6 Tips for Volunteer-travelers


written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

Middle-aged baby boomers from, say, Manhattan or Palo Alto with careers in law, management, or business might wonder what they could possibly contribute to life in a remote third-world village. As it turns out, plenty.

Most volunteers work in well-established local programs that rely on a constant influx of foreign visitors with a wide range of skills. For instance, in the coming year 45- to 60-year-old volunteers will: teach English to teens in Peru, China or Ostuni in Southern Italy; care for babies with failure-to-thrive syndrome in India; teach basic business skills to members of a women’s sewing collective in Tanzania; collect data on coral reefs in Belize, and help transform a former Grenadian sugar plantation into a sustainable tourism destination.

There’s room for spontaneously responding to what’s needed, too. One retired architect volunteering in Africa helped a technical school build a kiln, and taught the students how to make roofing tiles.

Most organizations sponsoring voluntravel trips try to match volunteers’ interests and skills with field assignments. A home-repair hobbyist might be assigned a building project. An avid chef might work in nutrition education.

Here are some quick tips for finding the right program for you.

Tip #1: Research several programs; they are all slightly different, not just in where they go but in the support they provide, the duration of the program, and who you will be working with on the ground.

Tip #2: Booking about three months in advance is recommended. However, last-minute travelers can sometimes book within a month of departure.

Tip #3: Be honest about your creature comfort needs. Will you be happy with a sleeping bag in a tent, or do you want at least a hostel, or a motel or even hotel accommodation if it is available?

Tip #4: Ask yourself how much of a cultural immersion experience do you want. Would you enjoy a homestay? Living with a family can be an intense, memorable experience, and you can bond for a lifetime. It’s also true that you might feel a lack of privacy, discomfort at the living circumstances, and even homesick.

Tip #5: Get the details on the actual work you will be doing, by calling the program and talking with someone who has recently been on site, or is in touch with volunteers from the program.

Tip #6: Always get references —the most recent, the better!