Global Do-Gooder

Complementing a rigorous travel itinerary with philanthropy and giving back to the communities you’re visiting has the power to augment your experiences abroad in more ways than you can imagine.
Text by Dena Roché | May 11, 2018 | Lifestyle

What’s better than going on a 5-star African safari? Or visiting one of our World Wonders with a dedicated tour guide? Or splurging at some of the world’s finest hotels, spas and culinary destinations? For many, it’s combining that luxury vacation with volunteering in the local community. While travel philanthropy has exploded into a $2 billion segment of tourism, travelers need to approach it with something akin to the Hippocratic Oath…”First, do no harm.”
Today’s traveler is all about experiences and immersive activities, and volunteering dovetails naturally with this. According to a Tourism Cares study, 55% of luxury travelers felt it was very important that their travel dollars benefit local communities. Volunteer vacations feed our increasing desire to find meaning in our disconnected world. A Conde Nast Survey found that 98% of volunteers were satisfied with their philanthropic experience. The problem is that while the volunteer is filled with a multitude of good feelings about giving back, there can be unintended consequences for the people they’re trying to help.
“It can be very tricky; you have to look critically at how organizations are rated,” says Martha Honey, Co-Founder of the Center For Responsible Travel. “One main thing is to not do projects that involve vulnerable populations. For example, taking tourists to an orphanage for a few hours to play with the kids. This is voyeurism and is unfair to the kids. It can’t have any impact except to make the volunteer feel good.” Working with kids short-term is a problem because they can attach to a volunteer quickly. Even worse, in some cases, parents have been known to leave a child at an orphanage because they perceive the child will be better cared for by a parade of foreign volunteers.
If you’re passionate about helping children, a key is to pick a reputable program that allows for extended time with the kids. Shelly Seale, a Travel Journalist based in Austin, was profoundly changed by the first week she spent at an Indian orphanage in 2005. She had been sponsoring a boy before the trip, but in person she says she learned more about love, gratitude and humanity than ever before. She made 8 more trips, and eventually wrote a book about her experience. “Yes, it’s very true that many volunteer programs do more harm than good, and I’m very, very careful about this,” she says. “With The Miracle Foundation, their groups go very regularly and stay for a week. They are there all the time. That is the difference. They don’t swoop in and out, play a few games with the kids and then leave them the same as they were before.”
One problem that is slowly changing is that volunteer opportunities tend to focus on manual labor instead of much-needed skill-based help. What ends up happening is that the volunteer unknowingly takes away that labor job from a local. Volunteers should really look at what skills, like medicine, dentistry or teaching, they could bring to a community on a longer-term basis. Ultimately, according to Honey, most organizations say that the thing they desperately need isn’t boots on the ground help; it’s cold hard cash. According to Honey: “One organizer told me they have a special wall that volunteers paint because most aren’t good painters and that wall simply gets painted over before the next group comes to do it all over again.” That clearly helps no one and would be comical if it wasn’t so sad.
Travelers and travel companies need to really look at how they can truly help a community, and remember that giving back is about helping a needy population, more than it is about perhaps making yourself feel less guilty about having the means to travel at all. “It’s a bit unfair to ask the tourist to figure it all out,” says Honey. “The tour companies have to be discriminating in what they support.”
To that end, it’s very important to vet the company you travel with. You want to make sure it’s a company that puts philanthropy above profit. When looking at what volunteer mission to take on, you not only need to “do no harm” but also really consider what you love and your style of travel. “You won’t get anything out of it if you’re miserable,” advises Jonathan Ronzio, a Filmmaker who records his adventures of mountain climbing and philanthropy in the Between The Peaks project. “You have to enjoy the environment where you are and be passionate about the cause at hand.”
Some of the most popular locations for volunteer vacations include Africa, East Asia and South America. According to a Travelanthropist survey, the reasons people choose philanthropic trips are cultural immersion, giving back, camaraderie and to learn new things. “When you travel, you learn about the world and others and it changes how you show up in the world,” says Leon Legothetis, host of The Kindness Diaries on Netflix. “There’s a misconception that you have to do massive gestures, but you don’t. It can be as simple as smiling at someone at Starbucks. When you practice kindness on a daily basis, it snowballs. Everyone has an opportunity to show up in a positive or negative way.”
In the end, one of the biggest takeaways from a volunteer vacation isn’t the week or month you helped a community in Africa, it’s how the experience inspires you to continue that in your own community. In fact, according to the 2015 Tourism Cares study, 40% of philanthropic travelers took an active interest in the cause they gave to after their trip. “The art of going into the world will open your heart and you’ll realize we’re all the same,” says Legothetis. “It will overflow and change you…and when it changes you, you can go out and change others.”