Committed, hardcore volunteer vacations (now sometimes called "voluntourism") have been a growing travel trend for a few decades now. As a result, there are countless opportunities for folks who have the resources and time to take advantage of them -- but the ability to carve out the time required still mostly remains in the domain of folks with unique circumstances: high school and college students, exchange students, young people doing gap years, teachers, retirees, folks with seasonal jobs, and the like.
That said, the urge to help out has little to do with having summers off, and new volunteer opportunities are becoming available to folks who are cramming in the standard weeklong vacation from work or school but are nonetheless hoping to dedicate some portion of their limited vacation to doing good. There are only so many times you can drink a pina colada on a beach in Mexico before you feel like maybe you should be doing something more for the local residents than tipping the server.
The new, shorter volunteer programs cater to all kinds of travelers -- like cruisers who would rather do some work on a shore excursion than buy trinkets, and luxury travelers who know that just outside the grounds are people who could really use some help. In many cases, the volunteers get just as much from their work as do the charities. For families, dedicating a small but meaningful chunk of an otherwise mostly fun (and often pampered or indulgent) vacation can impart valuable understanding to young people -- hopefully in a way that isn't merely dabbling, but is actually educational, and teaches kids that helping others is an important part of life on our planet.
As I researched all the available programs, I admit I detected a whiff of elitism and near-irony in some of the offerings -- taking a half-day from your weeklong, something-thousand dollar stay at the Ritz to make a morning appearance at the local soup kitchen may almost feel a bit self-serving; you might wonder just how much help you can really offer in such a short period of time. But the dearth of volunteers at many organizations is very real, and most of these outfits can use the extra bodies and will put you to work for sure -- so perhaps we should swallow any false guilt and offer our humblest selves simply to get to work.
On that note, here are some great options for ways to contribute to the destination you're visiting without signing on to a dedicated voluntourism trip.
I was surprised to learn of some really good programs run by upscale hotel chains. The Ritz-Carlton, for example, offers a Give Back Getaways program of "half-day voluntourism experiences" all over the world that include providing meals to children in Berlin, working in food pantries in Boston, rescuing endangered blue iguanas in Grand Cayman, helping out at a youth shelter in Denver, working at a soup kitchen for the elderly in Moscow and more.
Some programs let you donate items in addition to your time. The Solmar Hotels & Resorts, a group of four hotels in Cabo San Lucas, runs an extensive outreach program through the Solmar Foundation that includes donation options, local tours and volunteering at Los Cabos charities. Their Bring a Thing program encourages visitors to bring clothes, school supplies, toys, coloring books, electronics and more for distribution to schools, orphanages and homeless shelters in the area. The hotels also simply offer an option to add $10 to your hotel bill at the end of your stay, or add onto your bill at the three restaurants they run in the area; these funds go to support the various programs run by Solmar intended to offer social services that are not covered by the government.
As you poke around hotel sites, you will find many chains have similar offerings. The Grand Hyatt Kauai offers options to work in a botanical garden, do forest restoration, help the local humane society, or work for a few hours with Surfrider or Habitat for Humanity. Similarly, Hilton's DoubleTree brand offers programs targeted to families and children; you can learn more here.
To find out if your hotel offers similar programs, poke around its website, particularly "Corporate Responsibility" or similarly worded pages.
Many cruise lines offer opportunities to volunteer during shore excursions; Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland America and many other cruise lines offer both full-strength volunteer cruises as well as half-day shore excursion outings. Check out Cruise Voluntourism: Ways to Give Back at Sea on our sister site, Cruise Critic, for a good roundup of these.
For a first-hand report, read our own Dori Saltzman's account of her participation in Crystal Cruises' You Care, We Care program.
Even theme parks are getting into the act; a new program from Universal Orlando Resort has built a 70-acre Give Kids the World Village for the exclusive use of children facing life-threatening illnesses, with hundreds of volunteer opportunities every day at the park. Volunteers choose a four-hour shift serving breakfast, helping with character photos, assisting with makeovers for the kids and more. You don't have to volunteer specifically through Universal; visit the program's main site at Gktw.org.
Disney has had an on-again, off-again program where folks who do a day of volunteering get a free day in a Disney park; that program is not active at present, but it is worth keeping an eye out for.
If you still need some ideas, check out TogetherforGood.com, a nonprofit organization that connects travelers who want to do good with folks who need help. Together for Good actually specializes in helping travelers who "do not have the time or money to do a separate extensive volunteer vacation," and includes specific information on:
The site also organizes more intensive volunteer trips.
For all of the good intended by many voluntourism programs, the facts on the ground do not always result in perfect outcomes. Criticisms of these programs range from incomplete or misplaced approaches -- houses built in locations where there was no food and no work, or new schools built but no new teachers hired -- to the perpetuation of substandard conditions, as at some orphanages in Cambodia where affordable improvements were not done so that volunteers would not arrive to see a shining new facility and be inclined to visit and donate elsewhere.
If you're not sure about the impact of the voluntourism programs available in your destination, there are very simple, common-sense things you can do that are likely to have very few negative outcomes, but will support local economies and individuals in very powerful ways.
The "Buy Local" movement tends to focus on our own neighborhoods, but frequenting local establishments in almost any setting helps keep tourism money in the community, where it can offer the most benefit. Of course, the local Subway employs local people, but the profits typically go elsewhere, whereas the money you pay for a sandwich at the local deli goes not only to the employees, but to the owners who have a house in the town, and pay taxes there, and send their kids to the community's own schools.
There is not always a direct line from local businesses to local benefit, but more often than not this holds up, both at home and abroad. Find the "main street" establishments wherever you travel -- like, say, the independently owned beach bar instead of the one at the big chain resort -- and spend your money there for maximum community impact.
Similar to buying local, consider putting ultra-local attractions on your itinerary, including charity organizations that offer visiting hours. It is worth noting that these options do not have to be limited to developing countries; help is needed almost everywhere.
For example, if you visit Atlantic City, you can drop money at the casinos, but also visit the Atlantic City Aquarium, or even better the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, where your dollars support not only a community volunteer organization but also a good cause (and it's a cool attraction to boot).
You can find these options by scanning local newspapers, visiting tourist offices, inquiring at your hotel front desk, searching the Web or just asking the locals.
In the same way that devotees of ultra-light packing will purchase many items at their destination -- toiletries, umbrellas, extra socks, etc. -- it is just as easy to leave items out of your bags on the way home by donating them to local charities. If you buy clothes while traveling, or find something you packed doesn't really fit you anymore, you can donate these at local dropoff locations before you leave, and you won't have to lug them home.
Lightly used items that still have some life left in them, but that you might be inclined to replace soon anyway, can be the best candidates for donations. For example, I have left behind some very nice running shoes that just didn't fit me quite right, boots that were still in decent shape but that I was likely to replace relatively soon, and an umbrella that I purchased during the trip but did not have room to pack on the trip home.
If you have children, take a look at the clothes they are wearing on the trip, and if they are about to grow out of them, donate instead of taking them home.
If you don't mind packing some extra things on your outbound trip, bring along any clothes or items you were considering giving away at home, and donate them at your destination instead -- in many cases the charities at your destination will need the items more than your own Goodwill does.
This could also apply to electronics and other similar items; donations of old phones, computer games and the like are welcome at most donation drop-offs. Pack a couple in your carry-on, and donate them before you return home.
As above, if you have children you could collect some of the things they have grown out of, cram them into the corners of your bags and donate them when you arrive.
If you have a specific talent or hobby, you can think about ways to share the things you love to do with the locals. For example, on a trip to Venezuela, I ended up teaching kids to surf in a tiny village west of Caimancito. The kids were all riding plywood planks, and I shared my boards with them on their first rides on a "real" surfboard (though they were pretty accomplished on the plywood, no question).
Or perhaps you are a photographer, and you can arrange to make prints, or have them sent to the locals after your trip. There are also sometimes opportunities for craftspeople, computer experts and more -- I found heaps of these simply by typing terms like "computer volunteer travel" into Google. Many of these require more than the limited time commitment we are discussing here, but you can frequently drill down through the options to find something that will fit the description of whatever you would like to do.
If you are thoughtful and careful about the ways that you want to help, and do a little bit of research, a win-win solution is well within reach, even for those of us just cramming in a half-day or so of hard work into an otherwise relaxing vacation. Do you know of any programs that might interest readers? Let us know in the comments.