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Keys to a Successful Volunteer Vacation

The keys to a successful volunteer vacation or voluntourism involve a few basic considerations: What excites you? What kind of impact are you looking to have? Where do you want to go? How will the project you choose benefit the local community? (There are less reputable charities/companies that overstate responsible travel claims.) To address these considerations, you will need to do some personal self-assessment and research.

Personal Self-Assessment
An honest personal assessment is key because it defines your trip — the type of trip you’ll take, where you will go and your expectations for the trip. Part of the process is knowing what excites you: saving animals, caring for the environment, preserving and supporting foreign culture, teaching children, providing healthcare, etc. If there is something you already find inspiring at home, getting involved away from home will be very fulfilling.

Photo by rogilde

Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself to begin the process:
1. How much of my trip do I want to dedicate to volunteering and how much to travel?
2. How sensitive am I to deprivation, poverty, starvation, health issues, etc.?
3. What do I hope to get out of the experience? What do I hope to contribute?
4. Where do I want to go? Is there a particular continent I want to travel to? Why?
5. What are my strength and interests?
6. Do I want to be on my own or with a group?
7. How long do I want to go for and what time of the year? There are programs lasting from couple of days to couple of weeks and years. Many programs have set dates, while others allow volunteers to determine their own start and end dates. The shorter-term (1 to 3 week) opportunities often entail a specific project such as building a medical clinic or repairing trails. In longer-term programs, volunteers live and work side-by-side with the local people, becoming a part of the local community.

There are myriads of options out there and not everyone will be a good fit for you. Researching the agencies or programs, the destinations with all its cultural implications, and the experiences of former volunteer travelers will contribute to your volunteer vacation or voluntourism success.

We want to underscore that choosing the right placement is key. There are thousands of volunteer travel opportunities offered by agencies, tour operators, or hotel travel programs. For those who are new at this or don’t want the hassle of making your own arrangements, this may be a good option. Travelers who would prefer a relatively simple, low-key project, such as conducting a wildlife survey in Costa Rica, can opt for a hotel program. For a longer trip that involves daily contact with locals, a tour operator or nonprofit may be your best bet. “The most efficient and reputable organizations are those whose ultimate goal is to help communities work independently,” says Brian Mullis, president of Sustainable Travel International, in Boulder, Colorado. For a seasoned travelers who may want to save some cash, DIY is another option.

With a growing number of hotels and tour operators offering trips that give back, the experience is more accessible than ever — from building houses to helping with HIV awareness programs in Thailand to helping orphaned children in Kenya.

Photo by Adam Cohn

Do your due diligence by asking the organization:
1. How long has the project been running for? Is the organization in for the long haul?
2. Do they work with a host country partner and is the project one which the host country wants or needs?
3. Do they have a policy on responsible tourism? Have them give some examples.
4. How are the funds used — do they contribute part of the program fee to the long-term sustainability of a community and its resources?

Finance, work and language skills are other considerations. The costs of volunteer abroad programs vary widely. You’ll need to find out what the fee covers. Many include food and accommodation while on the project, but do not cover flights and insurance. Many opportunities don’t require specific skills unless they indicate professional experience in a certain field (medical, technical, business, etc). Some programs require conversational ability in the local language, but many don’t. Some offer language training before volunteer work begins or as part of the program. Either way, volunteering abroad is an excellent way to practice or learn a new language. Want to practice a new language, look for a program that offers a home stay or a cultural immersion experience.

Last but not least, personal accounts of former volunteers add valuable perspective on what the field experience will be like. Here you may want to contact a few past volunteers because everyone’s take-away is so individual.

While nothing is a sure bet, doing some finger work (most info can be found on the web) will ensure you get the vacation you are looking for!

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