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Volunteering abroad blends two wonderful things: travel and being of service to those in need. Voluntourism (as it’s often called) gained popularity in recent years, and it has become big business for travel companies who arrange do-gooder trips for gap years, study abroad semesters and personal vacations. (It’s an industry worth an estimated $2.6 billion per year.)

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And while taking a volunteer trip can seem like a good thing on the surface, you really have to choose wisely. Unfortunately, some organizations don’t always have locals’ best interests in mind, and are more than ready to take advantage of well-meaning tourists. Thus, it’s a project you’ll want to research thoughtfully, and to reflect upon thoughtfully, too: For example, if your goal is to pad your resume or school application, or look “cool” on Instagram, you might want to rethink your motivation.

For more insight and advice on how to navigate voluntourism opportunities, we connected with Kelley Louise, Founder and Executive Director of Impact Travel Alliance (ITA), the world’s largest global community for socially and eco-conscious travelers. Here’s her advice.

Ask yourself why you want to volunteer

“A lot of travelers want to volunteer their time because it can be fulfilling to participate in a purpose-driven experience,” says Louise. “It’s important to consider what goes into those motivations and how your actions impact more than just yourself. Dig deep and look at your motivations, and make sure that you’re doing more than just making yourself feel good, and actually doing good.”

Do thoughtful research on organizations that arrange volunteer experiences abroad

“Two of the biggest factors to look for are detailed information on the long-term, sustainable development of their programs; and programs that match volunteers with opportunities based on relevant skills,” says Louise. “Robust systems should be in place, and those should be clear and transparent.”

Ask questions—and beware of organizations that shy away from providing answers

“Get curious, think critically and ask the tough questions,” says Louise. “A reputable organization will be excited to share [information] with you. Reputable organizations will also be willing to admit when there are opportunities for growth. If an organization is unable to give you in-depth information, they are not reputable and you should not volunteer with them. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Be wary of sham volunteer experiences

“Some voluntourism experiences are set up solely for the entertainment of travelers, such as walls that travelers repaint over and over again, without their knowledge of other travelers having already participated in the same activity,” says Louise. Again, be sure to ask how your money will be spent and how the organization benefits the community long term.

Think twice—and do your research— before volunteering at an orphanage

While caring for orphaned children may seem like a fulfilling way to help out during your travels, proceed with caution advises Louise. “There are a lot of problems with orphanages, ranging from child development issues to the fact that many of those children aren’t even orphans,” she says. If a volunteer organization works with children but does not require a background check, consider that a red flag. (Editor’s note: There are legitimate orphanages around the world that do good work, of course, and may invite volunteers. Just be sure to do your research. ReThink Orphanages is a good place to start.)

Seek out organizations that keep the local community’s needs first

“When you start narrowing down a list of organizations you want to volunteer with, look deep into their marketing and program materials, and even reach out to them and ask the hard questions,” says Louise. “How is the organization committed to helping the destination on a long-term basis? Will your volunteer role take a job away from a local? Make sure their system isn’t set up to create a revolving door for volunteers.”

Make sure your skills align with the volunteer role

“Look for organizations that have volunteer opportunities that align with your skills,” says Louise. “For example, if you don’t have a medical background, don’t seek out volunteer opportunities that are centered around healthcare. Also make sure you are the most appropriate person to take on a role, as locals might be better suited.” Reputable organizations will ask for a resume or CV to best match you to an opportunity.

Don’t leverage a volunteer experience to build your “personal brand” on social media

“Oftentimes, well-intentioned people lose sight of basic manners when they are in another country,” says Louise. “For example, in our own country, someone would be appalled if you just walked into their home and took a photo of their kid without even knowing their name and then posted it on social media without asking. But for some reason, travelers do that in other countries, and it can garner a lot of ‘likes’ from followers. It sounds crazy when you frame it like that. Like, ‘Of course I wouldn’t do that!’ But the reality is that many people do. Remember, you are a guest in their country. Frame your actions around a foundation of kindness and respect, and always remember that you are the guest.”

Consider non-volunteering opportunities that can be just as impactful

“It’s important to remember that you can also have a fulfilling and impactful experience while traveling without volunteering,” says Louise. “Look to community-based tourism projects or learning-service based opportunities for experiences that can have a positive impact on local communities. For example, many nonprofit organizations have opportunities where you can visit their projects, learn about what they’re doing, connect with their employees to learn more about their mission, and (when possible) contribute financially. These experiences are a really rewarding way to get closer to an impactful project in a local community and become an advocate for their mission.”

Try out a domestic voluntourism opportunity first

“In a world where international travel is essentially at a standstill, we’ve looked closer to home for opportunities to explore,” says Louise. “Volunteering in your own community is a great way to get involved, make a difference, and also deepen your understanding of what a good volunteer experience looks like. It’s much easier to decide whether a volunteer opportunity is right for you when you’re close to home, because you have a deeper understanding of your community and culture already. If you can use those critical thinking skills and experiences to help you navigate volunteer opportunities abroad at a later date, that’s a big win in making sure your volunteer experience is not only good for you, but also for the place you’re visiting.”

Impact Travel Alliance hosts virtual events each month that are designed to help travelers explore mindfully. Stay in the loop by signing up here.

Tagged: Cheap Tips, Tips & advice, Types of Travel, Volunteer vacations

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