Category Archives: Blog

So You Want to Travel to Volunteer? Be a Sustainably-minded Decision-maker Before You Go*

OrganizationalHealth-TonyRichards-DecisionMakingImage courtesy of:

Traveling to volunteer has had a lot of press coverage lately, but unfortunately most of it focuses on the negative impacts of this activity. Critics suggest traveling to volunteer (also known as volunteer tourism or voluntourism) can, for example, promote White Saviour thinking or mismatched projects that are not sustainable. However it does not have to be this way! To avoid negative consequences related to travel volunteering, volunteer tourists should become sustainably-minded decision-makers before making any commitments to go. Here are four top considerations to think about.

Personality traits and motivation. Prior to proceeding with a favourite project, travel volunteers should examine what personality traits they possess, and question how these traits might behave in a traveling to volunteer setting. How outgoing am I? Am I flexible? Can I be calm if a situation becomes unruly? If you think you are easily stressed by day-to-day living, you might need to examine how you might act if challenged in a foreign context. In addition to understanding your personality traits, you should decipher what is motivating you to go and whether the particular journey is well-aligned with this motive, or whether a different one might be more appropriate. Some popular motives to volunteer outside of one’s community include wanting to experience a new culture, adding to a resume, and giving back to society.

Skill to project matching. While thoughtfully reflecting on personality traits and motives for going, volunteer tourists should seek organisations that intentionally match volunteers’ skills with community projects. This is important to understand because program to skill matched volunteers are likely to be repeat volunteers, which can lead to sustainable community impacts. In 2017 I spent just over 5 weeks researching the US based nonprofit Daraja Music Initiative that focuses on music and conservation education with select Moshi, Tanzanian youth each summer. This organisation, like many others, is a good example of a sending entity that intentionally seeks skilled volunteers to match their community initiative. As a result, not only do multiple passionate volunteers return each year, but deep relational community bonds have been formed.

Local community collaboration. It is not enough to find a skill-to-project matched opportunity, a pre-trip volunteer should understand how the organisation (who is featuring the opportunity) works with the local community. Who, for example, is leading the project? Is it community run, or internationally driven? In addition, is the organisation partnering and collaborating with other community organisations, and/or international agencies or working independently to push their own agenda? Collaboration generates knowledge through the process of group interaction and shared problem solving. It is one key concept of sustainability.

Objectives, measurements and reports. The traveling volunteer who is a sustainably-minded decision-maker, looks for organisational projects that have clearly defined project objectives, measurable objectives, and if past project reports are available for viewing. In other words, does the organisation’s website feature project impacts, and if so, how were they measured? It is important to keep in mind any project reports or informational updates on websites should include impact stories from community members’ perspectives as well.

Once one considers these different elements, one is in a better position to assess which alternative, if any, is most appropriate. Although it may seem somewhat anticlimactic to suggest, sometimes the best option is to stay home and look for other ways to support a community project, such as volunteering online or close to home.

*Blog post taken from December 2018 article in Green Living Arizona magazine


International Volunteer Tourism: Growth and Future

az-1024x683Photo credit:

It is clear more and more travellers want “giving back” volunteer opportunities either as the focus of their entire vacation or as an add-on piece of a longer trip. Hence, the focus of this website! So in recognition of International Volunteer (Tourism) Day, this blog post aims to discuss how international volunteer tourism has grown, and how the demand for volunteer tourism trips will continue to change the tourism industry.

According to a recent NPR radio program, more than 1.6 million tourists are spending over $2 billion dollars to participate in foreign volunteer trips, and the numbers of volunteer tourists continue to increase. Besides participating in growing tourism industry trends such as AirBnB – one recognised brand of the sharing economy, or slow travel trips that understand “doing less is actually more,” millions of people are drawn to “paying to work” vacations because they are purportedly known to help disadvantaged third world communities. However because this activity is not actively regulated, many host destinations are not benefitting as much as volunteer tourists may hope. This is likely because the experience is packaged as a consumer driven project rather than a sustainability focused host community development initiative.

While volunteer tourists may have their heart in the right place, the demand for volunteer tourism experiences that make a lasting impact to host communities will continue to change the tourism industry. Volunteer tourism sending organisations and community planners will need to realise that volunteers must be matched according to their skill set, or as in the case of “orphanage tourism,” understand that orphan detachment disorders typically occur because of episodic presence of caring adults. Demographic groups such as Millennials known as “loyalty seekers” who like to take extended meaningful trips because of the unappealing thought of participating in mass tourism, and Baby Boomers looking for a voluntourism experience during their cruising holiday, need to be studied to ensure their activity contributes positively to development in these communities.

The question is, how will the industry continue to respond to this growing tourism subset? And, how will international volunteer (tourist) preferences and ethical stances shape the industry? It appears ethical stances of groups and individuals, for example, have already given their stamp of disapproval towards orphanage tourism as a form of volunteer tourism. Time will tell how the phenomenon of international volunteering will progress. But one thing appears to be true, this type of tourism is not going away any time soon!




Not Only #GivingTuesday But Any Day of the Year

date lock_0

We all know that volunteers are one of the most selflessly-giving individuals in the community. Many programs or various organisational entities would not exist if it were not for the countless volunteer hours of service or direct financial support provided by these community members. While there are the traditional ways to donate one’s time and money to a worthy cause (such as physically showing up or directly donating money), there are others that can be considered too. Here are some ideas on how you can participate in, or volunteer for, a local, national or international worthy community project any day of the year.

Volunteer Online. Many people do not have the time, resources, or physical capabilities to hop on a plane and volunteer in a foreign community. But, they have a volunteer’s heart!  Here’s where the possibility of volunteering online for a national, or international project might fit in. You need not have a computer either. Some opportunities ask for a phone connection, and then the rest is worked out between you and your intended volunteering organisation.

Sponsor a Volunteer. Let’s face it, many traveling to volunteer experiences cost a lot of money. Not only are people freely giving of their time and money, but they likely are paying to volunteer.  As a friend, co-worker, or family member, you could directly support a loved one or friend by sponsoring their desire to travel to volunteer. This just might be the perfect Christmas or holiday gift!

Buy Goods That Give Money Back to Charity. Buying a gift that advertises some proceeds will be going to charity, is an indirect way to support a charitable cause without giving directly. However, do your homework. Be aware of the difference between how much is actually being donated and what might be a clever marketing ploy. As a savvy shopper, perhaps it might be better to just give directly to the charity instead.

Employer-matching or Support Programs. Your employer might be one of the businesses that match donation dollars to your favourite charity. Perhaps they might sponsor you, as their employee, going overseas to participate in a community cause? Or possibly they are like Tourism Cares, the philanthropic arm of the tourism industry, that creates “give back” projects for their employees to volunteer with? If so, you are one lucky employee! If you represent a business, maybe it’s time you considered matching employee charitable donations, or supporting an employee’s desire to travel to volunteer for a worthy community project.


Black Friday, Wish Lists, and Volunteer Travel

jeff-sheldon-3232-unsplashThe week will feature one of the most well-known events a lot of US families look forward to all year. That being,…Black Friday. Of course Thanksgiving itself (now only two days away!) is a much loved family-celebratory-day-of thanks. But, for some, this ushers in the beginning of mega-sales and abundant shopping trips. Regardless if you participate in Black Friday shopping or not, most people will find themselves needing to purchase a wished-for gift for a special someone at some point in the next few weeks. Being #prepared as a volunteer traveler includes having desired items packed to keep your comfort level high and your sanity intact.

Referring to websites, and results from our Facebook Page poll, here is a list of items travelers may be wanting, along with example products provided. Disclaimer: we do not receive compensation for any items purchased through this blog post. In addition, this is a sample list. There are items and categories not mentioned but will be added in future posts.

Luggage, containers, and more. Before you purchase anything, you should consider the receptacle that will hold your stuff. Especially if you are taking only a carry-on bag. There are countless options out there that will hold everything from your small toiletries to packing cubes for your t-shirts and jeans.

Clothing-type Items. Have you thought about packing a towel that dries quickly and is a personal luxury in that far-from home volunteer space? What about shoes that take up little space and are very comfortable? These are examples of clothing-type items that people should consider when packing their bags. Popular categories, according to our Facebook poll respondents, also includes weather appropriate clothing, and apparel that will with-stand a natured-based volunteering experience.

Entertainment. Both enroute and at your destination, there are items you will want to take with you to keep you entertained. A book, a note-pad, a small card game, or coloring book will go far as you spend time whittling hours away in airports, airplanes, and nights in destination accommodations where Internet access might be limited. Noise-reducing ear-buds, headphones, and other tech-related gadgets are a welcome addition to any traveler’s wish list!

Food. Are you vegan, have specific food allergies, or simply would like to be #prepared by having familiar foods on hand to assist you with the introduction to unfamiliar cultural food. When I travelled to Tanzania last summer, I packed food-related items such as protein powder mixes, almond milk, and a small blender, to create breakfast smoothies that helped keep my digestive tract happy in a foreign environment.

Camera. Last but not least, you’ll want to ensure you snap all those treasured photos with a camera that suits your photography experience and matches your budget. Many travelers are, for example, using smartphones to capture breath-taking images with add-on trendsetting equipment. Others prefer to use a more traditional camera that can be grabbed at a moment’s notice without having to take a non-international compatible personal camera phone as well.

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

Caravan of Migrants: Volunteer’s Heart, Assumptions, and Safety

Today’s news networks continue to feature information and debates about the large caravan of migrants slowly making their way to the U.S. border from the South (primarily from Honduras). Reasons for their plight include the continued risk of life-long poverty, corruption, and gang violence in their native land. While this topic might be uncomfortable to talk about, and at first glance does not seem to be related to the subject of traveling to volunteer, I believe there are 3 nuggets of truth traveling volunteers should think about that relate to this news event.

Volunteer’s Heart

Contrary to popular belief, Americans (traveling or at home) are not the only volunteers helping their fellow earth-dwellers. Volunteer nurses and doctors in Mexico, for example, have been selflessly exhausting their time and resources to assist families and individuals facing health crisis’ due to marching towards the USA. But. Hey (you might be thinking)! I’ve travelled to volunteer in Mexico to assist Mexican communities X, Y, and Z before. How is it they have resources, time, and energy to give to others when they need help themselves? After all, we took suitcases full of clothes, medical supplies and books to support them. While there might be all sorts of reasons why there are supplies and medical personnel available, the simple answer might be because these are generous-spirited Mexicans who have a volunteer’s heart!

Noted by last week’s guest blogger Nathanael Olsen, a GREAT volunteer has passion and enthusiasm, is good at communicating and interacting with others, and very flexible in terms of getting a job done. We can say inside a GREAT volunteer beats a volunteer’s heart! Medical volunteers in PIJIJIAPAN, Mexico, possibly needing outside assistance for their own families yet readily available to medically assist with migrant’s needs, are volunteering because of their passion to serve others, ability to interact with people regardless of who they are, and the flexibility to get a humanitarian crisis job addressed. You who travel to volunteer most likely already have a volunteer’s heart and this will contribute to a powerful transformative experience for you, the community you will serve in and the one you call home.


Who has had a bad case of assumptions? All (honest) hands go up! I know I have. I’ve assumed someone was talking negatively about me behind my back, I’ve assumed I knew what parenting was like before I had children, and sigh, I assumed the Arizona Cardinals (for those who don’t know, this is Phoenix’s football team) could not possibly play any worse now than they did last season. Well, I’ve used too much energy assuming and quite frankly have been very wrong multiple times. The problem with assumptions is you make generalisations about things or people that may not true because they are not based on actual facts. Referring back to the example of migrants from Honduras making their way to the USA. I can assume I understand why people would risk their lives to trek 1000 miles to a border that may not receive. I can assume I understand what a community is like because I researched them prior to traveling to volunteer. But us traveling volunteers cannot assume anymore. We must remember the danger of assumptions are closely related to a form of stereotyping – forming an “us” vs. “them” situation – which does not breath room for relationship-building and the pursuit of fact-finding to create an overall positive sense of wellbeing and social health.


Prior to going on any traveling to volunteer experience, there are safety considerations to mull over. Is it an area known for pickpocketing? Malaria? Venomous snakes that slither in the night? Do I have to think about “Plan B” if my volunteering experience becomes unsafe? Who will I turn to if representatives of my volunteer sending organisation is halfway across the world? This news story series got me thinking about are the scores of traveling volunteers who go to countries, such as Honduras, where many citizens of these countries want to leave because of safety concerns or violence. However, if these areas are so violent, why are volunteers traveling to neighbourhoods and border towns that might put them in harm’s way? Of course most wise (you would hope!) volunteer sending organisations will not be creating itineraries in areas deemed unsafe. As an alternative, maybe we should be thinking about the communities and countries that are facing difficult situations and consider another way to support these people groups without physically traveling there. Something to think about.

Be a GREAT volunteer! by Nathanael Olsen

While I have not personally travelled to volunteer, I have held many local volunteer positions in my life – from watering birds-of-prey to volunteering at various retail-like stores. Some seemed fascinating to do for fun because they were very unique volunteering opportunities, while others were strategic for the purposes of volunteering for an organisation in hopes to eventually get a paid job. Whatever the case may be, simply put, in order to be a great volunteer there are several characteristics a volunteer should have before they consider volunteering at home or abroad.

You have to have a high level of passion and enthusiasm for what you hope to accomplish as a volunteer. A person may take the time to volunteer at a zoo, for example, but may not necessarily engage with the animals or with visitors who want to have an incredible time. If the person shows up consistently, but once there tends to be more interested in looking at their phone, they may make the case they have been a reliable unpaid worker, however their passion is lacking which may not necessarily make them a great volunteer. Volunteers should also be good at communicating and interacting with other people and flexible in terms of shifts or what you are willing to do even if it is not something you may normally feel comfortable doing at the time.

I believe there are a lot of similarities between my volunteering experiences and volunteers who travel to volunteer outside their local community. Although I have not been to an exotic location to volunteer my time, I think all volunteers regardless of location should be able to effectively communicate with others and be flexible in terms of job requirements in-country as noted earlier. Being a flexible team player, for example, will probably encourage other community members and volunteers to do the same. At the end of it all, I think the biggest difference between being an average and great volunteer comes from the level of passion you have towards the organisation and the community cause. Volunteering, regardless of location, most likely will not only benefit the community and the organisation but yourself because of the efforts you took to gain knowledge through the volunteering experience and the satisfaction you’ll receive by taking the time out of your day (or weeks of vacation!) to help an organisation make a difference in the community.

Help Wanted: Skilled Traveling Volunteers

Recently I had a conversation with an individual who did not understand what they could offer when considering a potential traveling volunteer opportunity. Was a great attitude enough? A “do whatever it takes” attitude that guides program organisers and volunteers through to the end of a short community project experience? Or should a pre-traveling volunteer think about the skills they have and look for an opportunity to use them? All great questions! However, when all is said and done, I believe traveling volunteers should be matched with traveling volunteer opportunities to feature skills they excel in. Here’s three primary reasons why…

Satisfied Volunteers. Traveling volunteers who bring their home-based skills to a community project (that needs them) tend to be more satisfied with the volunteering experience than those who are not skill-matched to a skills-needed project. Although there may be some discomfort associated with working in a foreign situation, a skills-matched project will likely produce a highly satisfied traveling volunteer. This is because the volunteer assisted a community project that needed their skills. Let’s look at a volunteer with painting skills for example. A skilled volunteer painter has the natural experience of being a painter regardless of what context they are in. This is different from that of an traveling volunteer who has never painted before and is expected to produce a stellar product for a foreign community project. Frustration and dissatisfaction with the volunteering experience for the inexperienced painters may occur because they may realise their contribution to the community was less than ideal.

Greater Impact. Highly skilled traveling volunteers, as noted above, tend to produce a stellar product in a community that needs a boost from a skill set under-available in their community. For example, the need for skilled medical volunteers. Many global South communities do not have enough trained medical personnel to manage preventative programs, conduct needed surgeries or to assist with community dental needs. Traveling medical and dental volunteer teams can leave a solid impact in a community that desperately needs health and wellness care.

Sustainable Program Development. Yes, the “S” word! So overused and so misunderstood. Sustainable (development) is much more than a”green thinking” type of development… it is, according to popular definition featured in the 1987 Brundtland Report, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 45). When traveling volunteers offer their skills to a community, they are not only impacting the current generation of community members, but future generations as well.

Understanding that we all have talents and skills, it is of utmost importance that traveling volunteers explore volunteering opportunities that best match their skills. Not only will they likely be more satisfied with the experience, but will also produce a sustainable impact for current and future community members. After all, isn’t this why people want to volunteer nationally or internationally? To be satisfied knowing the impact of the traveling volunteer’s project is sustainable. Something to think about!

« Older Entries