A Beginner’s Guide to Voluntourism

Not all volunteerism projects are created equal. But giving back when gallivanting around the globe can be one of the most rewarding experiences a traveler can hope for.

If you’ve been kicking around the idea of joining the growing ranks of travelers volunteering around the world, here are five steps to help get you started.

> What to Ask:

Some volunteer programs are well run. Others are not. “Any program that is created to get money from volunteers, or uses kids, trafficked women, or any vulnerable group as bait for that is irresponsible,” says voluntourism expert Daniela Papi.

Her Learning Service site offers a terrific free e-guide titled A Volunteer’s Charter, which lists nine questions to ask before volunteering.

Questions I often asked included the following: Do local people run the program? Does the program create dependency? How does the community benefit? If you’re paying a program fee, ask how your money will be used (fees for most U.S.-based organizations are tax-deductible).

I also asked to speak with former volunteers: It gave me an insider’s view of everything from the living conditions to the usefulness of the project.

> Where to Look:

Sites like GoOverseas.com and GoAbroad.com offer resources on meaningful travel and let you search for volunteer opportunities around the world using a variety of criteria.

GoVoluntouring.com also includes a search function while Voluntourism.org provides advice on planning a service-oriented trip and profiles of interesting organizations.

Shannon O’Donnell created GrassRootsVolunteering.org to connect travelers to causes and communities. Voluntourism resources can also be found on the website for my memoir, The Voluntourist.

> What to Read:

> What You Should Receive:

Good volunteer organizations will send you a skills questionnaire and help you determine the best placement for your abilities.

Before I was green-lit to work with children, I had to undergo background checks and provide character references.

If organizations don’t take steps like these, or seem more interested in your credit card than in protecting you or the community they’re claiming to serve, consider it a warning sign.

> How to Be an Effective Volunteer:

When I assisted on a climate change project in Ecuador, one of the scientists complained about four previous volunteers who routinely overslept, which interfered with research work.

My advice: Treat volunteering with the same seriousness with which you’d treat a job. If you’re volunteering overseas, study the country and the culture before you go. Once you’re working, be humble, be gracious, work hard, do what you’re asked, and remember that you’re a guest.

If you think of yourself more like an intern who’s doing small but often necessary grunt work, and who’s learning something in the process, you’ll be on the right track.

Keep in mind that you will not change the world as a short-term volunteer and that you will likely benefit more than your hosts. But also know that the interactions that occur, and the friendships that are formed, can change how people—both you and your hosts—see each other and the world.

Ken Budd is the author of the award-winning memoir The Voluntourist—A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. Follow Ken on Twitter @Ken_Budd.

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  1. Nancy L
    March 29, 2015, 3:32 am

    I love to travel and I also plan to establish a volunteer work
    so, I have many experience in voluntary work overseas.
    I totally agree with Mandy Smitt, it is not complicated what is takes to be a good volunteer is essentially the same as a good person.

    Thank you Many.

  2. Billgreen54
    Mykolaiv Ukraine
    February 26, 2015, 9:13 am

    Great article. Teaching English is a great way to travel the world and meet new people. Sharing life with other cultures is priceless. http://www.larisaschooloflanguage.net/Co-Working-Project-2015.php

  3. Kristin
    February 13, 2015, 5:52 am

    Another good resource for animal-lovers is right-tourism.com. There are many voluntourism opportunities where you pay to “help socialize animals” but you’re really just exploiting them. Watch out for almost anything with lions or elephants, and check with right-tourism before you go!

  4. Oliver Ehkers
    February 12, 2015, 12:18 pm

    Great article, I recommend going with a NonProfit
    check https://www.abroaderview.org

  5. Mandi Schmitt
    United States
    February 12, 2015, 12:12 pm

    With all of the heavy, controversial literature surrounding this topic these days, it’s refreshing to read this light, succinct, straightforward guide. It really shouldn’t be that convoluted – what it takes to be a good volunteer is essentially the same as being a good person. I love the acknowledgement that with the way the industry exists today, short term vols won’t change the world and will likely benefit more than their hosts. However, there is still worth in people volunteering anyway, as long as they have that knowledge. Thanks for making it sound so clear!

  6. Minne J.
    February 12, 2015, 7:34 am

    nice read! I am planning 3 months volunteering opportunity in India, any help. Here is what I look forward to but this is not so comprehensive


  7. Brooke Vlasich
    February 11, 2015, 9:03 pm

    Great advice and things to keep in mind when looking into voluntourism. It’s a good idea to keep in mind what you want to get out of it and how you can use your skills to provide the best for the organization.