Vacation means palm trees, tropical weather, and filling recycle bottles with compostable trash to build a children's school? That doesn't sound like the classic vaca by the beach we're used to, but for an increasing amount of people, volunteering has become a way to see the world while gaining perspective. Often referred to as "voluntourism", the word refers to the tourist who combines their vacation and sightseeing with volunteer work for a nonprofit or local cause. Voluntourism is for those who want to revamp the common vacation format to include giving back, and gaining perspective on their own circumstances.
The Voluntourist, a travel trade newsletter, published a study stating the four most popular motivators for those who wish to volunteer on vacation. They listed cultural immersion, giving back and making a difference, seeking camaraderie, and seeking educational opportunities for children, when it involved a family volunteer trip with their children. Surely all of these opportunities are not available are at a beachside resort vacation. People go voluntouring because they are looking for something more than that, whether it be new friendships, new realizations about their life, or just the feeling of being part of something greater.
If you already planned on taking a vacation, voluntourism is a great way to get a unique experience and make use of your traveling. Think of voluntourism trips as a way to explore a culture while conveniently helping a cause. The convenience of these pre-set voluntour trips is they combine the chance to volunteer with opportunities to meet others. One can meet people of the local culture more easily, and working with others on volunteer sites has often lead to lasting friendships.
Corporations are also discovering the benefits of using voluntourism for community involvement, social responsibility, and employee engagement. As I mentioned in my previous article, companies such as Lush Cosmetics and WorldVentures (through their foundation) have been sending groups to Latin America on voluntour trips to give back and to teambuild. DreamTrips is organizing a series of trips in cooperation with Hug It Forward, a nonprofit dedicated to building "bottle schools", schools made with recycled plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash to reinforce the concrete. This results in a much more cost-effective building, that also improves upon Guatemala's often unaddressed trash issue. Voluntourism has even convinced companies to add a philanthropic campaign to their mission statement, such as Lush's Charitable Givings initiative.
Dave Ulloa is a seasoned voluntourist through WorldVentures, this year even leading the trip with his wife Yvette. Ulloa commented about voluntourism: "When you go on a voluntourism trip, it makes you feel like you never want to go on a normal vacation ever again". What Ulloa loved the most was the connection he could see people having with the work they were doing. "I was going around taking pictures of the other workers stuccoing or painting or whatever task they were in charge of, and I loved seeing the passion they had in their faces. It really brought us all together, we barely knew each other when it began, and we just became family. Just about everyone on the trip said that something has changed inside of me here."
Some people worry that voluntourism trips do not promote sustainability, with some of the trips only lasting a week, or even less. However, many programs are building well-planned and economic services that continue long after the volunteers leave. For example, Ulloa gave the example of the stove installed into the bottle school, which a group of locals used to start a weekend baking business for extra money. People are finding long-term solutions that require only short-term efforts.
Thinking about going on a voluntour trip? Here's how to start. Be wise on where you are doing your trip. Play it safe and stay out of war zones; opt for peaceful idyllic destinations like Costa Rica instead. Research the company, and look up reviews. Make sure that they are devoted to community progress, not on making money. Specifically, be wary of "orphanage" programs, which have become notorious for commodifying "orphans" (many of them have both parents) as opportunities for profit. There are plenty of legitimate places to look, or talk to your employer about creating a group trip to foster team building.
Or, others have embraced the lifestyle of vacationing while devoting a portion of their time as a local volunteer, while not committing to a specific nonprofit. One can find opportunities at the local homeless shelter or animal shelter, and spend the rest of our time sightseeing where you desire and on your own schedule. This remains a great way to turn any me-time into an opportunity for giving.
However, if you are interested in partnering with a great nonprofit program, here are some great websites to start and browse for trips and dates:
Build bottle schools like the one described above with Hug It Forward, or help bring clean water to people in Liberia.
Network for Good
Best for in-country volunteer service, connects you with Volunteermatch to see where you are most needed in the country at any given time.
Hands Up Holidays
If you still want to have that luxurious aspect while doing good, check out Hands Up Holidays, with options all over the globe. Choose from the itineraries of over 40 countries, for an ultimate array of volunteer options and situations.
Volunteer to work with desert elephants in Namibia, work alongside Haitians to rebuild the still earthquake-torn country, or even build a custom volunteer journey.
Now get out there and make a difference while seeing the world!