Have your passport ready: A look at voluntourism

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In the last two years, Danielle Duska has learned to scuba dive off the Perhentian Islands of Malaysia, come face-to-face with great white sharks in the coastal waters of South Africa, and became a certified game ranger at a conservation wildlife reserve.

But the energetic 19-year-old is much more than just an avid world traveler. The Calgary-based pre-med student, who hopes to one day work for Doctors Without Borders, is more specifically what one might refer to as a voluntourist.

For Duska, this involves combining globetrotting in third world countries with volunteer stints along the way, ranging from wildlife conservation to teaching young children in schools.

“I enjoy traveling while making an impact, getting a full-on experience and having the feeling that I've done something,” says Duska. “I think what I have learned about myself through these new experiences and being involved in such a unique culture halfway around the world will impact me more than a classroom ever could.”

A growing trend

Generally defined as a volunteer experience that integrates the elements of destination travel, the popularity of voluntourism is rapidly on the rise. This is particularly true among certain demographics such as retirees, recent graduates and people undergoing work transitions, says Paula Speevak Sladowski, director of policy, programs and voluntary sector relations at Volunteer Canada.

“Voluntourism appeals to people who like to travel, see themselves as global citizens, and like the idea of shaping the world they want to live in,” says Speevak Sladowski.

“I’ve seen it take off for two main groups. One is comprised of young professionals, who could be teachers or people in a variety of helping professions. Those kinds of opportunities can be a great career development tool to enhance their experience as well as build confidence.

“The other group is made up of retirees who are looking to contribute the skills they’ve gained throughout their lives and are no longer restrained by children or work schedules. “If you enjoy travelling and have a particular affinity with a certain region of the world, voluntourism is a fantastic way to blend all of these aspects.”

The perfect match

On www.govoluntouring.com, visitors can choose from a menu of 1,700 projects in 86 countries, from bringing solar energy to Nicaragua and teaching English in the Galapagos Islands, to researching the biodiversity of vineyards in France.

Opportunities on the site can be searched using criteria such as age, destination, program cost, duration and even religious affiliation. It’s what founder Aaron Smith calls “the eHarmony of voluntourism.”

After a life-changing trip he took with his father to Costa Rica to build a house for a single mother and her three children, Smith came back thinking about what he could do to further improve the experience.

“It was an amazing bonding experience for my father and I – we worked hard, got a lot done, and left an economic footprint in a town tourists would not otherwise visit,” says Smith. “One thing I noticed was the group of individuals we went with tended to be younger, didn’t follow through on their commitment to stay and work – and some didn’t show up. Their expectations weren’t managed. So I came back from that thinking, is there a way to do it better, make it simpler, more transparent, more customized?

“That was the crux of www.govoluntouring.com. Before, voluntourism was so fragmented – you’d get four million Google hits but there was no single platform that brought everything together, that would allow people to say, ‘I am 60 and I want to do light impact work’, or ‘I want to go to Nicaragua’.”

Since going live in September 2011, the site has connected more than 1,000 volunteers with voluntourism projects; the most popular destinations have been Costa Rica, followed by Thailand, Peru, South Africa and Kenya. Three-quarters of their users are female, with an average overall age between 35 and 45.

The organizations they list are heavily screened according to criteria such as legitimacy, transparency, reviews and ratings from past volunteers and testimonials from community stakeholders. However, the “right” project is different for everyone, cautions Smith, who includes an additional checklist on the site of important questions to ask before you go.

“As much as we’d like to, we can’t be in 1,700 places at once. And while we can provide assurances that what we’ve found is good stuff, there’s something to be said for every volunteer’s critical thought process, on their own lens and moral compass.”

Before (and after) you go

Knowing the philosophy of the organization offering the opportunity is especially important. “You want to know that the community being helped has invited people from outside the region to receive it, rather than a case of the organization having assumed they need help or imposing their views,” says Speevak Sladowski.

Would-be voluntourists should also recognize that the experience is one of reciprocity, and thus provides an exchange of knowledge and experiences between parties. “It’s not about people coming in with all the knowledge and experience and then leaving – it’s about mutual respect and co-creation of knowledge, so make sure the organization you’re working with has that philosophy,” she says.

“You don’t want to undermine the local labour force or build up expectations that cannot be sustained in a community after you’re gone.”

Reflection after returning home is another vital part of the experience, says Speevak Sladowski.

“Sometimes you can get overwhelmed by the people and circumstances you are exposed to. There is tremendous growth where you can discover strength you didn’t know you had, learn how to be flexible in new circumstances, and connect with people on deeper levels. Reflecting on it will make you carry forward these lessons to the rest of your life.”

Ultimately, the secret to a successful experience lies in aiming to make an impact on oneself, rather than on others, as this lies outside of our control, writes David Clemmons on his website, www.voluntourism.org: “The most skilled volunteers in the world may generate ZERO impact, not because they are not great volunteers or highly skilled, but because they are not the individuals who determine such things. But what you do have absolute control over is what kind of impact the experience will have on you. And this, if you ask me, is the most important aspect of Voluntourism. If you guarantee, through your personal efforts, that the experience has a real impact on you, then the mission is accomplished. You have done what was in your control, in your power, to do.”  

Make the most of your trip

Tips from Gena Rotstein, CEO of Dexterity Consulting, Canada’s first philanthropic brokerage firm, to ensure you make the most out of your voluntourism experience:

1. Understand the context in which you travel and the mandate of the community from which you are coming. With that mandate can also come bias.

2. Ask what the ‘wraparound service plan’ is. What other organizations are they working with to keep the community thriving? How is the economy being built up? When you go down and build that house, will the people who live in it stay in the same system of poverty? It’s not just about bricks and mortar but also the things that keep the gears running.

3. Set out the purpose of the trip – what you ultimately want to get out of the experience. Is it learning about a new culture? Figuring out what other organizations are doing in the area? When building your trip, always go back to that purpose – “Why am I going down to do this?”

Voluntourism opportunities worth taking a second look at:

REACH Grenada aims to improve the health and well-being of abused and abandoned children on the island of Grenada. Participants have the opportunity to bond with the children, help create new libraries, gardens and refurbished facilities and explore Grenadian culture during their visit.

Seacology is an international conservation nonprofit that helps preserve endangered species, island habitats, environments and cultures. In exchange for their pprotecting coral reefs and mangroves, Seacology works with island communities to build facilities such as schools, medical clinics and fresh water delivery systems.

El Camino VolunTours offers a variety of community development and wildlilfe preservation projects in areas such as Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Experience Himalayan Nepal Volunteers purchase and install water filtration devices, called Lifestraws, to provide clean drinking water for families living in Nepal


Barbara Balfour is an award-winning public speaker, writer, editor and communications specialist whose work has appeared in several anthologies, almost every major newspaper in Canada, and in an independent newsweekly published by The Economist Group and distributed throughout Europe. She speaks five languages, including French and Russian. Connect with her at www.barbarabalfour.com

Photos by Nony Dattner via El Camino VolunTours. All photos used with permission.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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