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Travel is scientifically proven to be good for your health. So is volunteering. Voluntourism combines the benefits of both, and it doesn’t get much better than that. 

Travel reduces stress. It makes you more creative and more focused. Simply being out of your usual environment helps your mind to form new connections. It helps a person to be more mentally flexible. What’s more, adapting to new surroundings makes you smarter. Travelers who immerse themselves in the culture of their host country get a huge mental boost. Travel also lowers your risk of depression and heart disease.

Everyone wins with Voluntourism

David“I am an old peace corps volunteer and a retired math teacher in Stafford County. I like volunteering, helping others, and seeing all our shoppers.”

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Volunteering has many of the same benefits. In addition to gaining a feeling of accomplishment, volunteers are a part of something larger than themselves. Volunteering can help you learn new skills, and learning keeps the mind flexible. If that’s not enough, volunteering helps to create community. And we all know that being part of a community is one of the keys to longevity.

Imagine traveling to some exotic place, meeting interesting people, and helping to improve their lives. At the same time, you’re improving your own life. It sounds a little like the Peace Corps. But the Peace Corps requires a two to three-year commitment. And many of us can’t put our lives on hold for that long. Voluntourism could be the answer.

More and more, people are seeking a sense of purpose in their lives. Volunteer vacations can be a great way to meet this need. Many voluntourism companies combine service opportunities with luxury travel. There are volunteer vacations for families as well as for individuals and couples. You can find special programs for young people as well as for seniors. Opportunities abound for volunteering abroad as well as at home. In addition, you can find volunteer staycations if you prefer to stick closer to home.

How Voluntourism Works

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Typical volunteer vacations combine travel with a 25% to 30% service element. You’ll have plenty of time for sightseeing while also helping out your organization. Many voluntourism companies offer luxury travel options. In addition, they will also tailor the volunteer opportunity to your requirements. Want to go overseas? Stay stateside? Do you want to work with animals? Help the environment? Perhaps help build something, or share your own expertise? Do you want to go back to a hotel at the end of the day, or live with a host family? What you do, how you live, and how much you integrate into the local community are all within your control.

Volunteering Abroad

Voluntourism opportunities can take you to many exciting places. Different tour operators offer opportunities for volunteering abroad on almost every continent. You can volunteer in education, conservation, environmental work, agriculture, technology, construction, and more. Tours can last from a week to more than a year.

First, think about what you can give. What are your skills? What do you do well, and what do you enjoy doing? Who could benefit the most? Next, think about where you want to go. Somewhere familiar, or somewhere you’ve never even thought of going? Chances are, there’s a program that can use what you have to offer, in a place you’ll never forget.

Volunteer Staycations

On a budget? There are plenty of places in the United States that could use your help. Maybe even in your own community. Global Volunteers has opportunities for people to work in impoverished communities in the U.S. as well as abroad. You could help with computer literacy, repair and maintenance, elder assistance, and more. Also, consider taking time off to pursue opportunities in your own community. Volunteer Insider has some good advice regarding volunteer staycations that can be just as much of a getaway as a traditional vacation.

Volunteer vacations for families

Voluntourism can make your family vacation a chance to pass your values on to your kids. You can also enjoy quality time together while making a difference in the world. USA Today published a guide to some excellent volunteer vacations for families in the United States and abroad. Your family can help animals with the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary or work outdoors with the Nature Corps. You might repair houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. There are also any number of projects in Native American communities. Volunteering can help your kids develop empathy. They will also benefit from getting to know people from cultures outside their own. In addition, some volunteer programs for young people even offer academic credit.

While looking into options, check program details carefully, because some programs have age limits.

How Voluntourism Benefits Your Host Community

In addition to your volunteer work, you’ll be helping people in a couple of different ways.

Helping to make a long-term difference. Many projects will ask volunteers to raise money for the organization before arriving. Part of the cost of your trip may also include a donation to the volunteer organization.

You’re contributing to the local economy. When you’re not volunteering, your shopping, activities, and sightseeing help to create jobs for your host community. Therefore, you’re helping in two ways.

Many voluntourism companies employ local staff. So you’re helping to create opportunities as well.

The Downside of Voluntourism

Right now the voluntourism industry is poorly regulated. Unscrupulous companies take advantage of both travelers and local people in need. This is especially true when it comes to orphanages. There are cases, for example, of children being sold to orphanages that charge foreigners to care for them. And voluntourists who don’t have the necessary skills or language ability may be a burden rather than a help. Finally, volunteers may be taking away jobs from local people who need them.

Here are a few tips for finding a reputable project, and making sure your help is actually helping:

  • Avoid orphanages. Some orphanages actually house children trafficked for profit. In others, parents give up their children to orphanages, thinking they will have a better life there. Furthermore, even if an orphanage is legitimate, children may become attached to you and suffer emotionally when you leave.
  • Research your host project. Learn how long they’ve been around and what kind of impact they’ve had on their community. Figure out if the project is legitimate or set up to profit from voluntourists.
  • Research your tour company. First, read reviews of the tour company and the project you’re thinking of working on. Next, find out how long the tour operator has worked with a specific project. How do they choose the volunteer projects? Do they have standards? Finally, try to talk to someone living in the host community. See what they think of the tour operator, and of the project.
  • Know yourself. Do you have the skills to do the job right? If the answer is no, you may do more harm than good. Will you be able to function independently in your host country? Will you need more help than you’re giving?
  • Learn before you go. Learn some of the language and customs of your host country. Brush up on your job skills if you need to. If you need constant help from your hosts, your presence will be a burden.

How to pick a good company

The International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA) is a good place to start your search. The IVPA is a nonprofit organization that sets standards for volunteer programs. Its member organizations must adhere to IVPA’s guidelines for good programs. They must also meet stringent membership criteria. You can read the Principles and Practices document at the IVPA website. The IVPA has descriptions of their member organizations here.

Together for Good also has information about different voluntourism programs. Here, you can research opportunities in the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean. Read about volunteer cruises and resort opportunities. You can also search by destination.

Some other reputable organizations include Giving Way, International Volunteer HQ, and Volunteers for Peace. Many religious organizations also offer opportunities for short term volunteering abroad. If you belong to a church, synagogue, or other religious organization, it may be a good place to find a meaningful opportunity for you.

Other Resources

The New York Times recently published a guide to planning a volunteer vacation.

Read more about voluntourism at Travel and Leisure Magazine.

Parents Magazine has a guide to volunteer travel for families.

Read about volunteer vacations for seniors at Transitions Abroad.

Find opportunities close to home at Create the Good.

Take a different kind of working vacation. Volunteering abroad or doing a volunteer staycation can benefit you as much as your host community. Although volunteer vacations can be pricey, know that you’ll be using your time off to do some lasting good. But make sure to do your research. Know yourself, your abilities, and your limits. Brush up on your skills. Get to know something about your host community before you go. Choose a reputable voluntourism operator. Work with an organization that has a good reputation and a good track record. Even your family vacation can make a difference.

Featured Image: CC 2.0 International Disaster Volunteers via Flickr.

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