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Voluntourism Basics

by Gina Corsiglia

Aug 26, 2014

International headquarters of Habitat for Humanity in Americus, Georgia © Robhainer | Dreamstime

Trends / Voluntourism

Voluntourism is the practice of volunteering while traveling or living abroad. Despite the recent deluge of headlines about voluntourism, the concept of combining voluntary service with travel has actually been around for more than 60 years. International Voluntary Services, a non-profit organization that sent American volunteers to provide aid in developing countries, was founded in the 1950s and is most often cited as the start of voluntourism. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s the travel industry began to explore this niche that combines philanthropy and leisure.


Peace Corp volunteer does the Filipino bird dance © United States Peace Corps

Peace Corp volunteer does the Filipino bird dance © United States Peace Corps

In recent years, the practice expanded to become its own thriving industry as short-term volunteer vacations have grown in popularity. The wide variety of volunteer opportunities available means it is now easier than ever for travelers to incorporate volunteering into their next trip abroad.


Voluntourism Programs

From working the land on an Italian farm to teaching English in a Thai city, the opportunities available to volunteer travelers are nearly limitless. The experience is extremely customizable as travelers can opt to plan the entire trip themselves or work with a placement company. Here are the most popular types of voluntourism models:


Traditional: The United States Peace Corps is an example of the more traditional model of voluntourism, and the model with which most people are familiar. The government-sponsored organization sends volunteers to work on social and economic projects in developing countries. These opportunities typically require a long-term commitment, a college degree and include a lengthy application process.


Placement Company: Middlemen companies connect international volunteers with local NGOs. And they take a fee in exchange for facilitating the connection. It’s a great option for specific volunteer experiences, and available to travelers who want either short- or long-term placements.


Volunteer exchanges: Websites like Workaway and HelpX provide online listings of hosts who invite volunteer helpers to stay and work with them in exchange for room and board. From farming in Hawaii to working in a hostel in Albania, these sites offer a wide range of opportunities in almost every country around the world. Travelers pay a small fee to access the listings and host contact information. These are the best option for volunteer travelers with only limited time to spare as hosts tend to be flexible in terms of scheduling.


Farm exchanges: Similar to Workaway and HelpX, WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) link travelers interested in volunteering on organic farms with farmers looking for help. In return for the help around the farm, hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about farming and organic lifestyles.


Voluntourism is a new way for travelers to get off the beaten path and really connect with the local community and experience the culture. It allows tourists to see a place they would not otherwise visit and, perhaps most importantly, give a little back to the people in the area that they are visiting.


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