Are you looking to impact local communities in positive, long-term ways through responsible travel? If so, that’s a worthy goal, and one we stand behind. But here’s the thing. Over the past decade, volunteer travel programs have grown exponentially. Voluntourism is now a multimillion-dollar business, and for every sustainable program, there’s one that does more harm than good.
Exacerbating the problem is the increasingly fragmented nature of the volunteer abroad segment. Today, thousands of organizations and projects offer volunteering opportunities, which makes distinguishing the good from the bad increasingly tricky. That said, there are still positive ways to impact the world. But you have to know what to look for.
With that in mind, let’s examine travel that benefits everyone involved so that you can find the right experience for your family.
People enter volunteer abroad programs with good intentions. Many fail, however, to have realistic expectations when it comes to what they can achieve, especially in a limited period of time. What’s more, many travelers who want to volunteer are not well-versed in the nuances of international aid and development, and that’s okay. What’s not okay, though? The fact that many volunteer travel organizations also have poor grasps of these crucial topics.
According to Daniela Pipa, “I think that a lot of volunteer travel right now is offering really short-term solutions for complex problems. And yet we’re really disappointed when we’re not getting long-term development results… We’re not only failing the [volunteers] that we’re sending abroad and the communities they aim to be serving, but we’re also harming our collective futures. Because if the next generation doesn’t have the tools that we need for sustainable development in the future, we’re in trouble.”
The solution? There’s no simple answer when it comes to “fixing” what some argue is a broken voluntourism model. But a new approach to how travelers engage with the world, an approach based on the concept of educational travel, is a start. When you choose a learning approach to travel, you avoid many of the mistakes involved with voluntourism. Putting learning before serving allows you to contribute to long-term outcomes and participate in ethical travel.
Despite the many problems currently associated with voluntourism, some organizations are promoting nuanced, thoughtful work. They foster a realistic and honest approach that focuses on long-term transformation rather than instant change. As a volunteer, it’s essential to remain informed and aware of the current voluntourism travel debate. That way, you can make informed decisions to work with the companies best equipped to effect real change.
When it comes to pitfalls associated with voluntourism programs, lack of organization and communication rank near the top. How to avoid these problems? Know what to ask for and look for in a great program. Search out programs that work with on-the-ground organizations. They should also have well-trained staff members who source and manage their projects. Yes, you’ll pay more for this level of organization. But it’s well worth it to know that you’re part of a meaningful, long-term solution.
The organization that you work with should spend time getting to know you and your family. Have a conversation with them about your expectations before booking. That way, you’ll be on the same page when it comes to managing and realizing realistic goals. When you follow this approach, it’ll ensure you have a meaningful experience.
Choosing the right travel company to help you make a positive impact in the world starts with finding sustainable programs. A company should be able to articulate how it fosters critical benefits, growth, and exchanges. Ask them how a given project fulfills specific needs for communities in the destination. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be in a much better place to choose the right travel company for your volunteering goals.
Jessica Festa has developed an acronym to help you find volunteer travel opportunities that yield positive results: SMARTER. It stands for:
How does the acronym work? Festa suggests beginning with highly specific keyword searches. After all, vague searches such as “volunteer projects overseas” will be dominated by companies able to pay their way to the top of Google search engines. But reputable companies don’t work that way. They put their money into local communities rather than Google Ads. How should you search for optimal results? Get specific with the location you’d like to visit and how you’d like to help. This technique will narrow the search to those companies really making a difference.
As for motivations, you need to sit down and think through what you hope to gain by lending a hand abroad. Then, look for detailed information about approaches that have worked in this area before and what they entail. That way, you’ll know which types of projects to explore. Carefully assess each program against your skillset to make sure you’re a good fit for the activity. Relationships prove another critical aspect of a positive voluntourism experience. A responsible organization will help you forge relationships with past and upcoming volunteers so that you’re more productive and prepared once you arrive.
Transparency represents another essential feature of a trustworthy volunteer travel group. If you feel that they’re holding back information or misrepresenting their program in any way, it’s time to find opportunities elsewhere. You should also make sure that all claims made by a company are backed by solid evidence. Last but not least, check reviews from past travelers to make sure this company is on the up and up. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn about a company’s business ethos through customer reviews.
At Global CommUnity, we’ve made responsible travel that gives back to local communities a critical aspect of what we do. Our CommUnity Impact Tours achieve sustainable, positive goals related to the renewal of social, cultural, ecological, and economic resources. We cultivate long-term relationships with local providers who are well-versed when it comes to the challenges facing at-risk communities in their nation.
Through our one-of-a-kind educational travel adventures, we give families the chance to exchange ideas, customs, and problem-solving techniques with the communities they visit, all in the spirit of mutual respect.
Ready to learn more about how your family can contribute time and resources to emerging communities? Click on the link in the box located in the bottom right corner of this page. We’d love to hear from you!