“Voluntourism” Is More Popular Than Ever, But There’s a Right (and Wrong) Way to Do It

Voluntourism in a foreign country is trending—here's how to have the best possible experience while you're giving back.

Alameen/AP/Shutterstock, MAK-REMISSAEPA/ShutterstockYes, it’s great to volunteer in your home community, but these days tourists are spending billions on “voluntourism.” We put together a short checklist based on a trivago Podcast episode featuring David Bowen from the Grace Bay Club and Kerry Rodgers from Give A Day Global to help you make the right decisions when volunteering during your vacation.

Travel has connected the world in ways previous generations could have never imagined. Different cultures, languages, and ethnicities are constantly interacting, whether it’s in business or simply in a conversation between two passersby on the street.

This is inarguably a good thing. Even better, it’s made us more aware of the unique challenges being faced among various communities from the United States to Southeast Asia and beyond. This heightened awareness is directly behind the growing trend of “volunteerism”—travelers offering up their holiday to volunteer for different causes and among communities in foreign destinations.

Like any other industry, there are those who have taken advantage of the average traveler’s goodwill. Sometimes a donation doesn’t make it to the cause its purported to support, for example.

That’s why we recently explored on the trivago Podcast how to do voluntourism the right way, with David Bowen at the Grace Bay Club in Turks and Caicos and Kerry Rodgers at Give A Day Global. Bowen organizes community voluntourism opportunities for guests at the Grace Bay Club and Kerry’s organization allows travelers to give as much time as they have, even if it’s just a day. You can listen to the show below, but we’ve also gone ahead and pulled some of our favorites tips.

Be aware of local needs

Every destination is unique in the challenges its respective local community is facing. That’s why Bowen suggests that travelers make themselves aware of those issues before travel, which is something he’s already seen happening.

“There’s a new sense of community awareness, even when you’re going to a foreign country,” Bowen says. “Unfortunately a big part of our economy [in Turks and Caicos] is import. We import 99.9 percent of everything, so [travelers] know it’s hard to get things here, so they want to give back.”

From there, Bowen’s team makes sure to place travelers in programs they’re passionate about. Sports lovers get placed in the sports center and tech travelers might get sent to the computer school. The program has been so successful, Bowen continually sees guests returning for yet another voluntourism trip in Turks and Caicos.

“They are open to these things and they have a sense of spreading the wealth and assisting us, so we really appreciate that.”

This story of volunteering from President Jimmy Carter will inspire you to lend a hand.

Don’t set a time requirement

Minimal vacation time in the United States makes it difficult to commit to month-long or even week-long programs, yet American travelers still feel the urge to give back. It’s something Kerry Rodgers at Give A Day Global used to wrestle with herself.

“I ended up sometimes feeling frustrated,” Rodgers shared on the show. “I really want to be able to make a positive difference and I don’t know how to do that when I travel if I don’t have a lot of time to give. That’s where the idea of Give A Day Global came from.”

Now even if you just have a day to give, there’s a way to do it.

Consider jumping in when help is most needed

Rodgers volunteered in Haiti six months after the devastating earthquake that remains one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our generation.

“I think that was the most transformational experience for me in that I really came back from that knowing that I wanted to commit the better part of my career to giving and service and to making a difference in our world,” she says. “Spending that time in Haiti when I was volunteering just really opened my eyes to the profound challenges that people on our planet are facing today and every single day and how it’s deserving of our time and attention.”

Although volunteering is certainly transformational—and it can even help your career—responding to an urgent need will certainly give you the most meaningful and impactful voluntourism trip.

Make it personal

Voluntourism is, in many respects, about accepting that there’s more to the world than what’s immediately in front of you. The best way to take to heart the variety of issues impacting the world? Make it personal.

“People who have firsthand experiences of social issues are more likely to be engaged in those issues,” Rodgers says. “There’s really, really clear academic research that says that getting personally involved is going to have a difference on someone’s level of engagement in social causes.”

Avoid orphanages

Reforestation, community centers that provide free meals, community farms, and sustainable agricultural programs are all great examples of voluntourism trips. One that’s not so great: orphanages.

“We have to be careful about unintended consequences,” she says. “I absolutely think people should avoid volunteering at orphanages.”

Rodgers cites the stories coming from journalists and international development workers that show a great deal of corruption in orphanages as well as the challenge for a traveler to tell which ones are reputable.

“Avoid that industry entirely. Not even for an hour. Tourists should not be going to orphanages under any circumstances,” Rodgers says.

Follow the money

“My grandmother used to work in politics, and she always said follow the money,” Rodgers says. “I think the same applies in volunteering.”

It’s common for voluntourists to have their own fundraising party before a trip, asking friends to throw in $5 to raise a meaningful contribution. The last thing you’d want is for that money to land in the wrong hands and not go toward the cause you’re fundraising to serve.

“Make sure you know where that money is going,” Rodgers says. “Is it going to an agency that takes a large percentage? If so, that’s okay, but just be really clear about where your time and your money are being contributed.”

Get inspired

Considering the considerable challenges that continue to plague the world, it’s easy to get down and feel hopeless. We all need an inspirational reboot to keep getting out there and fighting the good fight. To find your inspiration for voluntourism and giving back, Rodgers suggests grabbing a book.

“Reading books about people who have faced great challenges and made incredible progress is a great way to stay inspired and engaged,” she says. Her top pick? Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, about physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer and his focus on fighting tuberculosis in Haiti, Peru, and Russia.

For Rodgers, it’s all about continuously reminding ourselves that there have been moments in the lives of people committed to positive change who have had to face overwhelming challenges in order to succeed—“and good triumphed.”

“We have to remember those instances to keep fighting for those outcomes,” she says.

Joe Baur is the co-host of the trivago Podcast and a travel author (Talking Tico) who’s constantly looking to get off the tourist trek in search of new stories. He enjoys few things more than a hoppy beer and chorizo in good company. Give him these things and he will be your friend for life.

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Joe Baur
Joe Baur is the co-host of the trivago Podcast and a travel author (Talking Tico) who's constantly looking to get off the tourist trek in search of new stories. He enjoys few things more than a hoppy beer and chorizo in good company. Give him these things and he will be your friend for life.