With the advent of global media and an increasingly connected world, the average citizen is drastically more informed and aware than yesteryear’s counterpart. This media saturation combined with man’s natural tendency to travel has produced a budding practice coined voluntourism, where socially conscious travelers are able to incorporate humanistic ambitions with new and exciting experiences at home and abroad. From disaster relief, archeology, and construction to conservation, organic farming, and education, the conscious traveler can now find an abundance of opportunities to participate globally. Volunteer South America, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and Volunteer Planet list nearly endless opportunities spanning the globe, but the question still remains; to go or not to go, and in going is any good being done?
In an era of text message (SMS) donations, buy one give one business models, and seemingly nonstop fundraising infomercials that make donating to a cause as simple as picking up the phone, is there a need or even justification to spend thousands in airfare and expenses to volunteer for a few days or weeks when the same amount could possibly do exponentially more if simply given to the charity of our choice? In my opinion: go!
Incidentally, unlike Robert Frost, I’ve been able to choose both roads and found the road of voluntourism to make all the difference. In 2010, through organizing efforts I was able to raise and donate $2500 to the Red Cross Haiti Relief and Development Fund in hopes of supporting reconstruction prompted by the catastrophic mixture of abject poverty, poor building methods, and an earthquake. Later in the year, utilizing $3200, I was able to voluntour with several groups in South America. In this two-part blog, I will compare the performance of dollars in terms of reaching the destination, community impact, and the values of overhead between these two personal instances of philanthropy and voluntourism.
Voluntourism presents several shifts of experience when compared to donating to a charitable organization and still presents some pros and cons, previously presented by Michelle Bovée. Congruent with her instructions, I contacted local organizations at my destinations of interest and inquired about their need or desire for volunteers. In my case, luckily, both grassroots organizations, Pisco Sin Fronteras and Escuela Katitawa, had demand for volunteers and presented long term, sustainable, and community inclusive projects. Furthermore, these were “no-cost” volunteer organizations that were entirely volunteer led and driven, substantially reducing the overhead. Of the two volunteer compounds I resided during my trip, both requested a donation equivalent to 15 USD per week which provided shelter and two meals per day. Outside of this, the third meal typically cost 2 USD and was bountiful. Further monetary contributions to projects were up to volunteers to determine and I happened to support several projects while in country totaling $200 spent on materials. In all, the engagement with the volunteer organizations totaled 12 of the 14 weeks in South America costing 548 USD and producing 600 volunteer hours, which, in my home country, is valued at $13,284, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
The remaining two weeks were spent traveling by bus to various destinations and effectively disbursing the remaining $1,452 with the bus companies, street vendors, hostels, attractions, and merchants while being completely absorbed in the destination country’s economies. Likewise, room and board and the project donations supported local markets and hardware stores respectively, contributing mildly to sustaining local agricultural efforts and distributions.
I look forward to exploring this further in the 2nd part of the blog. Meanwhile, if you’ve volunteered some time anywhere and you’re interested in the value of your contribution, the Independent Sector provides national and state-by-state values for volunteer time and the Hands On Network provides more specialized values by trade. In all, it appears this voluntourism trip had exponentially increased the value of the dollar by nearly 500% when including values of volunteer time. Could simply donating the $3200 to a charitable organization performed better in terms of sustaining local economies, funds reaching the destination, and the volunteer values supported? Can you think of other ways and places to voluntour and explore? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!