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Volunteer Vacations: How to Be Sure You're Helping

Due diligence is essential to ensure that your money — and hard work — truly benefit people

By Donna L. Hull | July 13, 2012

The prospect of combining a trip to an exotic destination with the chance to give back is not only appealing to many of us, but it’s also one of the travel industry’s hottest trends. Dubbed “voluntourism,” the movement has been growing over the past decade, and today everyone — from gap-year students to retirees — is getting in on the act. Volunteer opportunities range from monitoring whale-shark and manta-ray activity in Mozambique to assisting on a sustainable farming program in Peru’s Manu National Park to working with people with HIV and AIDS in Soweto.

While the opportunities are extraordinary, the “catch” is that you have to pay to play. Your cost will include your airfare, accommodations, meals and possibly the tools or equipment necessary to complete your job. Depending on the project, you may be working alone or with a group of other like-minded travelers, typically for two to four weeks.

We’d like to think that every one of these travel providers, and their locals partners, is actually funneling the money to the people and that the projects are both viable and helpful to the community. But the sad truth is that while many — and possibly most — are legitimate, not all of them are.

So before you lace your hiking boots or get inoculated, you need to know what questions to ask, and of whom, to help you separate the help from the hype and make sure your do-gooder efforts will, in fact, do some good.

Why am I going?

The first thing to understand is the difference between a volunteer vacation and volunteer travel. Many for-profit tour operators offer trips with an element of volunteering (“vacation”). Usually pricey programs, these tours provide upscale accommodations and a day or two of participation on a volunteer project with the rest of the time allocated to seeing the country. Although this gives a glimpse of a destination that travelers don’t normally experience, the amount of service you actually provide is questionable.

True “voluntourism” experiences, on the other hand, embed volunteers in the community and put them to work on projects that benefit the area in a meaningful way. At the same time, the project, usually organized by professional travel outfits in conjunction with local grassroots or nonprofit organizations, will do no harm, either economically or environmentally.

When retired Virginia educators Eileen and Larry Kugler, 63, first considered becoming voluntourists, they knew they wanted to do something that would have a long-lasting positive impact. Through online research, she found a volunteer travel organizer, People and Places (http://www.travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk), and arranged a three-week trip to a rural township in South Africa. Each day the Kuglers, who lived and ate with a local host family, would walk along a dusty road, accompanied by neighborhood children, to the A. V. Bukani Primary School to offer teaching and technical support to the staff.

“Our primary purpose was to contribute to sustainable change,” says Eileen Kugler, 61. “If you want to just see new places, go on a tour and do a bit of volunteering while you are there. But if you want to make a significant difference, go with a company that is committed to that goal.” Another thing to consider is the longevity, or continuity, of the project. Ideally your contribution should build upon the efforts of previous volunteers, to improve the chances of progress and lasting success.

Since their initial 2008 visit, the Kuglers have returned twice to volunteer at A.V. Bukani Primary School, which they have documented in. They grew close to a number of people in the township, which inspired the couple to spearhead a U.S.-based fundraising effort to build and stock a library for the school. The Kuglers' fourth trip to South Africa is already in the works.

Am I helping or hurting?

You want to be certain your presence doesn’t strain a community’s resources. When choosing a volunteer program, make sure your fee directly benefits local lodgings, restaurants and businesses. A question that few think to ask, but should, is whether the volunteer service that you’re providing for free is putting a local person out of work.

The most beneficial volunteer opportunities are ones in which the local community has a say in selecting a project that meets its needs. If you’re on a construction project, inquire whether the community deems it important. Blogger Alexis Nestora writes about a situation run amok in Kenya, where a 500-person village was the recipient of not one but two schools they neither wanted nor needed.

You can check out potential programs online by browsing volunteer forums. Two reliable sites are Irresponsible Tourism, which is where members blow the whistle on dubious outfits, and Voluntales, where volunteers blog about recent experiences. Remember to read all reviews with a critical eye, as some people might have an axe to grind or are personally invested in a project and thus not objective.
Which program is right for me? Which one am I right for?

You'll want to make sure in advance that trip is a good fit for your personality, comfort level and qualifications. It’s also essential to determine whether your skill set is appropriate for a project and to insure that your role is well defined before arriving. By the same token, you want to make sure that you're working with a reputable organization. Check out the tour operator’s credentials at third-party sites like Responsible Tourism Partnership and Volunteer International.

Ask the tour operator about long-term plans for the project and if you can speak with local partners about what they're actually doing. A good tactic to assess the credibility of an organization is to get the contact info for previous volunteer participants and debrief them on their experiences. And it’s fair game to ask what percentage of funds go directly to the project versus “administrative costs.”

How should I prepare?

Be proactive about communication with the tour company, including receiving detailed information on your living arrangements. If you’re traveling in a group, ask about your companions. If possible, arrange to have direct communication with the local provider before arriving on-site to avoid any unrealistic expectations on everyone’s part.

Travel insurance is always a good idea, but read the policy. Many insurance companies specifically exclude volunteer work. And of course, do the same research you’d do before any trip (local communication options, weather conditions, what to do in an emergency, etc.).

What should I expect when I arrive?

Volunteers, especially in an international situation, are entitled to expect 24/7 support from the local partner, including being met at the airport, escorted to the project site and being part of weekly follow-ups that check on how the experience is going.

Done right, voluntourism benefits the giver and the receiver and enriches lives. The volunteer traveler comes away with knowledge of a new culture and, if you’re lucky, the desire to return again, like the Kuglers.

Donna L. Hull writes about active travel for baby boomers at My Itchy Travel Feet, The Baby Boomer's Guide to Travel.

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