In July 2009 I volunteered for 10 days in a Cambodian orphanage, and through that experience learned more about the country and the people than I ever could have on a sightseeing-only trip. By creating relationships with the people of Cambodia, I was able to gain a connection to the country unlike any other place I’ve visited.
Volunteering in the area you’re traveling to (also called voluntourism) is a great way to connect more deeply to the local culture, see a side of the place you wouldn’t otherwise, and perhaps most importantly, give a little back to the area that you are visiting.
Once you’ve decided to go on your own voluntourism trip, there are many things to consider. Here’s a first timer’s guide to taking a volunteer vacation.
Consider your interests
Since voluntourism encompasses a broad range of activities, you will need to choose one area of focus. Are you interested in education and working with children? Are you looking to volunteer with people suffering from AIDS or other diseases? What about working with animals like sea turtles?
Many organizations offer opportunities in these areas and more, including construction (both houses and community buildings), social programs (women’s empowerment), community development, animal welfare, environmental work, and religious missions, to name a few.
If you have some experience in a particular area, this can help guide you to a particular opportunity. If not, and you need help narrowing down your choices, make a list and order your interests from most important to least important. If you still can’t decide, then take your list and move on to the next question, which might help narrow it down a bit.
Where do you want to go?
Even though the primary goal of the trip is to volunteer, you should still pick a city or a country that you are interested in visiting, because there is usually some free time on the weekends for volunteers to go sightseeing.
In the United States, there are two great websites for finding volunteer opportunities – idealist.org and serve.gov. Idealist.org is a site that not only has a board that lists volunteer opportunities, but also has job postings, career fairs postings, a blog, podcasts, and tons of resources. Serve.gov was created once Barack Obama came into the presidency in an effort to encourage people to band together and make a better country. You can search for volunteer opportunities based on keyword and/or city.
For volunteering outside of the United States or your home country, a great website to start with is GoAbroad.com’s Volunteer Abroad Search. Volunteer Abroad allows you to search based on interests, location, and/or project duration. The search will then come up with a list of opportunities that match your request; you go to the specific organization/site from there. Volunteer Abroad also has a verification program for the organizations which include business verification, phone calls, and positive participant feedback.
To check out helpful reviews of a comprehensive selection of volunteering programs, visit Go Overseas – Volunteer Abroad.
How much time do you have?
Volunteer opportunities can range from a one-day event to two weeks to a year. If you are interested in spending a significant amount of time volunteering, you may want to consider joining the Peace Corps, which is a two year commitment.
When considering time, it is important to go back to the sightseeing – how much sightseeing do I want to do? You may be able to see everything in the area in one weekend, or you may want to travel further throughout the country and need two or three weekends.
Another important point to think about is how much of an impact you want to be able to make in an area. Do you feel like you can have a fulfilling trip in one week? Two weeks? Three months?
Do your research
Using a site like Volunteer Abroad is helpful because it is assumed that you can trust the organizations listed. That said, it’s not impossible to find a reputable organization on your own, just be sure to do a little background check. Look for information such as how long the organization has been in business, any publicity (positive or negative) about the group, or if it’s a non-profit or private organization.
After you have found an organization that seems reputable, the next step is to determine if the group will be able to meet your needs.
- What does the cost include? (Some include transportation, lodging, and some meals while others may only include program costs)
- Does the organization provide travel or medical insurance during your trip?
- Does the program include staying with a host family or in a hotel? If you’ll be staying in a hotel, how much extra will it cost?
- Will you have in-country support? Is there someone you can contact if you have a problem once you’re there?
- Will you be with a group of other volunteers or by yourself?
- Is the trip tax-deductible?
- How many hours per day will you be volunteering?
It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to go through an organization to find a volunteer opportunity since some orphanages and other groups have set up their own websites that allow you to make arrangements by contacting them directly.
As with any trip abroad, there are safety precautions you should take, but when you volunteer it becomes essential to get your vaccinations and know what to bring with you. When volunteering, you will most likely go out of the typical tourist areas. You will have much closer contact with native people and animals than on a traditional tourist trip.
The Center for Disease Control’s website will help you find out exactly what vaccines you need and what precautions you should take for any country you may be traveling to. Before you make an appointment with your regular doctor, call and find out if your health insurance covers travel vaccinations (they often aren’t covered). It may save you some money to look for a travel vaccination clinic in your area.
You can also go to the U.S. government’s travel website to get information about visas, travel warnings, travel alerts, crime, and criminal penalties for any country in the world.
Resources and organizations
Volunteer Abroad, Transitions Abroad, Idealist.org, and Serve.gov list opportunities in the US and abroad, and can offer additional tips and information on finding the right opportunity for you. Reputable companies include United Planet (the group I traveled with, they provided excellent support, before, during, and after the trip), Global Volunteer Network,Cross-Cultural Solutions, and – for US citizens only and requiring a two-year commitment – Peace Corps.
Travel writer Josh Berman also has an excellent section to his blog about volunteering abroad.