How to Do Volunteer Travel

the Right Way This Summer

By Joey Conway

Over the last few years, the idea of ‘volunteer travel’ has been a hot topic in the travel world. Due to an increase in demand by millennials, like myself, who want to travel with purpose, companies with little or no expertise in international development have started to enter the sector, leading to unintended negative consequences for host communities. This sometimes overshadows the capacity for good that well-designed volunteer projects can achieve. 

As someone who is currently pursuing a masters in sustainable development, following a background in guiding international volunteers, I have seen the good that responsible volunteer travel can create

In order to clear up some of these stereotypes, my goal is to provide well-rounded knowledge on how to volunteer abroad the right way this summer. Whether you are a student looking for an alternative summer break, or just anyone who wants to travel responsibly, this article is for you!


What Responsible Volunteer Tourism Means 

Responsible tourism is an ideology that encourages travelers to consciously minimize their negative impacts while maximizing the benefits for the countries, cultures, and ecosystems we visit

However, when volunteer tourism organizations are not implementing best practices, it can lead to unforeseen negative outcomes. Even with the best of intentions, organizations could cause more harm than good if they’re not conscientious in their approach. Travelling responsibly should be an internal pledge to do your research, empower local partners to reach their goals, and to be constantly critical of how you can minimize your negative footprint, while maximizing your positive handprint. 

How Volunteer Travel Can Be Done Right

Because so many people, primarily students, want to travel with purpose and give back, many organizations have exploited this demand to turn a profit. As a result, their projects have been centered around the individual’s experience rather than the communities they’re meant to be supporting.

On the other hand, when carefully designed and carried out responsibly, volunteer travel has the potential to provide important resources to marginalized communities. It can lead to locally-driven initiatives that inspire communities into action, capitalizing on the existing physical, human, social, and natural capital within the region and building capacity from the inside out. All of these aspects contribute to sustainable development, which can be jump started by international volunteers working alongside local stakeholders on carefully designed projects.

You can help to change the world by volunteering abroad, the key is asking the right questions to ensure that you are doing it responsibly.

Questions like:

Is this program putting the desires of the community first? 

Am I acting as a supporting participant to local leaders in this communities’ project? 

Are the community members involved and excited about the work that we are doing?

Am I respecting this community’s culture? 

If you answered yes to these questions, then you are off to a good start in finding a responsible volunteer travel organization!

Understanding Your Role as a

Responsible Traveler

More often than not, international volunteers act in ways that perpetuates a “savior” complex. To be an effective international volunteer, it is extremely important to ditch your ego and understand your role as an outsider aiming to learn from and lift up local leaders.

Development projects, especially those incorporating international volunteers, should focus on empowering the communities they work with to gain the capacity, capital, and inspiration to develop innovative solutions for their own development. This makes it extremely important for volunteer travel organizations, as well as volunteer tourists, to put host communities first.

By ditching your ego, you’ll be able to fully immerse yourself within the project, gauge whether or not your work is benefiting in the way it was intended, and act as an empathetic liaison for the people you are supporting.

Volunteering Abroad and How

to Practice What You Preach

So now the question is: How can I volunteer abroad the right way? The reality is that every situation is different. Along with the ideas of responsible tourism (discussed above) here are some of my recommendations based on my own experience in the international volunteer industry.

  • Listen. This is the best way to establish trust and ensure that your work is aligned with the goals of the community.
  • Learn. You must learn before you can help. Research the local language, history, culture, environment, politics and socio-economics before arriving in-country, and then learn as much as you possibly can from your hosts on the ground.
  • Lift up the softest voices. Power dynamics can exclude the voices of some. Ask yourself: are the people helping to make decisions representative of the whole community?
  • Tell empowering stories. Choose to take yourself out of the focus of that one Instagram post and use your platform to break down stereotypes and promote dignity of the people you meet abroad.
  • Celebrate cultural differences. Part of being a good volunteer is also being a gracious guest of the community. Take the time to learn about their culture with an open mind.
  • Step outside your comfort zone. You will certainly find yourself in uncomfortable situations while volunteering abroad. Embrace this discomfort, laugh through language barriers, and grow.

My Experience and Why You Should Go on a Volunteer Travel Trip

When I was eighteen years old, I decided that I wanted more from my education so I signed up to volunteer abroad in Tanzania with GIVE Volunteers. I expected to learn a lot, but I learned more than I ever could have imagined.

GIVE showed me what it means to put communities first. Each one of their projects, whether it was the school that we were building, the English curriculum we were teaching, or the local guides that coordinated all of this, were chosen and designed by the village. Their methodology ensured that when we were mixing cement for the school, gathering supplies for our tutoring sessions, or participating in cultural activities, the entire community would help and participate, showing me that this wasn’t my project. It was their project.

Being able to have such a deep connection with the host community taught me more about the world and myself than I ever learned at university. It showed me how far I could push myself, what it means to feel truly connected to the world, and that responsible volunteer travel can lead to sustainable change in the lives of everyone involved.

If you want to take the initiative to learn firsthand what it means to be a responsible volunteer traveler and grow into your best self while travelling with purpose, I recommend GIVE Volunteers.

That being said, wherever you decide to travel, take these lessons with you and experience an ethical volunteer travel adventure this summer. I know you won’t regret it.