Integrating any amount of volunteer time into your next trip requires some research before you leave. But as countless volunteer veterans will tell you, it's worth the planning.
You can live abroad as a volunteer for an extended period of time through programs such as the Peace Corps (www.peacecorps.gov). However, traveling as a short-term volunteer has grown in popularity in recent years as more and more charities, non-profits, NGOs, and even travel agencies expand their programs to include appropriate work for a more casual visitor. In early 2010, even Disney offered a free day at a Disney park in exchange for a day of volunteer work with the HandsOn Network (www.handsonnetwork.org).
Here are some tips to help you find the best voluntourism trip. Pick up a copy of Frommer's 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference for even more inspiration.
1. Establish How Much Time You Can Give
Will volunteering complete a trip you're already taking, or is it the sole purpose of your trip? Are you looking to embark on a year-long journey or are you just curious to learn more about local issues on your next weekend getaway?
Andrew Mersmann, author of Frommer's 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, says, "There is no wrong answer, just your answer." How you volunteer will depend tremendously on how much time you want to give. Local and international organizations are always in need of an extra hand, even if you only have a few hours to spare. Any amount of time you have to give can make a tremendous difference to the right organization. Mersmann asks, "Are you going to entirely turn around poverty in one day? No. But are you going to be helpful when you work at a kitchen for a day at a place that's desperate for help? Is that going to make a difference? Yes, it is."
Deciding how much time you want to give will determine where you should start your search. If you have just a day or so, then your search should start locally through your chosen destination. If you want an entire trip based on volunteering, then your search should start with larger organizations with set trips.
For those interested in a long-term (up to a year) commitment, start at the tip of the iceberg: AmeriCorps (www.americorps.gov), Peace Corps (www.peacecorps.gov) or Visions in Action (www.visionsinaction.org). Christina Droggitis volunteered with the Clinton Foundation (www.clintonfoundation.org) in Tanzania for a year before becoming a full-time staff member. Her best advice? Put yourself in the position to receive information: She spent six months researching her options, making phone calls, talking with staff members and alumni, and writing e-mails before finally deciding on her foundation.
2. Match Your Expertise With a Cause
What skills can you offer? How much do you picture yourself working on your trip?
Consider how you'd like your work to be structured and balanced. The options will range from full-time 9-to-5 work to a few hours a day with lots of time off. Trips through travel agencies and well-established organizations will include days for group sightseeing and leisure activities.
The world's most in-demand volunteers are doctors and nurses, attorneys, certified teachers, scientists, and computer specialists. Volunteers in such professions should begin their search through their professional and trade organizations and volunteer-oriented job boards such as Idealist (www.idealist.org) or VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas; www.vsointernational.org).
Many short-term English-teaching volunteer positions do not require applicants have teaching credentials, while extended placement and paid work will typically require a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language; www.tefl.com) certificate. TEFL courses are available online and around the world, allowing you to receive training while living abroad. Start your search for a certification program with www.teflcertificationabroad.com, one of the many portals via Go Abroad (www.goabroad.com). The TEFL website has extensive paid and unpaid work listings.
However, the majority of volunteer trips are taken by people whose greatest asset is their simple willingness to work in any capacity. Whether you're building houses, reading to a child, or walking dogs from a local shelter, your enthusiasm can be put to good use. The projects you'll be participating in need the sheer manpower to keep the good work going and that's where you -- the worker bee -- come in. "Rarely the mission of the organization is to give out-of-towners a local experience," says Mersmann. There's work to be done, and when you're not there, the job goes unfulfilled. Even if you can only give a few hours, be prepared to work.
3. What Are Your Interests?
Would you rather travel to a specific country/region or work on a specific issue?
Once you've narrowed down your own parameters of how long you can volunteer and how much you want to work, you'll know better what to look for as you start your search in earnest. Mersmann's blog, Change by Doing (www.changebydoing.com), is a fantastic resource on the latest volunteer opportunities around the world -- and a healthy dose of optimism. He's also a firm believer that "the trip chooses you." With seemingly infinite options and opportunities to volunteer around the world, initial research may appear overwhelming, plus the smallest organizations may be impossible to find from abroad. Volunteering could have you helping seniors, adults, children, infants; building houses, wells, gardens, trails; working with animals on land or in the sea; teaching a language, a skill, or a sport. Whatever your interests, someone could use your help.
4. Do Your Research
Here are some volunteer travel resources to get you started.
A small selection of international volunteer organizations: Cross Cultural Solutions (www.crossculturalsolutions.org); EarthWatch (www.earthwatch.org); Global Vision Interational (www.gvi.co.uk and www.gviusa.com); Global Volunteer Network (www.globalvolunteernetwork.org); Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org); Institute for Field Research Exhibitions (www.ifrevolunteers.org); the Miracle Foundation (www.miraclefoundation.org); WWOOF (www.wwoof.org).
4. Budget Wisely
How much can you spend? What is the upper limit of what you're willing to pay?
Like any trip, sometimes the price tag can make a volunteer trip seem out-of-reach. Organized volunteer trips do not come cheap -- the math typically has you spending more a day than you would budget for your destination. The vast majority of volunteer trips are organized through charities, NGOs, and non-profits. This means that the cost of your trip not only pays for included services (room, board, transportation, and the like) but is also a significant monetary contribution to the organization's operating costs. For example, trip costs with Habitat for Humanity help pay for construction materials. If you travel directly with a volunteer organization (as opposed to a travel packager that is including volunteer work on your trip), then consider the cost as a direct charitable contribution. The lower the price tag, the fewer services provided for the volunteer. Note: Airfare is rarely included in the cost.
Ask the organizations you're interested in traveling with how your monetary contribution is distributed -- how much accounts for cost of living, and how much goes toward general operating costs? Any 501(c)3 organization or NGO is required to disclose how funds are distributed, but a private business isn't required to share that type of information. If the organization can't provide you with that information, you might take that as a red flag. Discuss any monetary and labor contributions with your tax preparer, as these can be tax-deductible.
Fly for Good (www.flyforgood.com) has negotiated discounts with dozens of airlines that are available exclusively to traveling volunteers. They claim discounts can reach up to 30 percent.
5. Consider DIY Volunteer Travel to Cut Costs
It typically costs nothing to sign up as a volunteer on your own. A do-it-yourself volunteer trip is certainly easier to organize within your home country or a country where you speak the language. But if you're already planning a trip and you've got your accommodations and itinerary sketched out, a DIY traveler should have little trouble finding a local organization to volunteer with. Before you go, seek out the destination's English-language newspaper online or websites and blogs that discuss local issues -- in other words, start your local education early. When you arrive, everything from the bulletin boards at youth hostels to the concierge desk at a resort can be prime resources for finding local projects. In fact, sometimes all you have to do is find the right town for volunteering and show up
Databases for volunteer projects in English-speaking countries include:
- Corporation for National Community Service (www.serve.gov)
- HandsOn Network (www.handsonnetwork.org)
- Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org).
- Volunteer Development Agency (www.volunteering-ni.org)
- Volunteer Development Scotland (www.vds.org.uk)
- Volunteering England (www.volunteering.org.uk)
- Volunteer Now (www.volunteernow.co.uk)
- WCVA (Wales Council for Voluntary Action; www.wcva.org.uk).
Major cities typically have local volunteer organizations, such as Big Sunday (www.bigsunday.org) and L.A. Works (www.laworks.com) in Los Angeles; New York Cares (www.newyorkcares.org) and NYC Service (www.nycservice.org); Toronto (www.volunteertoronto.ca); London (www.london.gov.uk/get-involved/volunteering); Cape Town (www.capeintern.com); and Volunteering Auckland (www.volunteeringauckland.org.nz).
6. Get Answers to Your Questions
Once you've narrowed down your options, take the time to speak directly with someone at your selected organizations.
When choosing trips to include in Frommer's 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, Mersmann disqualified some options for basic lack of professionalism. He recommends interviewing the organizations on your shortlist. "It's a partnership," between the volunteer and the organization that starts with clear information and communication.
You deserve clarity on how your money is being used and how much you'll be working, but also on everything from what to expect from the room and board to what are the qualifications of the international and local staff. When possible, speak with program alumni and your project leader beforehand to get an on-the-ground perspective of the project, work, and day-to-day life. If a place cannot answer your questions, it doesn't mean it's a bad organization -- perhaps it is simply under-staffed -- but it does mean that your questions will go unanswered.