“Voluntourism” – combining tourism with volunteer work – has become much easier in recent years, thanks to a growing crop of travel companies and nonprofits that connect travelers with experiences that are low-commitment but still make a big difference.
“People really like the idea of combining giving back with a vacation, and there are now many organizations that let people donate a half a day or a day or whatever it may be while they’re visiting a destination,” said Nancy Schretter, founder of Together for Good, an informational website that helps travelers locate opportunities for giving back in Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean and soon the United States.
‘What will we be doing? Is this a need that’s really coming from the local community, or is this something that was created for a feel-good experience?’
“We’re at the intersection of travel, tech and impact,” said Michal Alter, co-founder of Visit.org, a 6-month-old online marketplace of interactive travel experiences offered through 140 nonprofit organizations in 26 countries and counting.
“Our focus is on short, affordable experiences that give back to local communities,” Alter said. A typical half-day to one-day experience can cost $50 to $100.
For example, travelers to Guatemala can book a day at a coffee cooperative where local farmers teach them about the agricultural side of coffee-growing as well as the roasting process. Or travelers visiting Machu Picchu in Peru might attend a half-day weaving or woodworking workshop along the Inca Trail. The fee goes to a women’s nonprofit.
Travelers should ask plenty of questions when choosing an organization to work with, Schretter said. “What people need to ask is: ‘What will we be doing? Is this a need that’s really coming from the local community, or is this something that was created for a feel-good experience?’”
They should also consider an organization’s longevity. “Some resorts have foundations where they’ve been working actively in the local communities long before there was a voluntourism opportunity,” Schretter said. “You certainly see this in the Caribbean with the Sandals Foundation, where they have been really involved in local communities and doing really impactful work for a long time.”
Guests who participate in the Sandals Foundation’s Reading Road Trip program at Sandals Resorts, Beaches Resorts and Pineapple Grand Beach Resorts in the Caribbean can spend two hours at a local school helping teach children how to read and write in English. “It’s a wonderful experience,” Schretter said. “You bring a book and school supplies and work with teachers and kids on specific reading activities, and work one-on-one with kids in these community schools.”
Don’t have any vacation time to spare? If you’ve got some extra room in your luggage, you can make an impact by packing items that local schools and clinics can use at your destination. “Pack for a Purpose works with over 480 tour companies and accommodations – everything from backpacking lodges to the Fairmont Mayakoba – in over 60 countries,” said Rebecca Rothney, the nonprofit organization’s founder and co-chair.
“Specific lists are provided by the destinations, so they change as needs change, and you always know that you’re bringing something that can be used.”
A clinic may ask for Band-Aids, tubes of antibiotics cream or stethoscopes. A school may need pencils, rulers or soccer balls. An orphanage might want toothbrushes and toothpaste.
“The great thing is that everybody from the age of 2 to the age of 102 can pack for a purpose,” Rothney said. “It’s like your mother always told you: When you go visit someone, take a hostess gift.”
And added bonus is that depending on where you're going, these trips may be tax deductible. It depends on the host organization and the country, but for example, trips with Reading Road Trip and Pack for a Purpose can be written off.
Best of all, social-impact travel is a gift that keeps on giving. “All the research points to the same conclusion,” Alter said. “Once a person visits a nonprofit organization, interacts with the local community and understands firsthand how the work is being done, the chances increase that the person will continue to engage with the organization and donate after returning home.” Nearly a third of Visit.org users book another experience before they go home, Alter said.
Schretter said short-term opportunities like these can be transformational. “You really feel like you’re making a difference, even if it’s only a few hours out of your time. So often, these small volunteer experiences end up being the highlight of your trip.”
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.