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.
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:
> What to Read:
- Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, a reference book that profiles over 150 organizations
- O’Donnell’s Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, which guides travelers to an ethical volunteer experience
- The Underground Guide to International Volunteering e-book, by Kirsty Henderson, that includes useful comparisons of free versus paid project placements
- Lonely Planet’s Volunteer: A Traveller’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World
> 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.