June 29, 2010

Voluntourism: How to be effective on vacation

When natural disasters strike, like the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, tsunamis in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand and hurricanes in Louisiana and other gulf states, people are often spurred into action. Some open their wallets, and others seek more hands-on ways to help through volunteering and service abroad.

The newest trend in short-term volunteering is being dubbed voluntouring, or voluntourism – a hybrid of vacationing and volunteering that treats do-gooders to a short-term service experience that is combined with sightseeing and exploring the host country.

One of the most popular (and most respected) voluntourism opportunities is Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village. Through the program, volunteers are matched with reconstruction and disaster relief programs around the world. People from every walk of life are encouraged to apply, and Habitat for Humanity allows for plenty of time to manage service work with exploration and cultural learning.

What sets Habitat for Humanity apart from many other volunteer organizations is their ability to use volunteers at all skill levels. They have perfected the art of combining carpenters and electricians with everyday folks in order to make efficient use of time and energy – volunteers working for only one day will have the support that they need to make a difference.

This is something to look out for with other short-term voluntourism vacations. Sometimes, particularly with natural disaster clean-up, there aren’t always jobs for people who do not have first responder or other hands-on experience. It is often medical professionals and contractors who are in high demand right after a disaster has struck. Once the rebuilding begins, volunteers at all levels are needed to aid in the renewal efforts – but at this time (some six to twelve months later), another major event has taken over the news and capture people’s attention.

Voluntourism is also a great opportunity for teens and college students to do something productive with their summer, winter and spring breaks. Encouraging people from a young age to give back to the global community is a great way to create a sense of community responsibility, and still allow these young adults to travel and have fun. There are many voluntourism trips targeted specifically at teens for this very reason.

The best voluntourism opportunities are therefore with reputable organizations with long-term community ties. Here are some of the best voluntourism programs for volunteers:

Global Volunteers has more than 25 years of volunteer vacation experience, including a special relationship with UNICEF. Programs target specific populations, with trips for students, families, solo travelers – even Baby Boomers! Service activities include teaching English, painting and building, even providing health care.

Globe Aware (which was recently featured on CNN) is a non-profit volunteer travel organization that organizes week long trips to places like Nepal, Cuba and Costa Rica. The best part of Globe Aware is that all contributions (re: trip fees) are considered a tax-deductible donation. Globe Aware voluntourist vacations focus on hands-on work like building irrigation systems and housing. They also emphasize team-building and tourist activities that are “off the beaten path”.

WAVA (Work and Volunteer Abroad) is a relatively new organization organizing both voluntourist and paid seasonal work abroad. Based in the United Kingdom, WAVA was founded by a group of dedicated world travelers, and has therefore developed relationships with a number of well-established local community groups and agencies in countries around the world. Rather than host their own programs (like Habitat for Humanity), WAVA works with these community partners to offer a broad range of projects for all types of people.

From this list of programs, you can see how diverse voluntourism can be. It is important to remember that there is a big difference between voluntourism and volunteer jobs abroad. A full-time (or even part-time) volunteer job is a job – you are expected to devote the majority of young time and energy to the project, putting travel and exploration second to the needs of your host organization. Voluntourism combines the two, so that service and travel come together. Of course, this comes at a price, and all of the programs that you see listed here will cost at least $1,000 for one week, not including airfare.

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