8 Ways to Mix Volunteering & Travel

By Jennifer Sutherland-Miller on November 25th, 2015
BootsnAll

The holiday season is often a season for giving back. It’s a time when we think of all of the things we have to be grateful for and consider the lives of those less fortunate in some way. It’s a time of year when many people will ring a bell outside the mall to raise money, or serve meals at a local homeless shelter. Those of us who travel often consider what good could be done with the time off we have over the holidays and find ways to combine our adventurous travels with giving back, in some way, to the communities we visit.

A heart to volunteer is to be commended. There is so much work in this world that needs to be done, in our own backyards and around the world. There is, however, a moral responsibility, first and foremost, to do no harm. The responsibility lies with each individual to be sure that those volunteer organizations are ethical to the highest degree.


“There is, however, a moral responsibility, first and foremost, to do no harm.”


I wrote, earlier this year, about why I hate short term missions trips, and every breath of that still applies. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good organizations doing good work and who we might partner with to expand the benefit. That doesn’t always mean going, bodily. Sometimes it means writing a check. Sometimes it means volunteering online and creating campaigns that raise awareness and create funding. Sometimes it means working locally for something that’s going to be sent overseas.

I’ll come right out and say that orphanage based short term voluntourism should always be avoided. Full stop. The first organization listed below makes it’s entire mission one of cleaning up that mess.

If, however, you are looking for a way to help Syrian refugees, or save the planet, or build communities over the holidays, here are some options that might appeal to you.

Would you like to take a Gap Year and volunteer?

Helping Kids


volunteer- orphan

Next Generation Nepal

Exploitive orphanages are big business in Nepal (and elsewhere!) Next Generation Nepal is an organization working to reverse that. They’re efforts are centered on reuniting families, providing counseling and support to children who have been trafficked and to their families as they rebuild their lives.

Vision
“A Nepal free from the threat of child trafficking and strengthened by thriving agricultural communities populated by generations of children living together with their families in strong, safe communities that provide the care, education and life skills necessary for a productive life in rural Nepal.”

Mission
“Next Generation Nepal prevents the trafficking of children into abusive children’s homes and rebuilds family connections torn apart by traffickers.”

They provide a fantastic list of considerations for anyone considering Ethical Volunteering and they raise the bar for the industry themselves. They’re the only organization I’m aware of that is actively seeking to reverse the damage done by orphanage tourism.


“Think of it as the equivalent of a carbon offset for damage you didn’t realize you were doing at the time.”

I would challenge anyone who’s been a part of short term orphanage tourism to up your game by financially supporting this organization. Think of it as the equivalent of a carbon offset for damage you didn’t realize you were doing at the time.

Before engaging in ANY kind of volunteer project, I highly recommend you read their Ethical Volunteering page, follow the links, ask the questions and apply the self-reflection.

Helping Refugees


volunteer refugee

UNHCR- the UN Refugee Agency



Want to help the refugees of the world, and not just the Syrian ones? Consider donating to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. If you’re a professional with a university degree and some experience, you can also apply to be a UN Volunteer for a one year placement. There are shorter term (3 month) opportunities as well.

The UN volunteers are doing important work in marginalized communities around the world and have been working with displaced people for years.

IRC- International Rescue Committee



“IRC teams provide health care, infrastructure, learning and economic support to people in more than 40 countries, with special programs designed for women and children.

When an emergency arises, the IRC arrives on the scene within 72 hours with urgently needed supplies and expertise that protect people caught in the midst of chaos. We commit to stay as long as we are needed, helping survivors to heal, recover and rebuild their communities to be stronger, more stable and more democratic. In the United States, the IRC has helped hundreds of thousands of refugees thrive in the country that gave them sanctuary and a new beginning.”


“There are opportunities to give, and there are opportunities to volunteer through local offices of IRC all across the USA.”

There are opportunities to give, and there are opportunities to volunteer through local offices of IRC all across the USA. IRC receives very high marks from charity watch groups, over 90 cents of ever dollar donated goes directly to the populations they serve.

Hand in Hand for Syria


Hand in Hand for Syria was the first agency to take aid into Syria. It’s a UK based organization that is facilitated mainly by Syrians or persons of Syrian descent. Because their overhead is covered by other means, every dollar donated goes straight to providing aid for people in need within Syria. If you’re one of the folks who is concerned about the refugee crisis and wants to help they Syrian people stay in Syria, instead of fleeing, this organization does exactly that.

“If you’re one of the folks who is concerned about the refugee crisis and wants to help they Syrian people stay in Syria, instead of fleeing, this organization does exactly that.”

“Our teams on the ground in Syria take emergency aid directly to those living under threat and trying to survive in extreme conditions. Besides saving lives and relieving suffering, we help people to stay in Syria instead of fleeing to another country. We provide food and clothing, water and sanitation, and crucial medical aid in a country whose health service has been shattered when it is most urgently needed.”

Volunteer opportunities include a range of possibilities from donating funds, to knitting or crocheting for Syrians, to the possibility of sending a container of aid.

Help the Planet


volunteer marine biology

Earth Watch Institute


These folks are classy. I’ve got to tell you, I was drawn in by the possibilities they provide to see amazing places and do research while you’re there. You could volunteer, and learn, and travel all at once. That’s a great combination.

Mission Statement
“To engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.

We bring individuals from all walks of life together with world-class scientists to work for the good of the planet.”

I love that.

Opportunities include protecting whooping cranes in Texas, studying butterflies and bees in the himalayas or shark conservation in Belize, among many, many others.

The Great Projects

They started with just one project, to save the orang utans in Borneo. From there, they’ve mushroomed into 35 amazing projects working with wildlife around the world. It’s not inexpensive, but the work you’re doing will matter and a good percentage of the funds remain on the ground with the conservation projects.

“You won’t find any of our projects or tours exploiting the animals or the local area and community, and we won’t work with projects that do not adhere to responsible tourism standards.”

“We work with organisations worldwide to establish high standards in animal welfare and conservation within the responsible tourism sector. The Great Projects believe in using sustainable tourism as a tool to positively impact local communities and at-risk environments to aid the conservation of endangered animals and fragile ecosystems. You won’t find any of our projects or tours exploiting the animals or the local area and community, and we won’t work with projects that do not adhere to responsible tourism standards.”

I was particularly intrigued by their carnivore conservation and research project in Namibia, and the original Great Orang Utan Project in Borneo, I left part of my heart there. They even have volunteer opportunities for families.

Blue Ventures

The local commitment this organization has made is impressive. With projects in Madagascar and Belize, Blue Ventures works with local communities to develop sustainable solutions and alternatives that promote marine conservation at the local level and incentivize continued action and participation.

“Travel to Belize or Madagascar to participate in serious scientific research.”

“We have been recognised six times in the annual Responsible Travel Awards, winning the prestigious ‘Best Volunteering Organisation’ in 2010, and also winning the ‘‘Outstanding Volunteer Project’ in the Global Youth Travel Awards in 2015, the ‘Best Volunteering Organisation’ in the British Youth Travel Awards in 2012 as well as receiving the silver award in 2014.”

Travel to Belize or Madagascar to participate in serious scientific research. Expect two weeks of intensive scientific instruction to qualify you to participate in a useful manner. Survey reefs in Belize, or work to remove invasive lion fish. Travel to Madagascar and survey reefs in the marine preserve.

At home, or abroad


Volunteer Match

This is a service that matches people who want to volunteer with organizations that need help in local communities. You could register in your home town, or plan ahead and look for places to volunteer while you are traveling in the USA.

Habitat for Humanity International


Many of us are aware of the efforts of Habitat for Humanity in our local communities. Did you know they have an arm of the organization that builds houses abroad as well? You can travel with them and build, like my friend Jon does.

Through the Global Village program you can visit one of the dozens of countries, on one of the 42 trips they have planned between now and July 2016. Habitat for Humanity has a long standing and respected position in the volunteer community for ethical and sustainable practices. This is a great organization to partner with if you want to help in ways that will last.

How are you giving back this holiday season, and as you travel? Are there any great organizations you’d like us to be aware of? Tweet us @bootsnall.

To read more about volunteering, check out the following:

Photo credits: Ratchapoln , Janossy Gergely, Abd. Halim Hadi , paul prescott