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Vacationing as a Volunteer

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

En español | Teaching a classroom of children in Nepal, caring for cheetahs in Namibia or studying sea turtles along Sri Lanka’s shores — exotic opportunities like these have made volunteering part of the growth industry in the travel biz. But the key to a good work experience is not the work you do on your trip. It’s the work you do before you ever leave home.

Just as a smart shopper researches sports cars before buying that new Ferrari (or a used Volkswagen, in my case), you’ll need to sort through the roughly 150 organizations offering trips under the new industry buzz called voluntourism to find the group that’s perfect for you.

Listen to Ken Budd talk about volunteer vacations with Alyne Ellis from Prime Time Focus.

To help make that ideal match, follow this seven-step plan.

Ask the right questions

Selecting an organization is a bit like getting married: There are plenty of possible partners; the hard part is finding Mr. or Mrs. Right. To narrow the often-overwhelming options, start with these three essential questions:

  • What kind of work do you want to do?
  • Where do you want to do it?
  •  How long do you want to stay?

Keep the questions coming. Think about living conditions: Are you OK sharing a closet-sized room with three college students or do you need your own space? How much are you willing to pay for your trip? Do you want to use your professional skills or do something entirely different? Are you hoping to spend eight hours a day working or are you more interested in lounging on the beach?

These questions may seem obvious, but travelers often don’t think about them until they’re already in a foreign land, grousing about the living conditions or the work assignment.

Become a snoop

On a travel site called, a blog about voluntourism led to this cynical post from a reader: “If you pay to volunteer, you are a total sucker.”

Snide as that may be, there is something odd about paying to perform free labor (it’s kind of like winning at blackjack and then paying the dealer). But there’s a reason why most groups charge “program fees,” as they’re called. These fees typically cover not only the basics of your trip — lodging, food, security, local transportation — but also help pay the group’s basic operational expenses. To find out how your money is being spent, ask the organization for a breakdown or check its website: Most explain how the program fees are used.

Don’t stop your detective work there. To get a more intimate view of a potential assignment — the living conditions, the food, the work projects — contact previous volunteers. “Talk to as many as possible,” says Charlotte Hindle, co-author of Lonely Planet’s Volunteer: A Traveler’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World. “This is the one of the surest ways of finding out about an organization.”

Obviously, the organization will put you in touch with people who had a positive experience, so if you want an unfiltered opinion, search for blogs that might be commenting on a particular organization, or check travel review sites or — these commentary and community sites let you post questions and take advantage of other travelers’ expertise.

Gauge a group’s interest in you

When my wife and I volunteered in Costa Rica in 2006, we didn’t find out we’d be teaching English until a few days before we left home. Had we known further in advance, we could have brushed up on our teaching skills (which were nonexistent), talked with ESL teachers and developed some tentative lesson plans.

“It is really important that you volunteer with an organization that wants to spend time with you, working with you on finding the right placement,” says Hindle. “I, personally, would never volunteer with an organization that tries to tee you up quickly with a placement online or over the phone and one that doesn’t spend proper time understanding your skills and how they can best be used.”

An on-the-ball organization, says Hindle, will send you a skills audit or questionnaire before matching you to a placement. You should also ask for a job description.

Find out the group’s impact on the community

One of the big questions with any voluntourism trip is whether the work you’re doing actually benefits the people it’s intended to help.

Christina Heyniger, founder of Zola Consulting, a company that focuses on the adventure travel industry, says there are ways to see how committed the organization is to the local community. Do the group’s leaders speak the local language? Is the local community engaged in the projects (are they contributing time or money)? Is the voluntourism group creating dependency or are they building a self-sustaining program?

Equally important is why the project was started. Heyniger writes on her website: “Did the operator simply cruise through the village one day and say, ‘Hey! Looks like these people need more tennis shoes, windbreakers, and blankets — I’m going to bring some of that through on my next tour!’ Or did they take a collaborative approach, and

work with local people to ask them what they need and then determine whether and how they might be able to support those needs?”

Don’t overlook small organizations

With so many volunteer groups to choose from, the appeal of bigger, more-established (and pricier) organizations such as Cross-Cultural Solutions, i-to-i, Earthwatch or Global Volunteers is easy to understand. They’re safe. “They do what they do really well, and they’ve got it down pat,” says Doug Cutchins, co-author of Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others.

But sometimes the more rewarding experiences come from smaller, lesser-known groups, says David L. Clemmons, who offers expert advice on his site, Clemmons points to organizations such as Conservation VIP, Conscious Journeys, Go Differently, North By North East and Voluntourists Without Borders, which typically work in no more than a handful of countries.

“You’ll likely be traveling with the founder of the trip,” says Clemmons. “You get to hear the stories of what it has been like to put it all together — the heartaches, the triumphs, the mistakes, the brilliant ideas. It’s like riding with Henry Ford in the first car he built. What could be more exciting?”

Your dollars also have a bigger impact with a small group, says Clemmons, since the organization has fewer overhead expenses, and the volunteers tend to be more adventurous and travel savvy. “They did some serious due diligence to come across one of these organizations, or it was a word-of-mouth referral from the creator,” says Clemmons. “There’s a positive attitude. You probably won’t hear something like, ‘Well, this wasn’t in the literature about this trip.’ ”

That’s the upside. How can you make sure a small organization is equipped to follow through on its promises?

Step one: look for nonprofits, says Clemmons. Most nonprofits will have to be registered with a governing body — the Internal Revenue Service, for example — and other countries have similar entities. You can also check up on them at sites like or

If you’re considering a small for-profit organization or a tour operator, Clemmons suggests contacting tourism authorities or the governing bodies that represent those groups – the United States Tour Operators AssociationAsia Transpacific Journeys and so forth — to see if they have information on the company. Have there been any complaints? Any reports of impropriety?

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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