real needs of the communities helps potential volunteers avoid this.
Find the best fit for you
With that in mind, research is key in planning your trip. In addition to learning about the organization facilitating the trip, think about what type of work you want to do, what talents you have to offer, where you want to go, what kind of accommodations you need (tent or hotel), how much spending money you should take, your health insurance coverage (does your policy cover you abroad?), and your physical stamina.
For instance, a volunteer vacation with Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) to Baxter State Park in northern Maine might require a 2.5-mile hike just to get to the work site every day. "In our registration process, we do try to communicate the expectations of the crew members," says Alex DeLucia, Trails Volunteer Programs Manager for AMC, which is the oldest conservation and recreation organization in the country.
Headquartered in Boston, AMC has offered one-week volunteer vacations involving trail work since the early 1980s, and not all require an advanced level of physical fitness. "There is a diversity of work throughout our locations in the Northeast, St. John in the US Virgin Islands, southern California, and, most recently, the Florida Trail in south Florida," says DeLucia. "Not everybody needs to be super fit. We are working with adults in their 20s and 30s, and we're working with others who are 50, 60, 70-plus."
In addition, consider how far from home you want to travel. You may want to start more local before venturing overseas, and some groups offer opportunities for both. Like GlobalVolunteers, Earthwatch Institute offers hands-on, “science in action” programs for both adults and teens. Participants work directly with scientists for 7-10 days, observing issues in the field and helping with environmental research. Some of their wildlife and ecosystem expeditions have included a close-up look at sea otters and seagrass in Alaska or climate change, huckleberries, and grizzly bears in Montana as well as elephants and sustainable agriculture in Kenya or wild bees and other pollinators in Costa Rica.
Gran also sees a lot of what she calls "encore" volunteers, citing the example of a nurse from Montana who continues to go back to Tanzania. "You have a personal, lifetime connection with people that you work with," says Gran. "Some people develop lifelong friendships with not only the people on the service team but also in the community."