Voluntourism is the practice of volunteering in a place you also want to see for pleasure. It’s a fantastic way to travel—if you do it right.
With two service years, numerous disaster relief deployments, and several work exchanges under my belt, I’m something of a professional volunteer. Here are my rules for responsible voluntourism:
Make sure you’re not taking somebody’s job by providing free labor
We’ve all heard the stories: well-meaning volunteers who’ve never held a hammer in their life spend thousands on a flight to Africa to build a school for “free,” while local craftsmen sit around unemployed. If there’s nobody around who can do the labor, or there’s truly no other way the organization could afford the service you’re providing, then jump right in. Disaster relief is a great example of a volunteer opportunity that usually (but not always) provides vital service without stealing necessary jobs.
Try to do things you have a knack for
I worked for an organization in West Virginia whose entire purpose was to repair shoddy volunteer-built homes put up by another (very famous) non-profit organization. I think we can agree that’s not a good thing.
We all have gifts that others can benefit from. Why not share what we’re best at?
Be humble, and you’ll get more than you give
The mark of a good service arrangement, as in any other transaction, is that both parties give and receive in return. It’s almost a miracle—in an ideal arrangement, where humility and respect are involved, both parties feel like they’ve received far more than they’ve paid into the transaction. For example: I helped found a nonprofit soft-goods startup that employed refugees in the inner city as an AmeriCorps volunteer. I was paid just enough to live, so it didn’t cost me anything but my time. On the surface, it might look like I sacrificed a year of my life to fight the good fight on behalf of some poor victim class. That’s not at all what happened. I did help give people meaningful employment, yes—and in the process, these extraordinary people taught me gratitude, humility, and down-and-dirty business sense while feeding me a whole lot of yak cheese; all priceless experiences. Except the Yak cheese. Definitely would not pay for that.
Don’t PAY to volunteer!
If you’re really concerned about doing good for people while stretching your own budget, paying high transport or lodging costs to go somewhere and work for free doesn’t make much sense. You’re better off staying home and wiring your money to a trusted organization who’ll use it more efficiently. Start close to home
The best place to find an extraordinary, off-beat service experience is in your back yard. You’d be amazed how much service work is being done right under your nose if you take the time to look. I wish I’d learned this lesson a lot sooner. I love the example of Kate Mante, who at age 50, spent a year traveling her native New Jersey volunteering at a new organization each week. It was a unique and impactful experience for her, and I’ll bet it cost a lot less and did more good than a week-long trip to Kenya.
Don’t stress about saving the world Because you can’t. Don’t stress about finding absolutely perfect organizations either. Those don’t exist, because every organization is made up of people—and none of us are perfect. So don’t worry too much. Do a little homework, put in the effort to care about results, and get out there. Service of others is the best road I know to an adventurous life. It’s also the most satisfying. If you’re a hard worker with a good heart, there are adventures waiting for you just about everywhere.