Volunteering for a Day While on Vacation: Eight Ways to Find Opportunities
Volunteering is good for the heart and soul—and your travel karma. Weaving some service into your vacation time not only benefits the communities you serve, but the act of volunteering has also been shown to alleviate stress and increase happiness by those who give. In other words, it actually amplifies two of the benefits of vacationing. While you may not be able to devote all your precious holiday time, you can still give back. One day, or even just a few hours, can still make an impact. “One-day volunteer opportunities are becoming more popular, in particular, with our millennial travelers who have limited vacation time,” says Don Capparella of Quality Travel Solutions, a travel agency that designs socially conscious trips. The experience, however, crosses generations, resulting in a rare intimacy with a destination that you can't get by robotically ticking off the must-see sights. Here are some ways you can find short volunteer opportunities for your next vacation, no matter where you go.
Before Googling yourself into a rabbit hole of volunteer ideas, consider talking with a human skilled at steering you in the right direction. And by right, we mean matching you with organizations in your destination that legitimately need the skills you can offer for a day. Tourism Cares, an organization with a mission to elevate the travel industry’s positive social and environmental impact, has compiled a list of Good Travels Advisors, who are trained specialists capable of proposing and arranging ethically responsible, one-day opportunities.
Another option is to work with a vacation company such as Quality Travel Solutions or Travel to Do Good, both of which design unique itineraries that weave volunteering with leisure activities. The latter recently brought a small group of reggae musicians to a school in Jamaica to jam with the kids and donate drums to their music program (pictured). “If designed mindfully, volunteer projects can have real positive impact on local communities,” says Roselyn Parker of Travel to Do Good. “While everyone has good intentions, it is not about the volunteer. The needs of the organization should be first and foremost.”
For the DIY planner, it’s possible to build an entire vacation around a one-day volunteer opportunity listed on Give A Day Global. The volunteer-run organization was founded in 2012 by do-gooder travel industry pros who were frustrated by the lengthy minimum time commitments required by many nonprofits. The site harnesses one-day opportunities in travel destinations around the globe, and each experience has been vetted by the organization: wildlife conservation, community health and nutrition, education, economic empowerment and environmental sustainability, and others. The website features everything from sea turtle care and animal rescue (pictured) in Costa Rica to leading language lessons in Cambodia. “While most travel guides don’t [list] nonprofit organizations that are devoting themselves to solving community problems, meeting these local heroes can be one of the most inspiring experiences you can have,” says co-founder Kerry Rodgers.
GivingWay is another place to find a diverse collection of one-day volunteer programs around the world. “Most nonprofit organizations seeking foreign volunteers are located in developing countries and have little online presence, making it hard for prospective volunteers to find and connect with them,” says founder Orit Strauss Raz. Her platform bridges that gap. It allows local nonprofits in need to connect directly with travelers. You can search by destination, causes, activities, and duration of the requirement. (And yes, you can search single-day opportunities.)
Volunteer positions on GivingWay are also scrutinized to prevent scammers from tugging at traveler heartstrings and purse strings: each nonprofit must be legally registered in its local country; it must be run by the local community; and it cannot run, manage, or send volunteers to an orphanage (a popular scam tactic in volunteer travel). You can find one-day opportunities like working at a family-run organic farm in Hungary; teaching kids English at a rural school in India; and assisting staff at a rescue elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka (pictured). ”Volunteering abroad has become somewhat of a rich man’s privilege because of high fees often attached,” says Strauss Raz of the proliferation of costly voluntourism trips. “We believe volunteering abroad should be freely accessible and that it should be real value to all involved.”
For DIYers traveling in the U.S., One Brick and VolunteerMatch are good places to start in the search for one-day volunteer opportunities. Both feature nonprofits in major U.S. cities in locations including senior citizen homes, soup kitchens, community gardens (pictured), and rescue shelters. With One Brick, there is a calendar for each city that highlights upcoming chances—a convenient way to determine if any align with your travel plans. With VolunteerMatch, you’ll find a list of participating groups within each city—a convenient way to identify causes about which you’re already passionate. You can then reach out to these nonprofits directly to determine how you can be of service for the time you have.
You could also stay at a hotel with heart. It’s worth reaching out to your lodging to see what service you can offer to help the local community. Most hotel concierges have deep understanding of their destination and would happily help you arrange something. Some take it one step further: A growing number of hotels and resorts offer guests programmed opportunities that you can book in advance of your visit.
For instance, Hyatt Ziva and Zilara Rose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica, adopted a local school, and the hotel’s involvement has helped to build a new soccer field and garden. Its sister resorts invite guests to donate time to help maintain the upkeep of these facilities and participate in hands-on activities at the school. At Red Mountain Resort in Utah, you can walk a dog from a local no-kill shelter through the nearby canyons—a unique combination of play and do-goodery that gives you a great reason to explore the area’s unique natural appeal. At Grace Bay Resort in Turks & Caicos, guests can request a curated experience with one of the several local schools that the resort’s foundation assists (pictured). “We’ve had a family on vacation who wanted to teach their daughters the importance of giving back, and leaving something behind everywhere they visit,” says Johnna Messam, Director of Grace Bay Resorts Foundation. “Since the daughters were of school age and a new school year was about to begin, we took the family to a supply store and they purchased hundreds of books, backpacks, pens, stationery, and anything that could save [local] parents some money.”
Airbnb isn’t just for booking that yurt or treehouse. Check out Airbnb Experiences to uncover its collection of one-day volunteering ideas. It lists a variety of “social impact experiences” in destinations around the world. Registered nonprofits and NGOs can post cause-aligned experiences within this portal, and 100% of the proceeds go directly to the nonprofit hosting the day. “Millions have been generated for nonprofits to date,” says Aoife McArdle, director of the company’s Business Affairs and Social Impact Experiences. “We’ve seen this shared human connection transform guests well beyond the experience and result in long-term donors, volunteers, and ambassadors.” The best way to uncover these opportunities via Airbnb Experiences is to search for keywords like “volunteering” and your travel destination. Among the many types of activities that will pop up: a two-hour plastic-picking canal excursion in Amsterdam (pictured); hiking Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles with rescue dogs; cleaning the remote beaches of Oahu; and assisting with ongoing storm recovery efforts in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.
Which causes are meaningful to you? Donating a day of your vacation time to a cause you’re already passionate about makes the volunteering feel less like…well, work. Email your favorite nonprofit or touch base with your religious organization for leads. Let people know that your heart and hands are ready to serve while on your next trip, and the opportunity may find you. Whether it’s animals, the environment, social advocacy, healthcare, or education, there’s no shortage of organizations looking for free help—and financial donations. “Travelers usually have the greatest impact when giving goes hand-in-hand with serving,” says Kerry Rogers of Give A Day Global. “Some nonprofits actually require that one day volunteers make a minimum donation.” Rogers recommends crowdfunding as a powerful way to raise dollars ahead of a trip on which you intend to volunteer with an organization for a day.
Don’t discount spontaneous Good Samaritan service that presents itself once you start traveling. It could be as easy as carrying a trash bag while on that long walk on the beach to collect litter along the way. The popular #trashtag challenge is inspiring many to do just that. The challenge involves taking before-and-after photos of places that you clean up and posting them to social media. While this growing movement has inspired environmental awareness and a surge in eco-friendly tidying, be sure to keep the true spirit of volunteering in mind: It’s not about capturing an Instagram-able moment portraying you as the Mother Teresa of holiday giving (e.g. the satire account Barbie Savior). It’s about positively impacting places you go—partly in thanks for the way they impact you.