How and Why to Combine Volunteering and Travel

Voluntourism, Philanthropic Travel, or Arranged?

A western volunteer gives a ride to a Thai boy in the ORGANIC GARDEN at the HOME AND LIFE ORPHANAGE in PHANGNGA - KHAO LOK, THAILAND
•••  Craig Lovell/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Do you have a yen to see the world, but want to have an authentic experience while doing some good?

Then volunteering abroad may be just what you've been looking for.

With travel and volunteerism going hand in hand in recent years, it is understandable if there is confusion among terms. There is, in fact, more than one way to combine traveling and doing good. Here are the main categories you should be thinking about.

Voluntourism Growing Rapidly

Voluntourism encompasses vacation travel that has some component of volunteer work.

An example is the service learning programs by Road Scholar. One program sends participants to teach children in India. The travelers receive education about the area, its history, and its people. In off hours, they might go on field trips, visit a museum, and hear lectures. Usually, travelers in such programs can deduct some of the expenses of the journey as a charitable deduction on their tax returns.

Voluntourism opportunities may be as short as a week or take place over several months. 

The best voluntourism opportunities involve participants in the volunteer work for the majority of the time, are prearranged with the community being helped and make sure that help is being rendered in a culturally sensitive way. Think service first, vacation second when picking an opportunity.

I think the safest voluntourism opportunities are provided by long-established nonprofits. Think about your particular passion, such as the environment, poverty, education, or health.

Then check out domestic and international charities that work in those areas. See if they have volunteer opportunities available.

Don't neglect voluntourism programs right in the U.S. too.  Habitat for Humanity, for instance, welcomes volunteers throughout the U.S. as well as overseas. The United Nations has volunteer opportunities of all kinds, including local and abroad

To whittle down your web search, check into services that track volunteer opportunities, such as VolunteerForever or Go Eco. There are many program reviews and opportunities right on their sites.

Why You Should Be Happy to Help Pay for Arranged Volunteering

Many of us, when we first think about volunteering, believe that it should be enough that we give our time. Why should we pay for the privilege of volunteering?

The truth is that it is commonplace to pay your expenses when you volunteer abroad. Those costs include airfare, meals, and lodging.

In the world of crowdfunding, it is even possible to convince friends and family or even strangers to fund your volunteer travel. At Volunteer World, for instance, you can both find a volunteer opportunity and raise funds for your trip with its fundmytravel community marketplace.

This type of volunteering is called "arranged volunteering." It is usually done through an organized program that makes arrangements with nonprofits (commonly known as NGOs or Non-Governmental Organizations) in the country where you volunteer.

What's the advantage of this arranged volunteering? It is more volunteer focused. If you want to drop the tourism from your volunteering, arranged volunteering is the way to go. You'll get a more immersive experience in the culture, hone your skills, and come away with an in-depth knowledge of people, cultures, and social problems.

Even though you do pay for your travel, accommodations, and meals, there are a lot of benefits that you receive from the organization you work with.

These include orientation, language and technical training, a safe and supportive place to live, a safety net through staff that provides logistical support and even counseling, clear expectations for the work you will do, and affordability.

It will be cheaper to travel to a foreign country with an organization that handles most of the details than it would be if you tried to do it on your own.

There are many organizations that arrange these volunteer opportunities. They have developed a network of NGOs to work with and have put support structures into place so that volunteers can do their best work with a minimum of confusion as soon as they arrive at their destination. Often, the costs you pay are packaged into one fee to make it even easier to participate.

Arranged volunteering usually means that you will live under conditions that are common to the people in that country. You may stay with a local family for instance.

You are likely to work in some human service capacity or with a humanitarian aid project. You may be required to have some language skills or have expertise such as economic development or teaching.

It is not always easy to separate "arranged volunteering" from "voluntourism." Many opportunities fall somewhere in between these two types of volunteering. One advantage of these volunteer placements is that you may be able to take a tax deduction for most of the expenses you incur.

Young people flock to these types of opportunities but arranged volunteering has also become very popular among retirees, baby boomers, and mature travelers of all kinds.

It is easy to see why. Mature adults may have disposable income, they often have a wish to contribute in some way, and they certainly have a travel bug. Many organizations that set up international volunteer opportunities actively recruit older people.

Here is a list of organizations that provide arranged volunteer opportunities or that will lead you to additional resources.

Philanthropic Travel for Donors Who Want Hands-On Knowledge

Philanthropic travel, on the other hand, usually means that a philanthropist, considering a substantial charitable gift, visits the possible recipient.

The purpose of the trip can be research, to get to know the recipient better, to establish an ongoing relationship, or to reassure oneself that the gift is worthwhile.

Often philanthropic advisory organizations facilitate charitable travel. They might send a donor or a group of donors to an international project that is a good candidate for significant support. The philanthropist is not volunteering his/her service but establishing a trust for himself and the recipient organization so that a donation can be made.

Some nonprofits that work internationally provide opportunities for potential donors to visit their projects. For instance, Room to Read arranges "site visits" for interested donors while Soles4Souls arranges group shoe distribution trips for donors and volunteers.

Potential Downsides to Combining Travel and Volunteering

While we usually approach travel with the idea of having fun, learning, or exploring, volunteering may require a different mindset.

For one, there likely won't be much time for relaxing. It's more like a job than a vacation. Count on working most of every weekday and confining your sightseeing to weekends.

Volunteering takes commitment, which can be hard to come by since you're not getting paid. But, treating your volunteer job like a paid job pays off in the end because you'll know you gave it your best, physically and emotionally.

Volunteering abroad will be challenging, more than you probably think. You'll be in new surroundings, perhaps without the modern conveniences of home. even a different language. You'll have to be patient, resourceful, and committed to making a difference.

Whatever we call travel for good, it is a growing trend and is especially appealing to those who enjoy combining helping, learning and somewhat exotic traveling. The rewards, as anyone who has volunteered abroad will tell you, are immeasurable and result in memories for a lifetime.