Tips on volunteering while travelling

Travelling volunteers Liz Zipse and Kip Patrick provide tips on 'voluntourism' - giving something back to local communities while travelling abroad

Liz and Kip at Everest base camp
Liz and Kip at Everest base camp

You can always do something

A lot of travellers like to volunteer while away from home. However, not everyone is willing or able to spend their entire holiday volunteering in one place, often paying a third-party organisation for the privilege, which is how many voluntourism trips are set up. For those 'selfish' travellers like us who still want to help but prefer short-term alternatives, there are countless ways to give back. From teaming up with on-the-ground organisations that accept short-term do-gooders to organising your own beach or street cleanup, or helping local children with their nascent English skills, rest assured that whether you’re at home or abroad there’s always something you can do to help others.

Befriend Google

As part of pre-trip planning, do an online search for the word 'volunteer' and the name of the place you’re going. This can be a helpful way to learn about local organisations that seek volunteers or find pre-scheduled events where volunteers may be needed – think Earth Day, public festivals, park clean-ups, and so on. While in South Africa last month, we found a local animal rescue organisation that held a weekly 'canine socialisation session'. We signed up and, after a short training session, we were being overrun by a pack of the happiest, cutest, cuddliest canines we’d seen in months.

Many charities have excellent websites, as well as volunteer coordinators who can help. Other organisations, such as Stuff Your Rucksack, have details of existing projects that need support around the world. Two other good examples of organisations that offer free, short-term volunteering opportunities are Big Brother Mouse in Laos and Soft Power in Uganda.

Keep your eyes open

Opportunities to help out are all around us, particularly in less developed countries – though it often requires a sharp eye to see them. If you meet someone who’s keen to improve their English (and not just hoping to sell you a tour or a trinket), ask if they would like to work on their language skills. On beaches, street corners or nature trails littered with rubbish, spend a few hours picking up trash and see what happens. It’s not glamorous, and maybe it doesn’t fit the classic definition of voluntourism, but these and other opportunities to give back are small but powerful ways to make a difference.

The biggest surprise to us was that every time we found opportunities like this, other people joined in to help, whether it was a father and son in the Philippines, some kids from a nearby mosque in Borneo, or fellow travellers who just wanted to lend a hand. The main thing is to stay alert when an opportunity presents itself.

Ask a local

If you haven’t had any luck finding a volunteer opportunity online or at your destination, talk with a friendly local. Hotel managers, waiters, shopkeepers and even taxi drivers can be a wealth of information, helping you to find an organisation that might not be large enough to have a website. You can also stop by or email non-profits wherever you are to ask if they have recommendations. Even if they don’t offer short-term gigs themselves, they might know someone who does. One caveat: be aware that there are people and organisations whose main goal is to make money off tourists under the guise of doing good. Stay alert, ask questions and, if something doesn’t seem quite right, don’t proceed.

Don’t hand out candy or cash on the street

It might seem like a quick, easy way to make a difference but, as painful as it sounds, do your best not to give out sweets or money to beggars on the street, particularly to children. Candy will damage their teeth. Giving money is likely to encourage more begging. Worse, the street kids in some places might be forced to be there by criminals who use them as a source of income. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but if you really want to help it’s better to direct your donation to a local organisation devoted to addressing the issue rather than make a bad situation worse.

Ignore the naysayers

Surprisingly, there’s a large group of volunteer 'experts' who tell travellers that short-term volunteering isn’t worthwhile. The Volunteer section of Lonely Planet’s latest Africa guide says: "Unless you’ve got some expertise, and are prepared to stay for at least a year, you’re unlikely to be much use."

Organisations are doubtless thrilled to have highly skilled, long-term volunteers, especially those willing to pay for the privilege. But for most of us this type of requirement and time commitment simply isn’t realistic.

A lack of time or money should never stop someone from giving back, particularly in places like Asia and Africa, home to most of the world’s poorest countries. Even the smallest of gestures can go a long way toward helping someone who needs it most.

Do your research, stay alert, ask locals for advice and never be discouraged if someone tells you "you can’t". Take it from us – you can. At the end of the day, remember that there’s always something we can do to help others – even if it’s just one day each week.

Liz Zipse and Kip Patrick have spent the last 11 months volunteering while travelling

Read Liz and Kip's blog, which recounts the experiences they've encountered while voluntouring

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