While reading Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (required reading by anyone who wants to travel abroad - or has already done so), I came across a phrase, transire benefaciendo. It's Latin and means to travel along while doing good. I really loved that phrase. I've adopted it as my motto! (found out later that it can also be found in The Seamy Side of History (L'envers de l'histoire contemporaine), 1848, aka The Wrong Side of Paris aka The Brotherhood of Consolation)
If you want to travel and help others and/or help the environment, whether you are traveling by car, train, plane, motorcycle, bicycle or hiking, this page is for you.
Be a tourist that doesn't do bad
When I travel, I'm not sure I'm always doing good... but I'm definitely trying NOT to do bad: I do not ever pay for a photo with an animal, EVER. I will not ride an elephant EVER. If the tour guide says please do not take photos here or please don't touch the walls of this ancient temple, then I don't, even if everyone else is. I expect for my room to be clean when I first arrive, but I do not ask that my room be cleaned every day, to have new towels every day, etc., because I want to help save on water and energy. I try to be quiet in sacred places, even though I'm an Atheist and even if whatever religion was practiced in the spot is long gone. I try to be mindful of other visitors and guests, especially when it's late - I don't want to keep others awake. I am militant about saying "please" and "thank you."
I travel this way because that's how I hope others will act when they visit sites that are precious to me, and so that I don't contribute to exploitative businesses. I also do it because, when I'm traveling, I always think that I have the opportunity to undo the negative stereotypes of American or otherwise "Western" tourists.
Your negative behavior abroad may not have any negative effects for you, but it will most certainly have effects for future travelers, especially those from your same country.
These are simple things you can do to help others when traveling to a developing country or poor community. Note that some of the tips require preparation BEFORE you leave your home.
I wrote this list originally in February 2006 for Lonely Planet's Blue List, which, sadly, is now defunct. It was the highest rated and most-popular volunteer-related article by far on the now-defunct Bluelist (thanks to the more than 100 people who rated it so highly on that web site).
I've updated the list since then, and am always looking for new, realistic tips to add for transire benefaciendo.
You will need to be responsible for your own transportation and health insurance and probably accommodations and food. You may ALSO be asked to pay a fee to cover the costs of staff providing you support, and any materials you will need during your service. You also need to make arrangements before you arrive onsite at an organization; don't expect to walk in the door and say, "Here I am, ready to volunteer!" and find an automatic warm reception. Organizations have protocols that volunteers must go through, in order for the organization to protect its work and its clients; please respect these by contacting the organization long before you arrive.
What can you do? In the USA:
Volunteer Vacations Abroad
If you want to volunteer abroad, please note that, unless you are highly-skilled and ready to commit to at least six months abroad, you need to be prepared to pay to volunteer. Fees charged by volunteer-sending organizations cover some or all of the following: flights, in-country transportation, accommodation, food, security, translators, training, staff to supervise and support volunteers, government work permits, liaisons with the police and local officials, etc. They may also be used to compensate local people who would like to be paid to build their own homes and schools, dig their own wells, etc.
You will need to provide your own health insurance, travel insurance and evacuation insurance (including the kind that will cover transportation of your body should you be killed).
This web page provides very detailed information about volunteering abroad, and where to find credible programs.
Before you pay to volunteer abroad, however, note that many programs are not worthwhile and, in fact, harm local people -- especially those programs focused on orphans. Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. For now, the campaign is focused on Cambodia, but don't be surprised if the campaign expands: an incendiary report by South African and British academics focuses on "orphan tourism" in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. There's also this blog from a person who paid to volunteer in an orphanage, and realized just how unethical it was. Unless a program is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children, certifications, references and criminal background checks, and unless the program places volunteers for many months, not just weeks, stay away from the program.
Also beware of programs meant to help animals. Unless the program is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with exotic animals, experience running a program at a rescue organization or zoo, have certifications and references, and even an appropriate degree, the program is probably just a way for a nonprofit to make money. You might even be putting yourself in danger by paying to volunteer at such a place. If the program has photos of people cuddling exotic animals, like baby tigers, absolutely stay away: no responsible organization would allow animals to be handled by humans in this way. Same for if there are photos of people riding elephants - again, no responsible organization would allow animals to be handled by humans in this way.
There are some credible - or at least not-so-exploitative - fee-based/pay-expenses-yourself organizations, but they are hard to find. Here are directories of short-term volunteering organizations, online and in print, that can help you identify credible programs - these are somewhat curated databases (you have a better shot of finding credible volunteer sending orgs through these databases than others).
Lonely Planet published the book Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World. It lists and reviews more than 190 organizations that provide short-term volunteer-abroad experiences. Also see The Career Break Book, published by Lonely Planet; and The Rough Guide To A Better World, published by the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Rough Guides (I contributed materials to the last two books, actually).
I strongly recommend the book How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, by Joseph Collins, Stefano DeZerega, and Zehara Heckscher. It will give you details about what international volunteering really entails, why some organizations require that international volunteers pay, suggestions on how to raise funds for such, and a good overview of your options. But best of all, it provides tips and worksheets that can make your volunteering have real impact for the local people, and benefits for you long after the experience is over.
Volunteering On Your Own Abroad
Volunteering through an established international organization is not only significantly safer than volunteering on your own, but also, it offers you a way to network your volunteer contributions with those of others, so that your volunteering doesn't happen in a vacuum.
Volunteering on your own, rather than through a volunteer-sending agency, can incur many unintended consequences: for instance, what happens if the family you are helping accuses you of stealing, or of doing something inappropriate with one of their children? Or, what if there is a coup, or a natural disaster -- who will be responsible for evacuating you? If you are injured during your volunteering, who will make sure you get to a hospital? Volunteering through an official organization helps protect you from many possible hazards and dangerous circumstances. And these circumstances do happen.
If you are absolutely bent on volunteering on your own while abroad, then please see this resource, Vetting Organizations in Other Countries. Your best bet is to work with an organization in your home country that has contacts in a country you are going to visit, BEFORE your trip, to see if you could do anything on the organization's behalf while you are abroad. For instance, the World Computer Exchange (WCE) welcomes inquiries from people visiting developing countries who might be interested in doing outreach or other volunteer work on WCE's behalf. There is no charge for such participation, however, you must contact WCE first and get oriented and pre-approval before your trip. The Computer Aid International, based in England, provides refurbished computers to the developing world, and therefore might also welcome an offer from you, during your travels, to visit a site where they have provided computers and to provide them a report about what you see.
GlobalGiving Foundation Field Visitor Internships: GlobalGiving connects organizations from all over the world with donors who can support their work. They are often looking for self-funded travelers who will be in a region for several months to act as representatives of the organization, conduct site visits of partner organizations and identifying organizations that would be a good match for the Global Giving fundraising site. Volunteers also organize informational workshops during these travels. Volunteers can weave these responisibilities into their tourism of a region. "You will work closely with GlobalGiving's DC staff in preparation for your trip, planning site visits, workshops, travel, and accommodations, while gaining skills in organization and cross-cultural understanding. Upon returning to the U.S., you will present your findings and experience to the GlobalGiving staff." This position is unpaid and program participants are expected to fund their entire trip including airfare, in-country travel and accommodations. GlobalGiving provides training, office support, travel medical insurance, a minimal stipend for communications costs and workshop funding.
The Kiva Fellows Program requires a four-month commitment. It offers individuals from any country the opportunity to be officially associated with Kiva and to witness firsthand the impact and realities of microfinance, by working directly with a host microfinance institution (MFI). You do not pay a fee to Kiva, but you are required to undertake all travel and accommodation expenses yourself - which makes this an idea arrangement if you are a long-term international traveler who will be spending time in a region where there are several Kiva projects. A mandatory five-day training is provided (you must pay all expenses to attend). You must be at least 21 years old to apply. Here is the main page for the Kiva Fellows Program and here are the FAQS for the program.
If you are going to India, and are prepared to pay for all of your expenses for such travel - your air fare, your in-country travel, your health insurance, your accommodations, your food, etc., you could contact Responsible Charity, which works with women and children, and let them know you will be in their area and ask if there was some way you could volunteer while there, making it clear that you do not expect them to pay any of your travel or accommodation costs whatsoever. Or you could do the same if you were traveling to a country where Mayhew International works (they work with cats and dogs, or, as they call it, "companion animal welfare," in India, Russia, Romania, Peru, Afghanistan, Georgia, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Algeria, Estonia, Egypt and Sierra Leone). But remember: these and other small NGOs will NOT be responsible for you in any way, and will NOT pay for any of your expenses - they put all their money into their programs helping local communities, not in funding travel for volunteers.
For 2012 and 2013 in Cambodia: three international motorcycle travelers are putting together a Ride for Cambodia, in Cambodia, to benefit United World Schools (UWS), which provides schools in inaccessible, underprivileged and post conflict regions, including Cambodia. For 2012 the ride is a scouting run to check out roads and routes for the 2013 ride. Participants on either/both trips must buy a Honda Dream 125cc Motorcycle (4 Speed, Automatic Clutch) in-country, and then auction the bike off at the end of the ride (the auctions of the bikes are to raise money for charity).
Please do not ever say you represent an organization, or speak on any organization's behalf, while you are abroad unless you have written authority from the organization to do so.
Do not expect, nor ask for, someone to serve as your translator, trainer or guide during your DIY volunteering experience unless you are ready to PAY, by the hour, for those services!
With DIY international volunteering, you will need to provide your own health insurance, travel insurance and evacuation insurance (including the kind that will cover transportation of your body should you be killed). You have to handle your own visa application as well. If you are a US citizen, it's a good idea to register your trip with the State Department, which will make it easier for them to help you if you lose your passport, if a crime is committed against you, if you are arrested, or if you otherwise need their assistance.
Forget trying to do things while on vacation or extended travel that would bring you into direct access to kids, or, if you are a man, with women; organizations need to do extensive background checks on people who want to provide such service, in addition to providing a great deal of support and supervision to such volunteers and, therefore, it's simply not cost-effective nor appropriate to involve short-term volunteers in these type of activities. In addition you set yourself up for possible exploitation: what will you do when a parent tells local police you harmed their child while you were "helping"? Never, ever be alone with just one or two people of the opposite sex, or with children - insist on all activities happening in a main room, with LOTS of witnesses.
Before a trip, ask local organizations if there are things they would like you to bring to an organization, such as children's books, school supplies or clothes. Keep items small and benign, and looking like they are a part of your overall travel items, or you could be charged customs fees.
Do not walk through the door of an NGO and say, "Here I am, ready to help your orphans!" Before you travel, vet any organizations you might want to help. These can be environmental organizations, a microfinance group, a school serving children with disabilities, a telecenter, etc. A surprising number of organizations in the developing world have web sites, so establish contact before you trip, letting the organization know you are interested in their work, you want to visit while on vacation, and how you want to help: Could you help changeover their computers from pirated copies of Microsoft to OpenOffice, or help them download and automate free virus-scanning software? Are you Girl Scouts leader who could give advice to a school or organization working with girls? Are you an HIV/AIDS educator with advice to offer? Do you volunteer or work in an animal shelter in your home country and have advice that could help a shelter in a developing country?. If you are NOT a certified ESL teacher, do not volunteer to teach English classes. If you are NOT a certified elementary school teacher, do not offer to lead a class of students at the local elementary school. If you are not an experienced carpenter, do not offer to build something. People in developing countries deserve qualified people to help, just as people do in any country.
As mentioned earlier, make an assessment of an organization's most critical needs while you are onsite, and after the trip, blog about your experience and tell people how they can donate to the organization, or arrange a fund drive or other support campaign for the group once you are back in your home country. The Perros Project is an example of such an effort that was born out of a vacation by two Americans visiting Peru.
Finally, if you volunteer on your own, without affiliation, then you must always say that you are a tourist, NOT a volunteer, to anyone who asks: policemen, border guards, customs agents, airport staff, etc. You are NOT an official volunteer, and you must not claim to be such while in country; to do otherwise could result in your arrest for working illegally, and/or a fine for the organization for employing someone illegally (even though you aren't being paid).
Here is an
excellent thread on Lonely Planet about working while traveling abroad.
And speaking of Lonely Planet, Lonely Planet Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around is a good book to get even more information. I can say this without having read it yet, because I have so many Lonely Planet books, and I know they are the best travel books out there. Given how much I post to the Lonely Planet message board, I have a feeling some of my recommendations are probably in this book.
When you travel, please be on the lookout for, and report, sexual exploitation of children in the context of travel and tourism. There are people who look for volunteering abroad opportunities that will bring them into contact with children, with the intent of sexually exploiting those children. ECPAT is a global network of organisations working together for the elimination of child prostitution, child pornography and trafficking of children for sexual purposes. It seeks to ensure that children everywhere enjoy their fundamental rights, free and secure from all forms of commercial sexual exploitation. And it has an online platform set up to help you recognize and report the sexual exploitation of children in the context of travel and tourism.
be Savior Barbie. Seriously, don't
be Savior Barbie. If you go overseas, please be
careful regarding how you document your trip online or in print.
Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip.
Packing Advice For First-Time
Humanitarians & Aid Workers
What you should pack before you head out on your first mission trip.
If you want to know what skills and experience you need to have to make you an attractive applicant to long-term volunteer placements agencies that do not charge volunteers, please see Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad, which lists such agencies.
Funding Your Volunteering Trip Abroad (includes information on where to find credible programs)
Using the Internet to Share Your Adventure During Your Adventure, advice on blogging, photo-sharing, tweeting, etc.
Extreme poverty is not beautiful – That there can be any confusion between living off-the-grid, simply, and living in extreme poverty is astounding to me. Yet, I’ve heard oh-so-privileged aid workers wax poetic about the “beauty” of poverty.
Vanity Volunteering: all about the volunteer – one of the most popular blogs I’ve ever written
Tax credits for volunteering (for residents of the USA)
How to take photos in a culturally-sensitive manner, particularly with regard to respect for local customs regarding women, and to meet various needs, e.g. to show female participation. This resource was developed in 2007, for Afghan staff working out of an Afghanistan government agency, and is adaptable for various cultural settings. Obviously, it needs updating.
Reality Check: Volunteering
Abroad (especially for citizens of the USA)
Tips on gaining the skills and experience that are critically needed to volunteer overseas.
general information and advice for novice traveling women from the USA
a list of all of my travel adventures (I've visited or lived in more than 30 countries, and more than 30 states n the USA)
links to resources to help women travelers
My page of helpful hints for camping with your dogs in the USA.
Have you been assigned community service hours by a court? As part of your probation or sentence? By your school as a requirement for a class or for graduation? I've developed this resource on finding community service just for you (and to see if Google Ads really works as an income-generation tool).
essential information while traveling
Advice on things you should do before you leave on a trip, to ensure you can access information via any computer or your feature phone or smart phone that you might need while traveling
A Broad Abroad | contact me