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Working Vacations and Voluntravel: An Ultimate Guide

Working Vacations and Voluntravel: An Ultimate Guide

Have you ever envisioned yourself traveling abroad and volunteering while there? You’re not alone. Studies conducted by Marriott Rewards Credit Card from Chase and Avios indicate that the vast majority of people (84% and 63% of respondents, respectively) are interested in traveling abroad where volunteering is a major component of the trip.

This is often referred to as voluntravel or voluntourism, and it can have tremendous benefits for both the place you volunteer and yourself. However, there’s much more to successful voluntravel than planning a typical trip abroad.

man wearing a volunteer shirt taking a photo

What is voluntravel?

Voluntravel can be defined as volunteering your time, services, skills, and/or energy to communities and causes around the world while also getting to travel and experience new places. It’s important to think of it in that order: volunteering comes first, while travel comes second.

In principle, voluntravel sounds like a wholly good thing. After all, what could possibly be bad about helping people while also traveling? However, not all volunteer organizations are created equal. All too often – particularly in developing countries, where the vast majority of volunteer opportunities are – volunteers come in and begin to implement decidedly Western ideals and change the ways communities operate. This is usually (but not always!) well-intentioned, under the misguided perception that it’s somehow better for community members, but it truthfully does more harm than good. An ideal voluntravel situation would involve volunteers working alongside locals to help achieve a common goal.

Shannon O’Donnell, the writer behind travel blog “A Little Adrift,” explains it perfectly: “One of the hardest things for new, eager volunteers to understand is that not all organizations—even nonprofits—are doing good, necessary work that ethically develops the communities and ecosystems where we volunteer our time. For that reason, take a step back from the planning and instead learn more about core problems facing development projects when they bring in Western volunteers and ideas.” As you begin to flesh out your voluntravel experience, ask yourself if the volunteer work you’ll be doing will have a true impact and – more importantly – will that impact be positive?

What should I know before getting involved?

The biggest thing to know before committing to any particular voluntravel program is that expectations, unfortunately, often do not align with reality. TV shows and well-curated social media feeds can easily lead you to believe that you’ll be snuggling cute babies, feeding animals, or even tagging along with marine biologists as they track endangered sea turtles. In reality, most voluntravel opportunities involve much harder work and in some cases, much more mundane work. For example, many organizations need help cleaning and maintaining their facilities, getting their administrative systems organized, or basic office assistance.

A great place to start may be in your own local community, so you can get a feel for what typical volunteer opportunities in a particular field may involve. Consider not only what interests you, but what skills or experience you have that could be an asset to a volunteer organization in some way. Do you have medical or veterinary training, teaching experience, or speak another language? Another benefit of beginning by volunteering locally is that many U.S.- and Canadian-based organizations have partner organizations abroad, so it’s a great way to learn more about a particular initiative or get a referral for a voluntravel opportunity.

volunteers cleaning up a beach

One other important thing to know about voluntravel is that in many cases, volunteers are required to pay a fee or do fundraising as part of their experience. Organizations need funding for things like providing lodging, food, tools, and other resources that may be necessary for volunteers to properly and safely do their work while traveling. While fee- or fundraising-based programs are certainly legitimate, you should do plenty of research and know exactly where your money is going.

Finally, make sure you know ahead of time what’s expected of you in terms of both time and financial commitments, as well as what – if anything – you’ll be provided. It’s generally understood that you won’t be compensated for your time, but you’ll likely be provided lodging, and some meals may be included. Voluntravel program requirements vary tremendously and some may only require a one-time fee plus a few hours a day, twice a week, while others may require a full-time commitment over the course of several weeks or even months, alongside ongoing fundraising. If you don’t have much time to volunteer or just want to get your feet wet with your first voluntravel experience, consider looking into event volunteering, where you may volunteer your time for a one-time event such as a charity race or concert.

volunteers cleaning up local community

Why should I volunteer while I travel?

There are a number of tremendous benefits to voluntravel, including helping others and making a direct global impact, broadening your understanding of the world, challenging yourself and growing personally as a result, honing or developing skills, and much more. It’s important to note, however, that the goal of voluntravel is to help the organization, not just check a destination off your travel bucket list. There are some sacrifices involved with voluntravel and if your heart isn’t in it for the right reasons, neither you nor the organization you volunteer with will reap the many benefits.

volunteering in a greenhouse

If you’ve been considering signing up to voluntravel, now is truly the time. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented need for worldwide assistance, while at the same time there are substantially fewer volunteers available because of travel concerns and restrictions. It’s not just the healthcare sector that needs volunteers – although it does, but just about every industry is in desperate need of volunteers now, from education to agriculture and everything in between.

How to find voluntravel opportunities

Once you’ve decided that voluntravel is for you, begin by reaching out to your personal network. Many college alumni associations and churches have extensive volunteer resources, so your own circle is a great place to start. From there, research voluntravel opportunities online. GO Overseas, VolunteerMatch, GoEco, Idealist, and Catchafire all allow you to filter opportunities based on location, skill sets, and causes. It’s also an excellent idea to see if any of the organizations you’re interested in have groups for alumni, who would be the best resource for just about all of your questions.Regardless of where or when you ultimately decide to voluntravel, it will change both you and the world around you – for the better. While most programs will provide you lodging, if you find yourself traveling independently, be sure to check out Coast Hotels’ nearly 40 locations and No Place Like Coast blog for travel resources. Good luck and safe travels!