Globe Aware in WSJ: Voluntour at Home and Abroad

There is an Interesting article in the June 27, 2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal that examines the motivating factors that lead people to sign up for volunteer vacations at home and abroad. Reporter Shelly Banjo speaks with volunteer vacationers and organizations that provide voluntourism opportunities and advises new and inexperienced travellers to carefully research destinations and work opportunities before signing up.

Globe Aware‘s one-week volunteer vacations are spotlighted in the article, described as “Short-term volunteer programs to promote cultural awareness and sustainability.” The author describes the work undertaken by Globe Aware volunteers as “building schools in the Andes, participating in irrigation projects in South East Asia, repairing trails and roads in Costa Rica, with trip donation costs starting at $1,090, excluding airfare. For more information of Globe Aware volunteer vacation destinations click here. To register for a program, click here.

Help Wanted: ‘Voluntour’ at Home and Abroad


When Shannon Mancuso decided to take a trip to Peru this past spring, she wanted to find a way to immerse herself in the country’s culture while tapping into her skills as a social worker.

peru volunteer vacationsTwo years out of graduate school and living in New York, Ms. Mancuso was short on time and money so she chose to go on a trip that could combine volunteerism and travel in the same week. “You get the best of both worlds,” she says.

Known as “voluntourism” or service travel, a growing number of people are combining volunteering with a vacation. Organizations that run these trips report an uptick in the number of new volunteers and inquiries, particularly after a round of natural disasters and global events that have inspired travelers to want to help out during their vacations.

With hundreds of programs to choose from, it’s crucial for travelers to do their homework before they take off, says Genevieve Brown, executive director of the International Volunteer Programs Association, an association of nongovernmental organizations involved in international volunteer work and internship exchanges.

Where to Go

First, decide what kind of trip you would like to go on: How long do you want to be away? Is there a particular country or cause you would like to pursue? Do you speak a language or possess certain skills that you would like to tap into?

Immediately after large disaster situations, such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, organizations typically look for people with first-responder training or volunteer management experience.

“Volunteers have to be realistic,” says Erin Barnhart, director of volunteerism initiatives at volunteer website “You may be well-meaning but without the training or experience you may actually become a hindrance.”

The current crisis hotspots, the Gulf Coast states, have one message for inexperienced volunteers: Be patient. They have set up websites where volunteers can register, receive updates and wait until their help is needed.

“We’re frustrated that we can’t put more volunteers to work immediately, but the reality is it’s a slow, evolving process,” says Janet Pace, executive director of the Louisiana Serve Commission, which is coordinating volunteer efforts in that state. “We will need you soon.”

BP, the British oil giant largely responsible for the spill, is paying many out-of-work fishermen and shrimpers to help with cleanup operations, leaving little work for volunteers in the actual cleanup efforts.

Meanwhile, a coalition of conservation groups including the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society has been tapped to handle oiled wildlife and bird rescue.

“We made a decision not to let volunteers handle oil at this point,” Ms. Pace says.

However, she says a growing number of volunteers will be needed to help with human services and relief efforts. Emergency distribution centers have been set up where volunteers can help distribute food and supplies, provide crisis counseling and case-management services.

Realistic expectations also come into play when choosing the right program.

“Volunteers who parachute into a country and build a school may leave feeling good about themselves but unless local people are involved in determining what volunteers do, that school might never be used because there’s no capacity to, say, hire teachers,” Ms. Barnhart says.

Known as drive-by volunteerism, volunteers who don’t work with local organizations may replace actual paid work that can be done in a community and create a dependency on foreign volunteers, she says.

Paying for It

While it sounds counterintuitive to pay to volunteer, most trips require volunteers to pay a fee for participating. Organizations use these funds to cover their year-round coordinating and operational costs — including lodging, predeparture training for participants and other resources needed for overseas projects such as building houses or planting trees. Often, these fees include airport pickup, side trips, translators and emergency assistance.
“Still, volunteers shouldn’t pay more than $1,000 to $2,000 for programs under two weeks, not including airfare,” Ms. Brown says. “And be sure to find out what that money is going toward.”

For trips that last more than a month, volunteers could pay more than $5,000, she says.

Before choosing a program, call the organization and ask about lodging, meals, preliminary training and if the organization has staff on the ground to assist volunteers. Ask about what local partners volunteers work with and for a sample itinerary of what kind of work volunteers are likely to do while on the trip.

A number of organizations offer matching scholarships or grants. The Volunteers for Prosperity Service Incentive Program, part of the Office of Volunteers for Prosperity at the U.S. Agency for International Development, provides grants of $500 to $1,000 to U.S. partner organizations for skilled Americans who want to volunteer abroad.

Plan for the Worst

It’s important to find out if program fees cover the cost of travel insurance. Most U.S.-based insurance plans don’t cover health problems, car accidents and catastrophic events in other countries.

Since many places where people volunteer are in rural areas without adequate medical care, consider purchasing additional insurance, Ms. Barnhart says.

Also, find out who you can contact in case of a natural disaster, political disruption, personal health problems or other emergencies.

If you would like more information about taking a volunteer vacation to Costa Rica, Romania, Peru, China, India, or you are interested in voluntourism in another country or on another continent, please visit Globe Aware’s Destinations Gallery for program and trip descriptions, dates and Minimum Contribution Fees.



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