Tips to Choose the Right Volunteer Vacations

Choosing a volunteer vacation when so many have entered mainstream travel options can be a daunting task, especially for families and teens. It’s truly an opportunity to see the world, enrich lives, serve others and, for students, even give their college resumes a boost.

Here are some tips to help families select an appropriate volunteer vacation, then make the most of it once all ages are on board.

Teens and group leader
Teens can join a variety of volunteer programs, in groups or with their family.

What are Volunteer Vacations and Who Runs Them?

The term ‘volunteer vacation’ first inched its way into our vocabulary in 1993 from travel guide author Bill McMillan, and now describes nearly 2,000 non-governmental organizations and for-profit companies who offer travel and service opportunities. Most would-be volunteers are eager to help those less fortunate and assume they’ll make a positive impact in their volunteer communities simply by showing up and lending a hand.

Unfortunately, only a handful of non-profits offer truly helpful economical and human assistance to the communities they claim to serve. Because students are idealistic and generous, they may jump into a volunteer project that does more harm than good, and contributes to the “Ugly American” stereotype abroad.

But with so many programs and causes to choose from in the “voluntourism” area, how do families and students find safe, reputable, and enriching experiences?

Advice on Selecting Volunteer Vacations

Global Volunteers, helping people connect with volunteer projects worldwide since 1984, designs volunteer programs for families and students, professionals and groups. Their team offers some insightful advice, including tips on carefully choosing programs that will benefit their host community and avoiding any projects that appear exploitive.

1. Trust local leaders. Help the community through the projects they request, not in the manner you believe is helpful. Don’t let your own ideas get in the way of truly serving.

2. Resist the urge to give money or personal gifts directly to local people, as this can generate inequities between community members and make recipients targets of jealousies, and worse. Ethical organizations channel volunteers’ contributions through community leaders and local institutions.

3. Remember you’re a guest in the local community, even as a volunteer. Observe local customs, adhere to local laws, and respect traditions. Err on the side of caution.

4. Choose sustainable volunteer programs that are firmly rooted in the long-term development of the host community. Commit sufficient time to truly contribute to development work. Avoid service “add-ons” that are designed to generate revenue for the sending organization and offer minor, if any, assistance to local people.

How to Make the Right Decision on Volunteering

To ensure volunteers choose reputable programs, Global Volunteers strongly encourages students and volunteers to seek out programs with a minimum of one day of service. Otherwise, it will not conform to IRS requirements, could possibly have unethical intentions, and bring little impact to the community. 

Bud Philbrook, Global Volunteers CEO has added: “Genuine international service with a credible non-profit organization engages volunteers in full-time work projects, five days per week and is tax-deductible for U.S. tax-payers.”

Other Volunteer and Sustainable Development Issues to Consider

Make sure the volunteer project doesn’t cause the local people and community more effort than the project warrants. Many part-time opportunities feature a day of touring an orphanage or working in the community. Instead of truly putting in the adequate time to help the community, volunteers may be benefiting from their volunteer efforts at the expense of the local people.

Global Volunteers’ motto is “Travel that feeds the soul” and Philbrook notes the damage that terms like voluntourism can do to volunteer vacation efforts. Voluntourism puts an emphasis on tourism in a place of service, he notes, but can often slow the foundations for true volunteer efforts and progress.

Check out these other Teen and Family Volunteer Opportunities where the community effort comes first.


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4 Replies to “How To Volunteer On Vacation”

  • Martin Snedden

    Thanks for sharing this! you’ll be able to do good as well as have fun and make a difference in the world. Whereas volunteer is always appreciated by all people.

  • Ewen Chatfield

    Indeed, a good list. Everyday. At home or on the road.

  • sabretoothed chickens

    We are a family who likes to travel and volunteer where possible. We give gifts of time and service. We find that finding small grass roots organisations when on the ground or at your destination creates the best win-win for all concerned. For example we taught English in a small village in Indonesia –
    In the end it is not the actual work you do as a volunteer that is of the greatest impact but the stereotypes you breakdown and the connections made 🙂

  • ToddHogan

    Volunteer vacations, or voluntourism, is one of the fastest growing trends in the travel industry. By taking a volunteer vacation, you’ll be able to do good as well as have fun and make a difference in the world. Whereas volunteer is always appreciated by all people. One of my friends is a working as a volunteer for voyage humanitaire, these trips offer a great charity experience, Where you can offer your support to the needful people.