See the World and Serve It: A Guide to Voluntourism
Wouldn’t it be amazing to travel around the world and making a real impact on a community in need at the same time? “Voluntourism”—spending weeks or months at a time volunteering abroad—is becoming an increasingly popular way to spend your vacation time, gap year, or time off from work. It’s an excellent way to grow, see a new country, and gain a different perspective on the world, too.
But unlike booking your next vacation on Orbitz, there’s much more to plan for when you’re traveling to volunteer. If you’re thinking about lending your hand abroad, here are some important things to consider.
Pick the Right Place
There are so many communities that would benefit from volunteers that it can feel overwhelming to decide on a destination. So research the countries and communities you’re considering in close detail. Is there a clear need for international presence? Will you feel comfortable working within local customs? Find out local traditions and current issues by reading the country’s news media—Wikitravel, BBC News, CNN News, Current TV, and Al-Jazeera News are great sources to uncover the history and dynamics of a place. Also try to get insights from people who’ve been there before, and check the State Department’s website for any travel warnings or advisories.
Pick the Right Partner
Think about what type of organization you’d like to work with. With large, global groups like UNESCO or Amnesty International, you can focus on a specific project, whereas localized field work or community projects can give you more broad, hands-on experience. Start your search by researching grassroots organizations in a country or check out websites like idealist.org and takingitglobal.org.
Also be wary of “pay to play” voluntourism: Travel agencies often tout volunteer “deals”—two-week trips for $2,000 to $6,000. But by organizing your own travel, you can save more than 75%. Plus, volunteer package tours can be limiting, often engaging in "drive-by activism" or one-off projects that don’t form sustainable, working relationships in the community. If you don’t like to do all the planning yourself, a voluntour package isn’t necessarily a bad option—just be sure to stick with a reputable company. Pro-World, World Vision, and Global Exchange are good choices—their trips use the service-learning model where participants learn about community issues as well as take action.
Set Your Goal
Many voluntourists want to build things they think a community needs, or try to change cultural injustices overnight. Think carefully about the project you decide to take on, and make sure it actually fulfills a need, rather than a Western perception of a need: Does the village really need a library, or would it benefit more from cows to plow the field? Your partner organization should keep you posted about community objectives, but also try to meet with local leaders before, during, and after the project to make sure the community’s best interests are always at the forefront of your work.
Also, think about how much time you can invest in your destination, and more importantly, what you can realistically accomplish while you’re on the ground. Make sure you have an action plan and clear goals for your stay.
Set a Budget
In many parts of the world, you can live on $6 a day with ease—but in others, it’s much more expensive, especially if you want to live by the standards of your home country. Airfare will be your biggest expense, followed by lodging, transportation, and food. Many organizations offer subsidized housing and meals, so find out what options are available at the volunteer site. If you’re planning to fundraise for your trip, ensure you start at least six months ahead of time to ensure you meet your goal.
Learn the Language
Knowing the language before you go is vital for success and understanding in another culture. A few simple phrases breaks down barriers quickly. You don’t have to be fluent, but know words to say to show respect and gratitude when appropriate, and to help navigate situations when there are no other native speakers around.
Shift Your Mindset
When you’re traveling abroad, leave the ethnocentrism at the home—don’t judge a culture based on your own, even if things seem weird, different, or wrong. This can be extremely challenging, especially in parts of the world where women don’t have equal rights, but understand that each country has its own set of complex social issues and must be looked at within its own cultural context.
Most importantly, don’t pity the people you are visiting. People may live in conditions that are different from your own, but it doesn’t mean their life is bad. Keep in mind that the community members can teach you just as much—if not more—as you can teach them. For every lesson you teach, ask the community to share a lesson or skill from their culture. Explore and understand the place you’re visiting with curiosity and wonder—this is the best part of traveling somewhere new.
Establish an Action Plan for When you Return
Whether you’re engaged in a short term or long term project, ensure that your impact doesn’t end when you leave. Work with the community to develop a plan to sustain your project after your departure. And once you get home, educate others about your volunteer destination by giving lectures or hosting fundraisers or movie screenings. As you’ll soon find out, volunteering is so much more than just the pictures you have taken of yourself “doing things" or the freshly built school you have left behind.
Photos courtesy of Natalie Jesionka.
About The Author
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.