Here at Travelocity, we know the world of combining volunteering and traveling can be challenging to navigate. To help us add a little definition and make sure we’re setting out on the right foot, we’ve asked men’s lifestyle and travel blogger Joe Miragliotta of Joe’s Daily to tell us about the right way to approach being a Go-Gooder on our next holiday.
“Voluntourism” is both an expression and an idea that within a short,10-year period has managed to go from being applauded to at best to at worst being viewed with skepticism. Of course, it’s generally not the intention behind the movement itself that anyone has an issue with, but the wrong turn it can take when it’s not done right. As with anything in life, it would be wonderful if intentions were all that mattered. But that’s just not how it works, and travel volunteering is no exception. Don’t worry, I’m not going to beat you over the head with all of the different ways the good could potentially go wrong. Let’s be honest, there’s a good chance you’ve already read a few articles telling you all about it, and that’s what led you here. Instead, I’d like to focus on the other side of things and give you some pointers on how to better make sure you’re doing things right. So, let’s get started, shall we?
Choose Something Within Your Level of Capability
While the idea of doing something big like building a schoolhouse might seem like a fantastic use of your volunteering time, unless you’re an actual builder of some kind, you’d probably do much better to spend the money it would take to get you there helping to employ local technicians. That’s not to say you can’t participate in projects like this, but the idea is to keep the jobs you’re picking up limited to what you already know how to do well, or that won’t take money and opportunity away from the very area you’re trying to help. For those that feel they don’t actually have any skills that could be used to help others (though, I’m sure this is probably untrue), don’t worry. Thanks to programs like chef Dwight Turner’s Courageous Kitchen, written about by fellow Gnational Gnomad Kelly Stilwell, you can learn a new skill and help others at the same time—literally a win-win.
Look into the Organization You’re Going to be Working with
If you’re choosing to work with an organization during a trip, be sure to take time to do plenty of background research. The best possible place to start is finding one through a source you already know and trust. Iff this source is genuinely reputable, chances are they’ll have gone through the motions of researching any org they’re going to put their name on. You’ll still want to run through the staple checklist regardless, but at least you’ll be starting on ideal footing. Once you’ve done that, see if you can find any unbiased reviews or attestations of their work from community members or experts—anyone who can account for how helpful the work being done really is. Other big tickets to look into are the mission statement, making sure they’re totally transparent about where the money is going, taking great precaution to make sure whomever/whatever you’re trying to help isn’t being exploited, how you’ll be spending your time, and how they’ll go about vetting and approving you. While this isn’t an exhaustive checklist, it’s definitely an ideal starting point for knowing a little more about who you’re going to be working with.
Check Your Ego
Though you definitely won’t catch me saying it’s wrong to be proud of yourself for helping out the world on your holiday, it definitely shouldn’t be the only reason you’re doing it. One could make the argument that, so long as the needed task is getting accomplished, the mindset of the individual working on it shouldn’t matter. However, I’ve found that charitable act or not, intention and feeling almost always impacts the quality of the work being done—and that’s definitely not something that can happen in these situations. So, if you’re mainly doing it for the ‘gram, or because you could use a little ego boost, it’s probably best to just walk away.
Also, be okay with the fact that sometimes what you want to do and what’s needed of you are two different things. This subject always makes me think of a story my wife told me about when she was in high school. A friend of hers found out that my wife went down to the local charity a couple of times a month and wanted to join. The work they needed help with turned out to be very repetitive and in a room without air conditioning. Point of the story: She ended up quitting after about an hour, leaving my wife on her own for the rest of the day. It’s not always going to be glamorous, and you may feel you’re being underutilized. But if you’re truly there to help, go where you’re needed. (There’s also a vital lesson here in listening when someone is telling you what the tasks are like before committing.)
Be Realistic About Goals
In the same way it’s important to be realistic about how your time might be utilized when volunteering, you also need to be realistic about the goals you’ll be setting out to accomplish. While it would be wonderful to say that you had a hand in curing hunger for a particular geographic location, you have to know that it’s just not a possibility when speaking to the amount of work that can be done on a single trip. That said, playing a role in making lunches for hundreds or thousands of people absolutely is, and it’s still no small feat. Then there’s the idea that keeping things sensible isn’t just for your ego, it also serves as a red-flag cue. Anyone who promises you that you’re going to do something as big curing hunger or fixing a lack of education in an area is probably being far less than truthful.
Consider Random Acts of Kindness on Your Own
Maybe it’s just me, but for a long time when I thought of volunteering on a trip of any kind, I always held the idea in my head that the work needed to be put together by a third party. As it happens, no one ever said things had to be regimented or organized in this way. Just like you can go out and pick up trash or feed someone who’s hungry without anyone else telling you how/where to do it when you’re home, the same can be done when you’re traveling. By far, my favorite example I’ve come across is Exploramum, whom Gnational Gnomad Erin Holmes recently wrote about here. She and her son have been traveling on their own for years and always include random acts of kindness wherever they go. Sometimes it’s passing out food to the homeless, other times it’s raising funds to provide clothing to a remote village, but regardless of where they end up they always find an excellent way to leave it just a little better. Of course, I would never encourage anyone to wander into an unfamiliar area and start trying to “help” without knowing what they’re doing. But given that you’re probably doing as much research as you can before you visit a new place anyway, some really beautiful things could get accomplished with just the smallest bit more.
You Don’t Have to go Abroad
While we’re breaking misconceptions regarding doing good while vacationing, pointing out that you most definitely do not need to leave your home country to do it is pretty important. It’s not at all uncommon for a person to imagine having to visit far off places to really make a difference. As it happens, there’s plenty to do even if you’re only going just a few or a few hundred miles. Even better, tacking on a little helpfulness to a trip you were already planning is super simple.
If you are looking for a way to break into (or continue) lending a hand while on vacation, Travelocity has a pretty incredible program called Travel for Good™ that’s here to help you do just that. Whether you’re going to Nashville or San Francisco, you can use their awesome interactive map to help you find great opportunities to do good on your next vacation. If that weren’t enough, they’re even offering an exclusive promo code that both discounts your hotel booking and supports American Red Cross® Disaster Relief. So, yeah, your vacation literally starts out on a charitable foot—not sure how you can beat that.
For more information on Travelocity’s #TravelForGood and #SweepstakesForGood (where they’re giving away three volunteer vacations to cities across the U.S.), check out their dedicated page here.
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