11/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Truth About Volunteer Vacations

In 2003, when David Clemmons launched, a Web site to educate about volunteer travel opportunities, the term "voluntourim" was known mostly to intrepid do-gooders, Peace Corps volunteers and backpackers who wanted to get involved in the far-flung communities they were visiting. In the past few years, interest has grown so steadily that one could argue volunteer tourism has gone mainstream. (After all, the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons are getting in on the act.)

In fact, one of the positive impacts of Hurricane Katrina: everyone from high school seniors on spring break to celebs like Brad Pitt signed up for a helping-hand holiday right here in the U.S. It is estimated that 4.8 million Americans volunteered more than 120 miles from their homes in 2007, and one million volunteered internationally. This year, the site has seen its highest Web traffic numbers to date.

But even as a reality television show (the Philanthropist) is bringing the muddy and the marvelous of the experience into American living rooms, as Clemmons knows, the learning curve is still steep. More and more travelers know that they want to give back, but they are still figuring out the most effective ways of doing so.

The deeper you delve into the topic, the more questions arise: are there "right" and "wrong" ways of giving back? Does a one-time donation stand in the way of sustainable development? Are there ways to measure commitment, i.e., is a village visit when you're staying in five-star luxury down the road enough? Where is the line between "giving back" and the ugly reality of poverty tourism?

To Clemmons, it's all about education, and the more advance research and mental preparation a traveler does before embarking on a trip that entails volunteering, the more likely he/she is to approach the topic with the right amount of sensitivity. "Voluntourism is a relatively new approach to social responsibility," he says. "Our ways of giving are changing along with us."

Read a Q&A with David Clemmons about the difference between a volunteer vacation and voluntourism and how these trips can irrevocably change a person's thinking and world-view--turning them into true journeys of self-discovery.