My Goodness: Volunteer Vacations

May 4th, 2010 by Sandy Stonesifer

The Slate column discusses how best to be of service while you travel.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Dear Sandy,

I'm a young professional who has saved a week of vacation in 2010 to do something charitable and see a different part of the world. Unfortunately, I can't decipher from all the volunteerism Web sites out there which are legitimate charities and where I can find a good match for my limited time and money. Do you have any recommendations? 

—Nicki

Dear Nicki,
There's no question that "voluntourism" (the combination of travel and volunteering you refer to) is increasingly popular, and you are right to question whether all the sites you are looking at are legitimate. (Some probably aren't.) I urge you to start the process by asking yourself not just how to find a good match for your limited time and money, but why you want to put your efforts toward this experience in the first place.

Despite voluntourism's popularity, or perhaps because of its popularity, it has drawn a lot of skepticism. Critics point out that voluntourists often come for short stints, like you are planning to, and leave without accomplishing much. It's also sometimes unclear whether the voluntourism projects that agencies choose are actually rooted in community needs or whether they just make for the best spring break trip. Mostly, critics are skeptical of the voluntourism model itself. There is no question that unless you have very specific skills to offer, an organization could do more good with the amount of money you will spend on travel, accommodations, and tourism than you could do during your weeklong visit.

One voluntourism agency saw a 46 percent increase in applications after the January earthquake in Haiti. It is no surprise that watching horrible human suffering makes us more likely to want to help—but does Haiti really need a flood of unskilled volunteers right now? Probably not.

I don't mean any of this to discourage you from your plan, just to remind you that voluntourism isn't good merely because it is voluntourism. So think long and hard about why you are choosing this trip instead of a week in Disney World and about both what you hope to get out of the trip and what you hope to offer. With research, you are more apt to find a project that benefits you and those you are trying to help.

Not all volunteering is created equal, and neither are all voluntourism agencies. Once you are ready to choose your trip, make sure that you start by looking at an organization's history. Has it been around for a while? Does it have any media mentions? Can you find accounts by irate, or elated, customers? Research its finances. Is it a for-profit or nonprofit outfit? Is it transparent about the breakdown of your program costs? Does the cost seem unusually high or low? Lastly, look into the agency's structure. Does it work in collaboration with a local organization? Will there be someone there to orient you and support you during your trip? Check out this list of questions to ask an agency. Just as you would be wary of a travel company promising five-star accommodations on a two-star budget, beware of programs that sound too good to be true.

If you are willing to shell out for some guidance, Volunteer Vacations is in its 10th edition and lists thousands of vetted opportunities. Lonely Planet's Volunteer Guide is another good reference tome, though slightly outdated (it is from 2007). If you'd rather go it alone, the International Volunteer Programs Association is a good source of information. It has advice on how to choose a program and a list of member organizations (which all subscribe to a set of best practices). You can also find opportunities listed on sites like Idealist, Volunteer Match, and even Travelocity.

Finally, think of your trip as a beginning, not an end. You will likely get more out of the trip than you will give, and with that comes responsibility. While you are there, start thinking about actions you can take to help once you return home. Can you participate in a human rights campaign, fundraise, or write a story about the organization you worked with? You may have the power to help more from home than abroad. Done well, voluntourism should function as just one more step on your path to becoming a better global citizen.