A word to the wise voluntourists; I know you are excited to navigate exotic cultures and tourist hotspots, but please make sure that you know what you are getting into before bunking down in hostels for the next six weeks. If volunteering abroad only peaks your interest for the cheap travel and sightseeing, stop. This is not for you. If that's your scene then I suggest backpacking or couch surfing across exotic lands where you can spend hours snapping Instagram-worthy wanderlust Polaroids like there's no tomorrow. But for those of you considering gallivanting off to Europe or wherever for a good cause, it's essential that your travel reasons align with the items on this checklist to see if voluntourism is right for you – because you really don’t want to be the entitled jerk who wastes the time and resources of a host family.
Be Prepared Before you Leave
This means you need to have the following items within grabbing distance or packed in a carry-on suitcase before you so much as Uber to the airport (if you have to check a bag this experience is already not for you).
- Up-to-date passport
- Printed out plane tickets
- Printed out flight itinerary
- VISA if you’re planning on being out of the country for more than 90 days.
- Contact information for your host family or community base (address, phone numbers, names etc.)
- Driver’s license
- Crappy sneakers or rain boots
- Appropriate work clothes (email your host family and ask what clothes to bring)
- About $200-$300 spare cash in case you get lost or something tragic happens
- A satellite phone, international phone plan or knowledge of where to access WIFI in foreign country
- Spare toiletries in a clear Ziploc bag (research ahead of time if the place you’re going has running water, electricity and other amenities)
- Tent (you might have to provide your own housing)
Be sure to check with your host family's website or contact person to see what other specific things you may need and also what living conditions you should expect. Immigration can be brutal sometimes and airport staff might not let you in unless you can give them proof that you will be leaving the country in a set amount of time. Also, always be sure to tell family and friends where you are going and how long you will be gone before you just up and leave. Someone needs to know in case you never come back.
Actually be Committed to the Cause
Why do you even want to voluntour? Have you ever volunteered anywhere? Do you like to travel? Are you comfortable talking and working on a project with strangers? Do you get lost easily? Are you observant? What do you know about the cause? Is the cause something important to you? Do you have experience working to promote or protect this cause? Do you actually care about the people or place this cause benefits? Will you keep in touch with this volunteer organization after you finish? If you can’t answer these questions properly, then stay home and volunteer with some local organizations to see if you even like helping people before you buy a plane ticket.
Get to Know the Locals and Listen to What They Have to Say
You chose to voluntour not only to make a difference and go home, but to actually immerse yourself in the way of life of a new community. Instead of leafing through guidebooks or worse, hiding out in your room wishing you had Netflix, peek into the mom-and-pop businesses and chat with the locals. Most small town people are happy to talk to travelers and are probably just as interested in you as you are in them. Plus you might hear some interesting stories or discover a hole-in-the-wall pub or festival you never came across in a guidebook. Remember that you’re there to make a connection with people and maybe you’ll meet some friends you’ll want to stay in touch with back in the States.
Camouflage to a Reasonable Extent
Sometimes the exotic community you end up volunteering in will have locals that aren’t thrilled about you being there. You might be viewed as an outsider who can't possibly understand their 1000-year old traditions or quirks. To break into the pack, try and hide your tourism ignorance to a reasonable extent. Don’t show up wearing expensive clothes or flaunting Apple technology – you might give off the wrong impression that you think you’re better than them. Also, don’t do a 180 and start appropriating their culture to try and fit in because you’ll be run out of town. The best way to approach a community that doesn’t care or understand why you’re there is to be honest, ask questions and show a genuine interest in their traditions and lifestyle. If you make an effort to not be ignorant, most people will meet you halfway.
Balance out Your Schedule
Nearly every voluntourist organization will specify how many hours a week they expect you to contribute to the cause. Be sure to balance out your schedule between volunteering and touring to make sure you’re not skimping out on the cause. After all, the purpose of voluntouring is to connect with others in different community and show them that they're your priority. Also, if you plan out your volunteer hours with other people, then you can go out and explore the place together – which is not only safer, but more fun than meandering around by yourself.