Published: May 26, 2021

There are opportunities to make a positive impact wherever you go. Learn more about voluntourism, why it’s important and how to prepare so you’ll be ready for your next trip. 

What is voluntourism?

Not to be confused with volunteerism, voluntourism is the act or practice of doing volunteer work as needed in the community where you are traveling or visiting as a tourist. You can volunteer even if you are only visiting a place for a few days or weeks. 

Between relaxing and sight-seeing, engaging in community service can have a positive impact not only on the community you are helping but yourself as well. 

Effective voluntourism

Before jumping into any project as a volunteer, there are a few things you can do to get prepared.

  1. Educate yourself about the issues and organizations in the areas you will be visiting to discover the volunteering options that may be available.

  2. Be sure to review and follow the health and safety guidelines for areas you plan to visit.

  3. Look for opportunities to volunteer by using skills you have already mastered. This could include translation if you speak the local language or using any technical skills you have like teaching or tutoring, grant writing or photography to help promote the organization via social media. You can choose work you are qualified in or duties you don’t need extensive expertise or training to complete. 

  4. Focus on local initiatives and priorities. Follow the lead of local organizations  and find a cause that you are curious, interested or passionate about.

  5. Reflect and consider the kind of impact you want to have in the community you are serving. What do you hope to offer and what do you hope to gain from this experience?

Learning about the needs of the local community and how your time can benefit those causes or organizations can make your travel experience more worthwhile. 

Ethical voluntourism 

If you aren’t able to volunteer at your destination, there are other things you can do as a tourist that can still help the local community. If you travel, remember to: 

  • Be sustainable. Consider your environmental impact and how you can reduce it. Using reusable water bottles and cleaning up after yourself can make a big difference.

  • Show respect. Be respectful of the local people, customs and attractions. Be mindful of your words and actions, and remember that you are a visitor in that area. 

  • Support local businesses. Spending your money in locally owned shops and restaurants can help boost the local economy. 

  • Connect with people genuinely. Be curious about the local way of life. You could ask about the best place to get a traditional meal or for a recommendation on one key place to visit before you leave. Connecting with people and wanting to learn more about them can open a path to real connection and maybe even friendships to last a lifetime. 

  • Be mindful of photography. Documenting your travels is an important part of the experience, but remember to ask for consent before taking photos of local  traditions, customs and communities that you are serving. It’s also important to ask permission before taking pictures of local people living their everyday lives, their homes or their belongings. Avoid taking photos of children or other vulnerable populations.

  • Be cautious with social media. Keep in mind the power dynamics that are inherent to volunteering in a community and being behind the camera. Even if your intentions are genuine, posting information about someone else’s life and their circumstances could have negative repercussions like reinforcing stereotypes. Be mindful to avoid “saviorism.” This is the approach to volunteering that implies one person or a group of people (those volunteering) has all the answers or power and the ability to "save" another group of people from their problems or struggles. The stories you post on social media have an impact that can be as significant (either positively or negatively) as the service you do. 

Volunteer opportunities

If you want to learn about summer volunteer opportunities, the Volunteer Resource Center (VRC) can help. Their volunteer calendar includes one-time events and ongoing opportunities over the summer. The VRC can also provide resources for learning more about voluntourism and how you can have the greatest impact.

Looking ahead to spring break 2022? Consider taking an Alternative Break!

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