"Voluntourism” Combines the Best of Two Opportunities


One of the best things about travel is the opportunity it can give you to immerse yourself in another culture. Of course part of that experience includes visiting historic sites, getting into the outdoors and trying local food and entertainment.

But another way to experience a different culture is to donate time, whether that means building a vacation around volunteering or doing it for a day as part of a trip. Many travelers already know the satisfaction that comes from helping others in their community. That same sense of fulfillment can happen while traveling.

Before embarking on a “voluntourism” trip here are some of the questions that you should ask. Is there a fee for participating? What are the sleeping arrangements? Will you have a roommate or be in a dormitory setting? Are meals and transportation covered? How many hours a day will you be required to volunteer and will you get any time off during the week? Will you be working alone or as part of a group? Charity Navigator, an independent watchdog for U.S. charities, is a good place to go to check on an organization. The Better Business Bureau also accredits charities that meet its standards.

One way to find out about volunteer opportunities is to contact organizations that are active in your community. Habitat for Humanity, for example, is known for its homebuilding across the United States, but it also operates in 40 countries. In addition to building houses, volunteers make repairs, help with disaster recovery and work with children or the disabled. Besides doing good, it’s a chance to experience a country like a local.

There are also organizations already set up to connect travelers with volunteer opportunities.

San Francisco-based Give A Day Global provides daylong volunteer opportunities in more than a dozen countries around the world. For example, you can prepare meals for children and seniors at a community kitchen in Cancun; assist a Berlin nonprofit that sorts food donated by restaurants and supermarkets; work with a conservation organization in Costa Rica that monitors sea turtles; help care for elephants at a sanctuary in Thailand; or assist teachers and students at a school in South Africa.

If your ideal vacation involves spending time outdoors, check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which helps preserve the 2,200-mile hiking trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia. Volunteers perform tasks that help maintain the trail, from monitoring rare plants to improving shelters and campsites. On the West Coast, the Pacific Crest Trail Association helps maintain the 2,650-mile trail through California, Oregon and Washington. Its volunteer programs range from day projects to more strenuous weeklong trips for experienced hikers. The Nature Conservancy is active in every state. In Hawaii, visitors can volunteer four times a year at Maui’s Waikamoi Preserve, a sanctuary for hundreds of native species. There are similar opportunities in other countries. Conservation Volunteers in Australia and New Zealand, for example, offers one-day programs year-round.