Voluntourism: Understanding, Then Making The Most Of It

“Voluntourism” is defined as a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.

It is becoming a common concept and a worldwide conversation. Like many things, there are both negative and positive opinions of voluntourism. With a heart for service and an uncontrollable enthusiasm for travel, it can be difficult to navigate and weed through what will actually make the greatest impact.

Voluntourism can also question good intentions. Is it true that what we consider volunteering can sometimes cause more harm than good? Absolutely. However, it does not mean that we should ignore a desire to do something meaningful.

There are ways to make sure that you are making the greatest impact with your time and travels. Here are a few practices that I have found helpful.

Know before you go.

If you are gearing up for a trip and you want to volunteer while you are there, research the area. Learn as much as you can about the history and culture. Dig deep into finding out what social challenges the country or community may be facing and what caused it.

Why does extreme poverty or animal cruelty exist in the first place? How long has this been going on? Why are there so many efforts in place to help, but the problem still exists?

Asking these types of questions will not only help with your own understanding, but it will give more purpose to your experience and what you can look forward to.

Haiti student team at the airport prior to departure

Talk to organizations & past volunteers.

Begin researching organizations that are located on the ground within the country or community. Give them a call or send them an e-mail with specific questions that you would like to have answered. Consider asking some of the following:

  • How is the organization working on building a community, project, or situation that is self-sustainable in the future?
  • How does the organization partner with local businesses or employ local labor?
  • What will I be doing specifically as a volunteer and how does it apply to the long-term goal?
  • How does the organization evaluate whether their efforts are positively effective?
  • What happens when I leave?

Need additional direction? Grassroots Volunteering provides a great resource for additional questions to ask before you commit. Don’t be too shy to dig deep! The organizations are there for a reason, and they should be able to translate the purpose and impact of their work to you.

In addition to that, look for testimonials from others who have experience volunteering with the organization. See if you can reach out to them for a conversation. They have been in your shoes before and can offer a wealth of knowledge.

Talking with YMCA staff and getting details before planning a trip to work with them


Before, during, and after your trip, take some time to reflect. What are some things you are anticipating, how can you analyze your experience, and what is your future impact?

Journal your thoughts and experiences, draw the things that stand out the most, or have a reflective conversation with another volunteer. I like to write everything down and revisit it again later on, so I always try to pack a journal of some sort.

Reflection can help foster an awareness to the community needs and develop your own values and goals to the social issues in your surroundings.

This guide includes a pretty stellar list of questions to get your reflective process going.

My husband, Tucker, reflecting with a stunner backdrop

Reorient yourself into your own community.

No one is expecting you to change the world in a week while on a volunteer trip. You can begin to make small, conscious changes in your daily life that help contribute to a bigger impact.

Consider how you can serve your own community in a similar way as you did on your trip. Maybe you are making an effort to throw your plastic bottles into a recycle bin instead of the trash. Maybe you are picking up an extra bag of dog food for your local animal shelter when you are out to get groceries. Eventually those practices become habit and your momentum from your trip becomes your lifestyle.

Getting reoriented back into their own community; photo by Shannon Wells

“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. You have to get close.” – Bryan Stevenson


Next time you’re planning a trip that includes both travel and volunteering, consider these practices. And if you need some company, I know a girl.


Bethany Green
Bethany Green

Youth Inspired Coordinator

Co-founder of High Tide Adventure, a nonprofit crafting unique opportunities for today’s youth to develop leadership and social skills through adventure and service experiences.

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