Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Knowing what to look for

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 23, 2010

Looking for a short term volunteer trip overseas can be rather daunting.  A lot of operators offer voluntourism trips and there are a lot of destinations to choose from, and the trick is in knowing how to narrow it down.  When I took my first volunteer trip, I luckily stumbled onto an organization that, as it turned out, met the few criteria that I had in mind at the time.  Only after that trip, when I did further research, did I realize that there were many additional considerations that were also worth taking into account.  Funnily enough, when I came up with a more comprehensive list of criteria, I found myself coming right back to the same organization to do another trip, although I also found another organization that I liked quite a bit and which I will be doing yet different trip with in the future.

Obviously, my criteria are not going to be the same as everyone else’s, but I think it still might be worthwhile to go over the things I learned as I undertook my research for a second and third volunteer vacation.

In my case, the first two steps I took was to narrow my search down according to two criteria: trip length and location.   In the case of the former, having a full time job and limited vacation options meant that I wanted to limit my time to less than two weeks.  In the case of the latter, my chosen location was Latin America, which of course ruled out trips to Asia or to European destinations like Romania.  My reasons for choosing Latin America were twofold.  First, because of the limited time of the trip, I didn’t want jet lag to add to the complications of doing a volunteer vacation, and traveling south instead of east or west solved that problem.  Second, in my case, I spoke a little Spanish and was interested in trying to use my language skills in some way.  And maybe a third reason was that I just had a certain attraction to the region.

Aside from these initial considerations, some other issues arose as I tried to choose a trip to take.  I wanted to consider the type of organization I was willing to work with, the type of trip that they offered, and the type of work that I would be doing.

The type of organization you are going to work with is, to say the least, very important.  For reasons I have identified elsewhere, I choose not to deal with for-profit voluntourism operators.  (A fair percentage of for-profit operators seem to be based in the UK for some reason, although several of them, like Projects Abroad, have offices in the US as well.   Other examples of for-profit operators include i-to-i, uVolunteer, and Global Crossroad).  Also important to me is the philosophy that lies behind the work that the organization does.  Is there any sort of focus, for example, on indigenous groups and social justice issues?  Does the organization see itself as working in partnership with local organizations in the countries they serve?   Does the organization focus only on work, or also on cultural exchange and bridging boundaries between cultures?

Some people want to put in something like a full 40 hour work week on their volunteer vacation and also to see some discreet accomplishment at the end of the volunteer period.  Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, for example, would probably serve that desire.  But other people might be satisfied with joining in on an ongoing project without necessarily seeing a finished product at the end of the term of service, and may be interested in combining volunteer work with cultural exchange, tours and meetings with people from the community.

Some organizations are focused around a group dynamic, others not so much.  If an organization gives specific and limited start dates for its projects, then it is more focused on the formation of groups around those dates.  On the other hand, if the organization states that you can start volunteering , for example, on the first and third Monday of any month, then you are simply part of a stream of people who come and go over time.  Personally, I like the idea of a group dynamic, especially if I sign up for a project by myself and I am traveling to a developing country where my language skills are limited.  If you are more self-sufficient or outgoing you might not have such a strong need to be part of a group, and in that case the freedom to start more or less whenever you want might be more appealing.   Some agencies that have a group dynamic will send a team leader down to the site who will meet you at the airport and escort you to the site (Global Citizens Network does this).  Others will have someone already in the host country who serves as a contact and who will arrange to meet with the volunteers (Globe Aware does this).  In either case, these organizations usually help to take care of the logistics of getting you from the airport to the work site and finding lodging for you.  The management of these logistics is part of the value that is added by paying an organization to arrange these trips.


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