Doing good as you travel has become a major industry. According to a recent New York Times article, an estimated 1.6 million people volunteer while on vacation every year. If you are like the millions who want to give back while traveling to another country, planning a voluntourism trip isn’t so cut and dry. Many travelers partake in voluntourism without actually creating social change and in some cases, by doing more harm than good. If you want to build houses, teach English, or help implement infrastructure programs on your travels abroad, make sure you aren’t making these common voluntourist mistakes.
Failing to Research Your Volunteer Program
Perhaps the biggest and most detrimental mistake you can make while volunteering while traveling comes in the beginning stages of planning your trip. Travelers who don’t research the organization’s previous projects and their impact before signing up could be doing more harm than good. Some programs hurt local economies. Others irresponsibly work with kids in the short term, which has been proven to cause psychological problems. You have to take the time to compare programs as so many have vast differences in quality and intention. You don’t want to volunteer for a program that isn’t actually aligned to positive change.
Some great resources to help you find a program include GoOverseas.com, GoAbroad.com, and GoVoluntouring.com. You can also check with the International Volunteer Programs Association, a nonprofit accrediting body specializing in volunteer aboard programs, to see how a program you’ve discovered is rated by a third party.
Volunteering in an Area in Which You’re Completely Inexperienced
Maybe you’ve never picked up a hammer in your life or don’t know the difference between a Phillips and Flathead screwdriver. If so, then selecting a volunteer program to help build schools is probably not a good idea. Volunteering for a project in need of skills or credentials that are not in your wheelhouse will limit how helpful you can be and may be detrimental. You shouldn’t be volunteering to gain experience for yourself but rather using the skills you do have to actually make an impact.
Expecting Your Volunteer Project Will Go off without a Hitch
Volunteering while traveling is often looked at through rose colored glasses. Travelers often look at their projects with the same glasses. The reality of the situation can sometimes be far different than you thought. Change is a slow process. You can’t go into a volunteer experience thinking everything will be better if you do this work. Volunteer programs are often marketed as game changers and difference makers but you should be prepared for the other side of the spectrum too.
Not Learning about the Culture before You Go
It can be difficult to make an impact if you have no social and historical context about where you are going to help. All too often, voluntourists make the mistake of going into a project with very little cultural education and background. By knowing the situation on the ground, you can better assess where you can make an impact.
Forgetting to Listen and Learn
Voluntourists often go into volunteering with one mindset. They want to do a little good while they are on vacation. Being of a one-track mind can in turn make the traveler a little tone deaf. Be sure while you are volunteering, you take the time to listen and learn from community members and their needs.
Thinking You Are on Vacation
By definition, voluntourism has a tourism component. However, some voluntourists can forget that they are volunteering for a portion of their vacation. Don’t forget the volunteer in voluntourism. If you are traveling for leisure and to volunteer, it might be beneficial to plan the volunteer component of your trip to occur in the beginning of your travels. You won’t have to shift out of vacation mode and you can focus more seriously on the project at hand.
Voluntourism has become a popular way to get a little bit more out of your travels. You aren’t just seeing a place with tourist eyes but also you are examining the real destination and where it can benefit from your help. Don’t make these mistakes and you’ll end up doing more good than harm.
Have you gone on a voluntourism trip? What mistakes did you make?