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What Is Volunteer Travel?

By Theresa Miles
Updated May 23, 2024
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Volunteer travel involves taking a trip where all or part of the purpose of the trip is to participate in an arranged service opportunity helping others. Typically, the volunteer activity takes place in a foreign country, but some opportunities can involve national or regional projects. These trips are usually arranged by church organizations, human interest groups or nonprofits. A new trend has for-profit tour operators arranging group travel around volunteer opportunities.

Charitable interests often transcend national boundaries. People in developed countries become interested in the struggles of people in lesser developed countries. Sometimes, donating money is not enough to satisfy the need to help. Volunteer travel is a way to combine a visit to a new location with meaningful work that has a direct impact on communities in other parts of the world.

This type of travel has been an option for many years. Historically, church groups made up a large portion of this market. Once a year a religious organization or church would organize a trip to another country. The primary purpose of the trip would be to help build a school in an impoverished area, or dig wells so a village would have clean water, or engage in hundreds of other projects that would impact those less fortunate. The trip combined charitable work with an immersion experience in a foreign country.

As international travel became easier and the Internet made communications between countries more viable, the interest in volunteer travel increased. Nonprofits of all types began organizing these sorts of trips, including youth organizations and national interest groups. Educational institutions also made volunteer travel an option, often through the campus office for community service or as part of the initiative of individual student groups.

The Internet has helped make community service in general more popular, as websites specifically oriented towards recruiting volunteers and matching them to projects sprang up. Volunteering in other countries became as accessible as browsing a website and signing up. Some of the major volunteer organizing websites even hold volunteer recruitment conventions where the topic is volunteering in other countries and volunteer travel.

Although volunteer travel is often performed in groups where the primary purpose of the trip is the charitable project, the growing popularity of volunteerism has prompted a change in the nature of this type of travel. For-profit tour operators have designed vacations with the opportunity to complete a volunteer project in the foreign country as a key component, but not the only component, of the vacation. Instead of traveling with a group that is organized at the volunteer's home base, the volunteer may join a group that gathers at the worksite from all over the world. This sort of volunteer travel is sometimes colloquially referred to as voluntourism or vacanteerism.

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Discussion Comments

By lluviaporos — On Nov 14, 2013

@umbra21 - Even some aid agencies can get it wrong and do a lot of harm, let alone an agency that exists in order to get people a good holiday.

The problem is that these organizations are trying to do two things. They are trying to appeal to people with money in order to get the money and they are trying to help situations that need help. The two aren't always compatible. It makes us feel good to think that we're helping and it's easy to throw money at a problem. But, for example, giving lots of money and supplies to people in a drought means that they have no incentive to go and find a place that might support them better.

When it comes to environmental issues, I'm positive that volunteers would prefer to be helping out cuddly animals, rather than creepy ones. But the creepy ones might be the ones that need the help. So does the organization cater to the people with the money, or do they do what needs to be done from an environmental standpoint?

It's a tough decision and one that can be made easier if the volunteers were more careful about who they give their money to in the first place.

By umbra21 — On Nov 14, 2013

@browncoat - I don't know about that. It seems to me that any kind of funding that orphanages and other places can get is better than nothing at all. And I'm sure they supervise the volunteers so that they can't do anything bad to the people they are supposed to be helping.

I think you might end up with some younger volunteers being a bit entitled, but overall it would generally be a good thing.

By browncoat — On Nov 13, 2013

You really need to be careful when you pick which group to travel with. There are a lot of cases where you might end up doing more harm than good and it's not always obvious when this happens. This is particularly true when you're working with people but it can also happen with animals.

Make sure that the organization that you're going to be working with is legitimate and that they don't just exist to make money from tourists. Make sure the work you're going to be doing is real, sustainable work and that your presence is actually useful and not just something they've orchestrated to get your money. There's nothing wrong with them wanting your money, but if they ship you in to play with the orphans and then ship you out again they'll be doing the same with every person with a buck to spend and some of those people aren't going to be good for the orphans. That might not seem like your problem, but you're giving them the money to keep the program afloat.

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