The last few years have ushered in a variety of travel buzzwords: from "staycations", which refers to vacationing without traveling far from home, to "voluntourism", which is defined by the act of giving back to the places you travel. Indeed, more and more people are looking for ways to combine volunteering efforts with scheduled holiday trips.
While many European countries enjoy 4-6 weeks of annual vacation, Americans average between 12 to 14 days of paid vacation a year. This limited time off can make giving back while you travel more challenging.
However, there are simple and practical ways you can make a difference during your travels. And just as some upfront planning is required when preparing travel itineraries, the volunteering options discussed below require you do ample research beforehand.
Make sure you contact the organizations (here's a good list of NGOs) you plan on working with an adequate amount of time in advance, to ensure that you not only enjoy your vacation, but also that they are ready to help you give responsibly to local communities as well.
1. Hook Up with Hotel Outreach Programs
You might be surprised to find that many hotels and resorts have special outreach programs that allow guests to volunteer and give back while on vacation. The Ritz-Carlton's Give Back Getaway program provides access to half-day local community development and enrichment programs such as hunger and poverty relief, and environmental conservation programs.
The Doubletree Hotel chain's Teaching Kids to CARE program donates to various youth-related causes worldwide and focuses on educating children about environmental and social issues. Potential guests can log on to the hotel's website to find specific branches that are participating in certain initiatives they'd like to be a part of.
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts also offers outreach initiatives that allow its guests to give back to local communities where the hotel chain operates.
2. Sign Up for a "Voluntour"
Volunteering while traveling doesn't necessarily mean you need to dedicate all 2-weeks-a-year of vacation time. Voluntours are trips organized around the sole mission of volunteering, and they usually have a shorter trip duration.
Organizations such as Globe Aware offer short term volunteer programs like one week assignments in Vietnam and Ghana. Be sure to check out Globe Aware's piece - 5 Ways to Take Volunteer Vacation without Breaking the Bank or Using All Your Vacation Time.
Cross-Cultural Solutions also provides opportunities to work with childcare centers, hospitals, and the elderly in countries such as Tanzania and India.
For those with a lot more time to spare, Planeterra offers listings by country of various opportunities to explore. You can help build a school and enjoy a safari afterwards in South Africa or volunteer on an organic farm in Ecuador.
3. Feed the Hungry
Many religious institutions such as churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are cultural sightseeing pit-stops during your travels. These same institutions also operate food kitchens or at least can put you in touch with other organizations that run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
Spending a few hours with a city's homeless will give you rawer, behind the scenes access to how a country's less fortunate are cared for.
4. Bring Much Needed Supplies
Nonprofit organizations, especially smaller grassroots initiatives, are in desperate need of supplies. From books and stationery for school kids to basic daily gear like warm socks, gloves, and hats, filling up half a carry-on suitcase with supplies and other basic necessities is very beneficial.
Of course, there are many cases where purchasing certain items on location is a lot more cost effective than lugging the items across the ocean, so be sure to contact the organization you'd like to help out and ask what their preference would be.
5. Give Hugs at an Orphanage
Many orphanages are understaffed, and workers may not be able to pay enough individual attention to each child. Carving out one day from your scheduled beach-side lounging to play with the children and give much needed hugs can be a fulfilling way to give back. An organization called Visiting Orphans is a good place to start your research.
Orphanages are very wary of free willing strangers coming to interact with the children, so make sure you spend time upfront communicating with them to build some level of trust before visiting.