Pam Grout, the author of the hugely successful 100 Best Vacations series, has written 16 travel and inspirational books including well-known titles as Girlfriend Getaways, Living Big, and God Doesn’t Have Bad Hair Days as well as a number of articles for Travel & Leisure, Outside, and The Washington Post.
We recently spoke with Pam about her popular book 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life and her thoughts on the volunteer travel industry.
PG: There’s a real interest in volunteer vacations. Partly, Obama has called all of us to help each other; even before that, volunteer vacation was already gaining momentum. A 2008 survey by the University of California, San Diego indicated that 40% of people would like to volunteer when on vacation. That was half of the surveyed population! I’ve already done two 100 Best Vacations books and National Geographic decided to focus on volunteer vacations for the third book in this “trilogy” because they sensed a growing interest from people.
T: Do you have an idea of the size of the volunteer travel market?
PG: That’s a hard number to find. You can go to the volunteer travel organizations and find out how many people they’ve sent out, but that doesn’t provide a complete picture. Many people do these trips on their own — through people they know or as spontaneous add-ons to their vacations — so much is not quantifiable. There are also many smaller niche organizations, church groups, and school groups that are below the radar. The market is probably bigger than we think.
T: How did you research for the book?
PG: Phone calls, internet research, calling volunteers. I’ve already known some of the well-known organizations from my previous book 100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life (which had a chapter on volunteer vacations). I tried to cover a cross section — a lot of organizations and territories.
T: How did you select the trips to include?
PG: The book serves as an open door to what is out there. I cover different countries in the book. Usually when you travel, you want to pick a place because you’re interested or like to know the culture and people there. Volunteer vacation is the best way to do this because if you go to a resort, you generally stay in an American hotel and what you learn is to be an American in whatever country you’re in. Most of the organizations are established and have been around. I look for organizations who were the original ones that came up with the trip. It’s essentially a representative sample of a wide variety of places and organizations.
T: What are the downsides of volunteer vacation?
PG: 99.9% of people love it and consider it the best thing they ever did! Some criticisms are the volunteers are in for a week, do some good, get people’s expectations up, and then go home. The biggest benefit is learning and seeing for yourself what it’s like, going home and spreading the word. You will not change everything there. Generally there are no major downside for the volunteer. But you need to know the organization you are dealing with.
T: What makes volunteer vacations so appealing despite the lack of luxury living and glamorous work?
PG: These trips bring out people’s true nature. Every person wants to make a difference and to give rather than take. In our culture, it’s often about what I can get. When you go and give of yourself, you recognize your true self. People realize that material possessions — big houses and big cars — do not make people happy…there has to be more.
T: Do-It-Yourself (DYI) Volunteer Travel or Full Service Travel Companies?
PG: Depends on your personality. DYI if you are good at creating something and if you are spontaneous and don’t need an itinerary OR you could be going on a surfing trip and decide you want to stay and volunteer since you see a need in the area. Some people are unsure what to do or how to plan or don’t have the confidence to do it. Then it’s best they go with a full service travel company. They will have the details taken care of and you just show up. Maybe, if this is your first time, it would be better to go with a full service company. It takes time to search and plan a trip. You will need to network to find out about good opportunities but it is also a lot less expensive. Some of these organizations are pricey, but they justify it based on all the logistics they handle for you and make sure you’re safe. Some of the money also go to their local partners; so it’s going toward a good cause. Generally these travel companies are not getting rich.
T: Finally, do you consider yourself a travel or an self-help/inspirational author?
PG: Volunteer vacation is a marriage of the two. It’s travel that can inspire you and grow you as a person. Also, travel in itself is inspirational because you go out of your normal, regular routine.
T: Thanks Pam for sharing your insights with us! To find out more about Pam, visit pamgrout.com.