Voluntourism and Experteering
Volunteer tourism or voluntourism combines travel with service, allowing travelers to use their time and passions and skills towards volunteer opportunities in education, public health, environmental conservation, agriculture, housing development, scientific research, and other arenas in visited communities. A few examples of voluntourism include assisting with afterschool programs, construction projects, and wildlife studies. More recently, the term “experteering” has become popular in describing a subgroup of voluntourists: Those providing a specific professional skill set (such as coding, graphic design, business plan development, dentistry, etc.) as a volunteer while traveling.
While questions have been raised in recent years about the effectiveness of voluntourism and the potential for doing harm rather than good in the communities it’s intended to serve (see the articles below), there is consensus that voluntourism has the potential to provide positive impacts to both travelers and visited communities alike, creating not just gains in development for local communities, but also fostering cross cultural exchange and appreciation.
As one of the fastest growing trends in travel today according to a July 2014 National Public Radio story, voluntourism has grown rapidly over the past 20 years – to more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists spending about $2 billion each year, with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations involved in helping to place volunteers. With the rapidly growing number of organizations and opportunities to choose from, below are some recommendations and tips gleaned from articles and resources (see below) to help in the search for a suitable voluntourism organization and opportunity.
Before you sign up to join a voluntourism program, the following preparation is strongly recommended:
- Motivation and Goals: Ask yourself the reasons for going abroad and define your goals.
- Skills, Abilities, and Interests: Honestly assess what you have to offer as you consider volunteer opportunities. Do you have specific skills you plan to contribute (are you planning to experteer)? Or are you planning to volunteer with an organization that does not require a professional skill set? Are there abilities or interests you have which may help you to be more effective in certain volunteering scenarios? For example, are you a good writer? Do you enjoy working with animals? Do you get along well with all types of people? Do you have a green thumb? Are you excited about the prospect of helping at an archeological dig?
- Sustainability: When looking into projects to volunteer with, see if the project is addressing a real need or problem, is partnering with the community, and is run by a reputable organization. Check sites for information on the organization/project and see if there are reviews or evaluations available from volunteers and financial reporting organizations such as Charity Navigator and Go Overseas.com (see below) on how well the program is run and how funds are spent. Contact the organization with questions about community involvement in the project and how the project will help the community and build capacity and not dependency.
- Time and Geography: Consider how much time you can contribute. As a general rule, the more time you can devote to a project, the better. That is not to say you cannot be effective or make a lasting impact over the course of a short period of time, but the more one is able to be integrated into a local community and develop relationships, the easier it typically is to make a greater impact. Also assess your preferences (if any) for things like climate (tropical, mediterranean, etc.) and environment (whether the mountains, coast, desert, small village, big city, etc).
Resources and Information
Note—The following listings are also being posted to our Resources and Geotravelers sections. We welcome additions.
- Websites and Directories
Charity Navigator provides information and ratings on hundreds of charities based on their financial health and transparency, allowing users to vet organizations before making donations, volunteering, and supporting them in other ways.
Go Overseas is a website that provides information and reviews on dozens of volunteer opportunities around the world.
Idealist.org is a clearinghouse for, among other things, global volunteer opportunities.
One World 365 is a travel directory launched in 2007 that provides information on voluntourism opportunities, along with work programs, English teaching certification programs and placements, ecotourism trips,adventure tours, study abroad and language and other learning courses.
VolunTourism.org provides a wide array of resources, from information on several voluntourism organizations to voluntourism news, webcasts, and academic research.
Traveler’s Philanthropy: Dos and Don’ts of Travel Giving (2009, The Center for Responsible Travel) In this 12 page booklet, a dozen experienced tour operators and tourism organizations engaged in supporting local community projects summarize advice on volunteering and donating.
Where Does the Money Go When You Volunteer? (July 2015, Natalie Southwick, GoOverseas.com)
As Voluntourism Explodes in Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most? (July 2014, Carrie Kahn, National Public Radio)
Is Voluntourism Itself Being Exploited? (April 2014, Daniela Papi, Huffington Post)
10 Traits of a Responsible Volunteer Program (March 2014, Jessie Beck, GoOverseas.com)
Giving Back: A Special Report on Volunteer Vacations (Jan. 2013, Dorinda Elliott, Conde Nast Traveler)
- Voluntourism Organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit)
Cross-Cultural Solutions is a nonprofit begun in the mid-1990s that provides volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, with projects of varying lengths around the world. Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, language lessons, some in-country activities and excursions, and support from local staff.
Earthwatch is a 40+ year old nonprofit that engages volunteers in scientific field research and educational projects worldwide. Volunteers work alongside researchers on projects in wildlife/ecosystem conservation, climate change, archeology and culture, and ocean health. Program fees cover accommodations, food, and all related research costs.
Global Citizen Year is a nonprofit started in 2009 that selects fellows (high school graduates) for a “bridge year” of volunteer service before college in Brazil, Ecuador, Senegal, and India. The program offers opportunities in environmental conservation, education, public health, agriculture, or social enterprise and offers financial aid to selected fellows.
Global Volunteers is a nonprofit founded in 1984 that provides various short-term placements for volunteers in the U.S. and around the world, with a focus on child health and development. Program fees cover accommodations, food, local staff support, and supplemental health insurance.
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit started in the mid-1970s that is dedicated to creating affordable housing through new construction and renovation. Both short term and longer term volunteer opportunities are available globally in fields such as construction, finance, resource development and administration. Program fees include a donation to Habitat and accommodations, food, in-country support, and supplemental health insurance.
Moving Worlds is a B corporation founded in 2011 that facilitates experteering, that is, matches professionals looking to volunteer their skills with nonprofit organizations in need of specific talents. Moving Worlds bills itself as “a short-term Peace Corps crossed with match.com.”
Projects Abroad is a 20+ year old company that connects volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, both professionals and students, with projects of varying lengths around the world. Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, and support from local and North America–based staff.
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