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Vacationing as a Volunteer

Find the right trip for seeing the world while making a difference in people’s lives.


Watch for warning signs

In 2007, Clemmons received a letter from an angry traveler who was complaining about her experience. The woman, a college student, was looking for “a cheap volunteer program,” which is exactly what she got.

Among her grievances: no running water in the dorms for over a week, no working toilets or showers and promises that weren’t kept — from the placement (she was supposed to work in a hospital but was abruptly placed in a school) to dinners (supposedly covered by the program fee but never provided). She was led to believe that the organization was a nonprofit, then found out it wasn’t.

The volunteer missed several warning signs that this outfit was run more like the Three Stooges than 3M. According to Clemmons, the following actions might save you from similar problems:

• Find out how long an operation has been in existence. “If you cannot find this somewhere on a website, or in printed literature, stay away,” says Clemmons. A new group may be just fine, but it is more likely to be working out the kinks of its program.

• Realize that you may not get “true” answers from the company that you contact. If you can’t find information about the organization in articles or from other sources — if you’re going to Thailand and the local tourist authority has never heard of the group — this should be a clue that the organization is bit, well … mysterious.

• Be aware that an organization isn’t necessarily a nonprofit just because its website has a “.org” address. If working for a nonprofit is important to you, ask to see a 990 Form or an annual report.

Expect good customer service

A voluntourism trip in a third-world country is obviously not the same experience as a therapeutic massage weekend at a world-class spa. But the lack of pampering and plush five-star accommodations is no excuse for poor customer service.

“The idea that ‘roughing it’ during a voluntourism trip means that customer service and hospitality are expendable is a pitfall that numerous nonprofit organizations fall into,” says Clemmons. If an organization dodges your questions or doesn’t respond to phone calls or e-mails in a timely manner, consider it a clear warning sign. “Most organizations are small and understaffed,” adds Cutchins, “but they should still be professional.”

That work ethic applies to you, as well. Take a businesslike approach to the search process and you’ll have a much more gratifying experience.

“International volunteering is like taking on a real job,” says Hindle. “If you approach it any less seriously, there’s a greater chance that you’ll be disappointed.”

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