Nonprofits and travel firms help tourists add volunteering to their trips

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Everyone, it seems, is getting into the act.

Even cruise ships and hotels now offer guests the opportunity to volunteer. Last summer, Holland America launched the "Cruise With Purpose": Passengers stopping in Juneau boarded research vessels to collect water samples and record ocean-temperature readings to try to predict the success of Alaska's salmon run season. Ritz-Carlton arranges half-day volunteer activities at 74 locations: In Cancun, Mexico, guests travel to a Mayan pueblo to help renovate a school. In Jakarta, Indonesia, they cook and clean at a shelter for the city's street children.

From charities to tour companies to luxury hotels to cruise ships, there's no shortage of nonprofits and for-profits willing to organize a volunteer trip for the altruistic -- and paying -- traveler. For good reason: Nearly one in 20 U.S. travelers has taken a trip to help the less fortunate or support a humanitarian cause, according to research firm Y Partnership's 2009 National Leisure Travel Monitor.

"Voluntourism" has grown in popularity since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the destruction of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. But experts cite another reason for its ascent: It's trendy. Think Angelina Jolie touring refugee camps in Darfur.

"There's just much more interest in reaching out and helping people in poverty," said Genevieve Brown, executive director of the International Volunteer Programs Association, a group of nongovernmental organizations involved in volunteer work.

Still, many travelers genuinely want to help communities in the United States and abroad while also getting the opportunity to explore a new place. Voluntourism usually works best when the volunteer contributes to a well-organized project while also interacting with other volunteers and local residents. But sometimes volunteers don't have a fulfilling experience. Worse, there are times when they actually harm, not help, the community.

For instance, some voluntourism experts advise against volunteering at an orphanage, because the already vulnerable children can get too attached to someone who isn't going to stick around. Others say that volunteers should make sure they aren't taking jobs away from locals. "Any project can be harmful to the community if it's done wrong," said Zahara Heckscher, co-author of "How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas."

With so many voluntourism opportunities out there -- and so much that can go awry -- how's a traveler to choose?

David Clemmons, founder of, said that if you're thinking about being a voluntourist, you should first carefully consider why you're doing it. If you're doing it just for school credit (some programs offer courses), then you'd probably be better off getting a summer job. If you want to do it simply to write off a vacation, then you probably shouldn't be a voluntourist at all, Clemmons said. (Some U.S. voluntourists may seek a tax deduction if they pay fees to a U.S. nonprofit organization and if they spend most of their time working. But it depends on the organization and the specific trip, so volunteers should consult with a licensed accountant.)

If you're doing it for the right reasons, you should assess your skills to figure out what you can offer a community. There are many different types of volunteer opportunities: educational, environmental, research-oriented, humanitarian, cultural. Prospective volunteers should decide what kind of work they want to do -- and what they're qualified to do. Depending on your skills and experiences, you might be more useful planting trees than working with children. But setting realistic goals is also important.

"I advise people to have reasonable expectations, to understand what you will and won't be able to accomplish in a week and to not downplay cross-cultural exchange as a key part of the experience," said Doug Cutchins, co-author of "Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others."

Next, ask some practical questions. Where do you want to go? What kind of accommodations are you willing to tolerate? Are you willing to live with other volunteers or with a local family, or do you want to stay at a hotel or on a cruise ship? Are you a picky eater, or can you handle the local food in another country? How much time do you want to spend volunteering vs. sightseeing? How long are you willing or able to volunteer?

"People don't think fully about what they want, and that can be in terms of where they want to go, the type of housing they want, the type of work they want to do, and they sign up for something that is not a good match," Cutchins said.

Once you've tackled those practical concerns, you can turn your attention to choosing an organization (if, that is, you haven't opted for a hotel or cruise ship that will coordinate your volunteer work).

If you've decided to go with a nonprofit organization that does nothing but coordinate trips, you'll have to do some more digging. Interview someone who works for the group. First, make sure you share the organization's values, for some have overtly religious or political views.

Then find out whether the organization is actually running the program in the community you are being sent to or whether it's simply matching you with a local organization. While you shouldn't automatically stay away from every organization that acts as what Clemmons calls a "pass-through," you do run some risks. "At the end of the day, it's difficult for you to have any kind of recourse because, really, there's a disconnect between a pass-through organization and the on-the-ground organization," he said.

However, programs originated with the pass-through organizations often cost less simply because the organizations don't have paid staff in the host community.

Which raises the question: How much will you spend on a volunteer trip?

Prices run the gamut from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Be sure to ask the organization exactly what the fee covers. Some will cover just housing and food and require you to pay for your airfare, ground transportation and other expenses. Others will include transportation to and from the airport, supplies, liability insurance, evacuation insurance and much more. Some organizations even build a donation to the community into the price.

The more expensive organizations often provide volunteers with more support at the project site. For instance, some will give you an orientation and have a staff member stay with you and your group at all times. Others will let you figure things out on your own. "It's not necessarily the case that if you pay more money, you're going to get a more quality experience, but in general, you are going to get more support," Heckscher said.

Be clear about what kind of on-the-ground support you'll be getting. If you're volunteering abroad, will there be a bilingual staff member on-site at all times to help you? Do they follow up with you after your trip to make sure you're not having reentry problems?

Also make sure you find out what the organization would do if you were to become ill or get injured. Does the organization have current liability insurance? Is there a crisis management plan?

Finally, ask to speak to former volunteers. Many organizations have Facebook pages, which you can use to find volunteers. They're also willing to put you in touch with former volunteers, but more likely than not, only ones who had good experiences. Talk to the happy volunteers, but ask them to refer you to someone who was not so pleased with the program. "The happy customer/critical customer technique," Heckscher said. "I think that's the way to go."

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