Finding A Volunteer Trip

Photo credit:  Jeff Lipsky

Photo credit: Jeff Lipsky

June 10, 2009

As travelers of all ages seek opportunities for truly unique, personal, travel experiences the popularity of volunteer tourism continues to grow.  In the past, volunteer travel typically meant a significant investment of time - generally requiring people to spend several weeks or months supporting a project.  Now there are a multitude of options for people interested in mixing smaller doses of volunteering in with their holiday travel.

The question for many would-be “voluntourists” becomes, “how can I find a good volunteer travel program?”

Xola Consulting has spent the past two years working with a range of organizations providing blended adventure/volunteer experiences to travelers as well as talking with so-called “voluntourists” from age 20 to 72, and here’s how we break it down.

Guidelines for Scouting the Trip of a Lifetime

Given the range of options available, scouting your ideal trip will involve a fair bit of Internet searching. A couple suggestions:

Step 1:   Assess Your Interests
Before you go crazy on Google, honestly assess your interests: do you want to spend more time volunteering, or more time touring?  Specify whether you want volunteer activities to comprise the main dish, so to speak, or the seasoning of your holiday meal.

Do you want to spend most of your time lounging on the beach and maybe a couple afternoons volunteering? Or are you looking for a more intensive volunteer experience, where the majority of your time is spent working, albeit in a foreign land?

This first decision will be crucial to how you conduct your search and how you select a program.

Step 2:   Start Your Search
Ok, now the searching can begin. Most people start with an online search, and we still think this is an excellent way to size up the vast universe of opportunities out there.

Two approaches to searching through the options:

Emphasis on Vacation
If you answered the first question with the decision that you want more holiday with a little volunteering thrown in, you can start your search by simply identifying trips that interest you - whether you’re searching by location or sport/activity.

Then, from your short listed set of trips and tour operators that interest you, contact tour operators and ask whether they have any volunteer opportunities available on their trips.  This may sound crazy, but many times good adventure tour operators, have volunteer options - however, if it’s not their primary focus they may not be advertising them.

Some suggested resources:
Recommendations for blended adventure/volunteer organizations can be found at Off the Radar,  a monthly newsletter dedicated to supporting excellent entrepreneurial adventure travel operators committed to communities and the environment.

Companies with volunteer service trips are also frequently reviewed by Voluntourism International a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and disseminating information about volunteer travel in their Voluntourist newsletter and on their website in the section dedicated to Worldwide Options.

Emphasis on Volunteer Work
If you decide that you want volunteering to be a primary focus of the trip, get ready for a deluge of information.  For example when you google “volunteer tourism,” there will be more than 2 million results.

Get more specific about your interests and search “volunteer travel and africa” for example, and you’ll still find nearly as many results - tour companies, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions with programs.

Some places we like to start for the more volunteer-focused traveler:
Transitions Abroad
magazine dedicated to volunteering and working abroad. Their website is also a wonderful resource.
Idealist.org with its vast and growing database of over 61,000 nonprofit and community organizations in 165 countries, is another excellent resource.
Peter Greenberg’s travel site also has a good section on Voluntourism with links to some of the larger, global organizations such as Airline Ambassadors, Globe Aware and i-to-i.
Great ideas and information can also be found from our trusted friends at Lonely Planet - they published a new title in June 2007 called Volunteer and also have plans for a new microsite.
"Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others" by Bill McMillon is another good resource.