Wide Range of Voluntourism Options Can Help Destinations

[Above: Volunteers prepare to work on “CARE for the Cape Day,” Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo: Judith Selleck]


Volunteering Can Give Better, Deeper Travel Memories Than Any Selfie Stick

Editor’s note—Million Mile Secrets shares with us the following survey of volunteer travel opportunities. MMS earns commissions from readers who sign up for credit cards. See their full Advertising Policy.

Experiencing new cultures or cities with friends and loved ones is eye-opening, enriching, and challenging in ways that help develop our characters and help us grow as individuals. Though some folks might choose to travel for rest, rejuvenation, or the opportunity to adventure somewhere new, you might also use your travel dollars and vacation days on an intentional trip, such as volunteering, giving back to a community, or serving others in times of need.

At Million Mile Secrets, many of us have had the privilege of engaging in “Voluntourism” on many occasions.

For folks who might consider fundraising or contributing to non-profit work while traveling, using points and miles earned from the best travel credit cards for flights or lodging can have a significant impact on making these life-changing voluntourism trips even more accessible!

Emily Had an Excellent Experience Volunteering on a Farm in Costa Rica

I’ll share our personal experiences (and lessons learned!) while discussing opportunities to make an impact while traveling.

Responsible Travel:   How to Find an Organization That Actually Makes an Impact & Doesn’t Harm the Environment

As the late Mahatma Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Travelers are seeking opportunities to make an impact with their time while traveling and learning about other cultures and environments.  And more than ever, people are considering how their traveling might have a larger effect on the destinations and people they come into contact with.

These encounters can also lead to transformative experiences for the traveler – expanding their worldview, teaching them a new skill or craft, or encouragement to be cognizant of their everyday life choices back home.

Team Member Jasmin and Her Family Volunteered at a Mission to the Indigenous Aeta People in the Philippines

On the other hand, some opportunities catering to well-intentioned tourists and volunteers can simply be moneymaking schemes or actually work against the causes you want to support.

The first decision for any aspiring travel volunteer is to decide which cause, destination, or organization aligns with what you’re personally trying to accomplish or are passionate about.  For some, this decision may be informed by cultural or  religious beliefs, or by circumstances or disasters that warrant additional help or outside assistance.

My Good and Bad Experiences With Voluntourism

My wife went with her school to support a community’s rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.  She and her team of 10 people volunteered to distribute aid, clean up schools, and generally serve the local citizens however they could in their brief week-long visit.  This trip was coordinated by a school partnership with a reputable, local resource – which made trusting the receiving organization far simpler.

On the other hand, I’m embarrassed to admit my wife and I visited the once famous Kanchanburi “Tiger Sanctuary” outside of Bangkok, Thailand, as part of our honeymoon in 2015.  We spent time bathing and playing with the tigers, feeding them, watching them play, and watching them train with staff.  We were sad to hear the “sanctuary” was shut down shortly thereafter for inhumane animal treatment and allegations of abuse.

Always Research the Organizations You Volunteer for! I Found out Too Late – Don’t Make My Mistake!

We read about the tigers possibly being drugged, but also heard from others who visited and (seemingly) reputable websites which disputed those claims and assured visitors that the animals were well cared for.

Although we loved our visit, got cool pictures, and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary (the tigers we encountered were incredibly energetic and youthful), we were sad to think our visit might have furthered the cause of mistreating these majestic animals. The lesson learned as a result was that the more intentional and dedicated research we can do in advance, the better!

If you’re passionate about the idea of your philanthropy or voluntourism being truly effective, check out When Helping Hurts – a great resource on the topic of creating long term, sustainable change!

Choose an Organization to Handle the Logistics (and Ethical Investigation!) on Your Behalf

Several companies offer a service to research voluntourism opportunities and match you based on the goals or causes you are most passionate about.  This means whether you want to work to alleviate poverty, preserve endangered species, or simply help renovate a school or community center, there’s an organization somewhere that would love to have you visit and volunteer.

A couple of my favorite websites for checking out reputable volunteer opportunities include:

There are also organizations that would love to have you visit them, learn about their mission, and volunteer to help further a given cause.  But you’ll have to do the investigation yourself, and reach out to organizations and causes individually. This can be tougher from a booking perspective, but rewarding if you have a charity, organization, or cause you want to devote your time and efforts to.

Habitat for Humanity Is a Reputable Organization Where You Can Help Build a House as a Voluntourist!

Examples of trustworthy causes and websites that would love to have you volunteer are:

1.   Endangered Wildlife

As you likely already know, “Humans are the greatest threat to the survival of endangered species through poaching, habitat destruction and the effects of climate change.”

But incredible work is being done across the globe by informed volunteers to revert these changes, support endangered species, and work toward creating a sustainable future for incredible animals.

Whether you’re passionate about a specific animal species or family, or if you just want to make a positive impact for endangered species somewhere, there are numerous resources that can recommend tangible actions you can take.  These include traveling to unique locations to build and protect animal habitats or rescue missions, or working alongside local governments or agencies to prevent or discourage poaching practices.

For more information on some of the organizations and causes that support these efforts to protect endangered wildlife, check out the following websites:

2.   Endangered Habitats and Ecosystems

A similar, but different type of voluntourism might include volunteering to restore or protect a specific habitat or ecosystem, such as oceanic conservation or protecting the Peruvian rainforests.  These can be tailored or more niche opportunities depending on the conservation efforts you’re passionate about—but the need is equally as urgent.

For example, someone passionate about protecting and preserving our oceans might volunteer with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Volunteers with the ONMS might participate in a variety of ways such as diving, beach cleanups, identifying whale species, assisting with water quality monitoring, and many more opportunities. And I’m sure you’d get to enjoy some lovely scenery along the way!

There are a whole host of organizations dedicated to the cleanup and preservation of our oceans, but a few of the trusted groups we know of are

Likewise, you might feel a special calling to assist in the preservation of the world’s rainforests.  As you may know, deforestation is a growing issue caused almost entirely by humans and growing agriculture around the world.  If you want to volunteer to prevent deforestation, there are various programs in rainforests and countries around the world that would gladly receive your efforts and time.

A favorite resource of ours can be found at WorldWildlife.org.

3.   People/Communities in Need

I’m a huge advocate for any type of voluntourism, but the efforts closest to my heart involve working to serve people and communities in need. This is a broad grouping of volunteer efforts, but can include anything from:

  • Building homes for the underprivileged
  • Volunteering to distribute food or medical aid where necessary
  • Working to partner with sustainable businesses to encourage long-term change in communities

In 2014 I had the privilege of traveling to Kolkata, India to volunteer briefly at homes established by Mother Teresa for mentally and physically disabled individuals.  It was important to me to work with a group that was serving others, making lasting change, and not inadvertently creating dependencies that were unhelpful in the long term.

I desired to love and serve the individuals who lived at these homes – as well as spending time with and encouraging the hard-working staff who had devoted their lives to caring for the less fortunate.  It was incredibly challenging, joyful, and rewarding, and the long hours of manual labor were nothing in comparison to getting to sit with, talk with, and hear the (sometimes painful) stories these individuals endured.

This is just one example of an organization or volunteer opportunity that is working, in one city in the world, to be part of a greater solution – to care for and love others as we might care for ourselves.  It was a joy to spend vacation days, miles, and points not to sit at a luxurious beach (which I also love!), but to learn a new culture and engage with individuals and situations not in my comfort zone (after all, my Bengali is virtually nonexistent!).

Volunteering Abroad is a Fantastic Way to Learn About New Cultures and People Groups

Although there are endless opportunities to support our global community through financial giving, support/mission trips, or other types of philanthropic work, some of our favorite resources or websites include:

How to Use Miles and Points to Book Your Travel and Support Volunteer Efforts

I hope you’re able to spend time thinking, researching, and investigating where and how you might want to engage in voluntourism and give back to our global community.  And once you’ve decided, now comes the fun part – planning your trip!

Redeeming points and miles to their fullest value can help alleviate the financial costs from voluntourism. After all, reducing your travel and lodging costs can either make voluntourism more financially accessible, or allow you to give more freely to support and further the causes you care most about.  Especially for groups of trips that rely on fundraising efforts, utilizing points and miles can reduce a trip’s financial requirements.

In general, I recommend you start planning for flights first. Similar to taking a vacation, traveling for voluntourism will almost always require the largest purchases to be flights – and hotels/lodging second. So any way you can use points and miles to get free or reduced flights is a huge win!

I would also recommend you start planning and building a strategy for your trip as early as possible – as flight prices are often cheapest and award flights are most readily available.

Using Miles and Points Earned From the Best Travel Credit Cards Can Take the Sting Out of Your Voluntourism Expenses

Note:  Depending on your destination and voluntourism adventure, the points and miles required for your flights may vary.  As always, I recommend you start by checking out our list of the best credit cards for travel!

Then, move onto to hotel/accommodation planning and think about where you’ll stay on your trip.  Many voluntourism activities come with lodging included as part of an overall package, so be sure to check out the details depending on the specific trip you want to take.  Or even consider camping if you want to truly spend as little out of pocket as possible!

If you’ll be traveling to remote locations, you might find fewer chain hotels to redeem your points for free nights. But large cities around the globe offer tons of opportunities for voluntourism, and cities are often a great option for redeeming points to save big on hotel stays.

You might also be traveling with friends, family, or a team of volunteers, in which case it might make the most sense to book an Airbnb or VRBO in order to secure lodging to comfortably fit several guests.

Bottom Line

Regardless of how or where you want to volunteer, I can’t encourage you enough to find a goal, cause, or organization that you support or are passionate about and take the first steps toward contributing to that cause.

Voluntourism has grown immensely in recent years – and for good reason.  Many of us travel to expand our horizons, learn more about other cultures and people, and challenge ourselves to be more compassionate, understanding, and empathetic of others.

While you’re planning your trip or your voluntourism adventure, redeeming miles and points from the best travel credit cards will help fund your trip and reduce your out of pocket costs. Then, you can have additional funds to donate directly to causes you care about – or be able to plan a return visit even sooner!

Please mention in the comments if you know of organizations that are responsible and trustworthy! While you’re planning your trip or your voluntourism adventure, redeeming miles and points from the best travel credit cards will help fund your trip and reduce your out of pocket costs.  Then you can have additional funds to donate directly to causes you care about – or be able to plan a return visit even sooner!

Editor’s note—Thank you, Jake. Readers, be sure to check out our own directory of volunteer travel opportunities and publications, just updated by Page Editor Eugene Kim.

How To Handle Voluntourism

[On Cape Cod, volunteer painters help out on CARE for the Cape Day. Photo: Judith Selleck]

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:

  1. Motivation and Goals: Ask yourself the reasons for going abroad and define your goals.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.