While traveling is admittedly a selfish endeavor (the desire to see beautiful or bizarre things, to eat delicious food, to get away from studies and work, to achieve personal growth), it doesn’t have to be only that. You can have a fine time with plenty of adventure and also leave a positive impact on the place you’re visiting at the same time. The cake and all of its frosting is yours to consume with just a bit of forward thinking and research.
Volunteer opportunities abound worldwide, and finding an organization or a community that could benefit from the skills you have is relatively simple. Finding one that matches your interests, fits your vision for the world, is economically viable for you to participate in, and also has the support of the local community, however, can be slightly trickier. More and more we’re seeing pay-to-volunteer travel options, which have their place, to be sure, but for those on a budget or those who’ve done some significant travel previously and don’t require the security and comfort that these trips offer, finding a place where you can give some of your time for free is more appealing.
Below we’ve highlighted some outlets that will help you find whatever you’re looking for, as well as a series of questions you should consider before signing up and boarding the plane.
There’s a network of websites out there that have lists of volunteer abroad opportunities. Have a look atVolunteer South America, Volunteers for Peace,Idealist.org and WWOOF. These sites have resources for inexpensive and/or free volunteer opportunities, as well as links to specific organizations currently seeking help.
Already have a destination in mind? Check out the guidebooks for that country. Lonely Planet is pretty good, but Rough Guides really excel in this department. Generally in the front of the book, they will detail some of the more popular/legitimate options and provide outlets for exploring the subject further.
Travel forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree and Go Overseas are great resources to connect with travelers who have experience volunteering in the country you’re traveling to. Nothing beats a recommendation from someone who knows what it’s like firsthand.
If you’re already traveling and want to find an organization to work with, talk with your fellow hostel/bungalow/cabana/tent mates. Say you’re in Cambodia, guaranteed you can find someone who can tell you which orphanages are in particular need. In Ecuador? Eco-tourism projects dot the landscape as commonly as the national dish of “cuy” (guinea pig). Half the backpackers there have probably volunteered for one or another during their trip.
Do your homework. Nothing is worse than seeing a well-done website full of promises only to arrive at said organization and find that it’s run by a wealthy expat whose taking advantage of cheap, local labor and polluting the nearby streams. Talk to people who’ve volunteered at the place you’re considering. Preferably several people. And take their advice to heart.
Find out how the organizations receive money and where that money goes. Who is actually benefitting from the project? If it’s an environmental group, are they actually adhering to the outdoor ethics you believe in? Remember, any place can claim the “eco-tourism” title, but are they still dumping their trash in the forest? …These things really do happen, so it’s worthwhile to take the extra time in advance to find out exactly what you’re getting yourself involved with. That being said, fantastic organizations are out there doing great, helpful work, and you can be part of the movement to better the world by getting involved.
By Bryan Schatz