Taking a week of two to volunteer your time to a great cause is an eye opening experience. You don’t need to be a doctor, nurse, or engineer to make an impact on a project. Combining a vacation and volunteering is a great way to travel the world and make it a better place all at the same time. Not only will you be making a difference but you will be working with local people who will welcome you into their lives.
My First Experience with Voluntourism
I was vacationing for fun in the Dominican Republic and convinced some friends to take a road trip to Haiti, about a 4-5 hour drive. We had no plans except to explore the closest town across the boarder when we arrived in Haiti. Little did I know that road trip when make a big impact on my life.
This was Haiti in 2009 (pre-earthquake) and I saw the devastated landscapes and realized why it was called the “land of orphans.” Every other program we heard about and saw seemed to be a school or orphanage without enough resources to look after the kids in their towns. We met a English speaking teacher at the border of Dajabon, DR and Ouanaminthe, Haiti who offered to show us where she worked in Haiti. She gave us a tour of an orphanage and school right across the border. This was the type of place where simply volunteering some time with the kids and raising funds could go a long way. When I returned home I knew I wanted to help but did not know how.
When the earthquake hit in January of 2010, around 300,000 Haitians lost their lives. I wanted to make a difference, no matter how small. Thousands of kids were orphaned when they lost their parents. Not only that but many more lost their homes, legs, arms, and families. I decided to run the Phoenix Marathon to raise money for the orphanage I visited that day in 2009. They were not structurally damaged by the earthquake but they took on a lot of orphaned kids from Port-au-Prince who had also lost limbs, family members, and their livelihoods. They even converted their church into a dormitory for all the kids.
I didn’t train a single day for that marathon and hadn’t run more than 6 miles in my life. However, I completed it and raised close to $10,000. With that money I donated it to a place where the money would make a direct impact and not be used for administrative costs. With the rest I started my own 501(c)(3) with the friends who traveled to Haiti with my in 2009. We called it Run4Haiti since we raised money running anything from 5ks to marathons around the country. We decided to donate 100% of donations to causes where small monetary gifts would go a long way and go directly into the program.
We returned to Haiti in 2010 and in that time I spent working on local school project and clinics as well as site seeing in Haiti. You would be surprised but there is a lot to see and do in Haiti. The people are wonderful and they lack tourism. Helping out and
See my photos from Haiti here.
Read about my experience with a Haitian Voodoo Priest on the Huffington Post.
What is Voluntourism and Why Should You Volunteer Abroad?
It might sound hard to believe but a few days lending your hands can make a big difference to a project but the key is finding the right one. You don’t need to go out and run a marathon to make a difference. Your time is more valuable to kids and local projects than you think.
Large non-profits are less likely to need a hand than smaller organizations. And if someone like the Red Cross did need a hand you probably wouldn’t find yourself being utilized the way you want to anyway. The key is finding those small non-profits in communities that need help.
A lot of non-profits will want you to pay for your time if you google “volunteering abroad.” The problem is a lot of those places are taking a large cut and giving a lot less back to the program. Essentially you are paying to volunteer which makes no sense. Your money should be going into the program and not into the hands of tour operators.
A site I like to use for South America is Volunteersouthamerica.net.
You can search by 100% free volunteering experiences. Some may ask you to simply pay for room and board which is completely reasonable for small operations. Other agencies may want a larger investment that goes into the program.
There are small projects working with animals in the remote locations, hands-on building projects, and opportunities to work with kids. No matter what your volunteer interests are there is probably something for you.
Keys to Selecting a Good Volunteer Program
Do something you are interested in. Do you like animals or do you like kids? Do you like working with people everyday or perhaps you want to work on your foreign language skills? There is something out there for you no matter what you are looking for. Whether you want to help kids learn to read or practice your Spanish in the remote jungles of Central America there is something out there for you. Start by doing a lot of research and asking a lot of questions to the director of each organization you are interested in.
Make sure your money is going to the right place. Many operations may be too small to look up on Charity Navigator or any other charity review site. But no matter if they are big or small you should ask a lot of questions.
- How will they use your time?
- Where is your donation going?
- Can you see financial records?
- Ask a lot of questions- Did I mention this yet! 🙂
Travel somewhere you have always wanted to go. You are combining travel and volunteering so this means you should go someplace that interests you. For example, maybe Panama has a great program in Bocas del Toro that needs volunteers for 7-10 days. Not only will be be going to an amazing location but you will also be helping a place that has a large amount of poverty and need. You can spend 5 days volunteering and 3-5 days exploring or whatever works best for you.
What Types of Volunteering to Avoid Abroad
There are a lot of programs that want thousands of dollars for your time. Basically, you are just making a huge donation to go feel like you are doing some good work. Don’t get me wrong, you will probably still have a great experience working on a project and playing with some cute kids. But are you really making a difference or does it just feel like you are?
If you aren’t working hard and aren’t making an impact maybe you should consider another option. The more expensive options are usually not the best options. They tend to be glorified tours to increase donations to their cause. There is nothing wrong with that but if a hands-on experience is what you seek, choose a smaller organization that is not charging you to work.
Volunteering abroad is all about having fun, making a difference, and connecting with people. Voluntourism should be the same way. You are traveling to a new place and helping out the best way that you can. There is a place for everyone out there you just need to really do some research and ask a lot of questions before you commit to an organization. Most importantly, have fun and leave the place better than you found it. If you enjoy yourself you can bet you will become that organizations biggest advocate when you get home.