BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, FELT GOOD: The rise of voluntourism

Hey—I’m looking for volunteers. You seen any around?

by Leslie Anthony

In May, everyone in Whistler is either on holiday or wondering why they aren’t. But amidst the epic surf and cycling trips and bellyflopping all-inclusives a different kind of vacation is gaining traction—along with the tools to facilitate it. Enter Vancouver-based a website connecting those willing to donate time, energy or expertise to projects in need around the globe, delivering both soulful escapes and unforgettable experience.

A conversation with founder Aaron Smith is as good as any Where do I sign up? propaganda ever created. “My life-changing moment came while working on a micro-finance project in East Africa through Royal Roads University,” he recalls. “I saw how I could travel to a place and make a difference.”

From that point, Aaron looked at travel differently. He went to Costa Rica with his father to help build houses. His first real taste of “voluntourism” proved a great bonding experience, but also sowed the seeds for the website.

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About nine people had joined the house-building group, including a few from the UK who, after two days, disappeared because the work was simply too hard for them. But it wasn’t the anger of abandonment that was on Aaron’s mind. “What I quickly realized” he says, “was that their expectations hadn’t been managed—they didn’t know what they were getting into. I also realized that at 35 I was the 2nd oldest there, and that this didn’t need to just be for 20-somethings because my dad had the greatest holiday of his life.”

There were, in fact, many amazing volunteer-vacation opportunities out there that could also confer great financial gains on the communities involved. The question was how to make people aware, customize and personalize these experiences, and make them accessible for different generations. The answer was

The easy-to-navigate website lists five main program types: Environment & Wildlife, Women’s & Youth, Community Development, Teach Overseas, and Learn Abroad. These comprise but one of seven filters available in the search for your perfect project/vacation. There’s also Travel Destination, Program Duration, Cost, Ideal Age, Fitness Level and Skill.

Approximately 1,500 projects are listed and since going ‘live’ in 2010, the site has connected over 15,000 volunteers to projects in over 120 countries. Although there’s a rise in women’s empowerment and community development projects that use new technology—water filtration systems or solar-power for off-grid communities so they don’t have to run diesel generators—wildlife projects involving charismatic megafauna (pandas, dolphins, sea turtles etc.) currently account for eight of ten volunteers. How legitimate are these projects? Highly. Govoluntouring works with the top NGOs and brokers in the business, including Holidays for Humanity and acclaimed Earthwatch, an organization I know firsthand.

As a nature-minded kid I’d long indulged my interests in frogs and bugs through intermittent reading, the occasional pet snake and a fondness for National Geographic TV specials. In university I lapped up specialized courses like entomology and vertebrate zoology but had also wanted to do something outside the classroom—experience biology the way professionals in the field did—to see if it was for me.

I came across an Earthwatch catalogue detailing projects covering every kind of academic field work—archaeological and paleontological digs, wildlife and ecological conservation—in every corner of the world. Because fieldwork always benefits from more eyes, more hands, or both, Earthwatch worked to import volunteer manpower to these investigations for various periods of time. Projects were carefully vetted and administered through a Boston college, making it possible to apply for academic credit for the work from your own institution (I did). I volunteered on a sea-turtle conservation program on the tiny island of Carriacou in the Caribbean and spent a week swimming with barracudas and hammerhead sharks (quite harmless, really), dodging fiery schools of tiny jellyfish while floating eye-to-ancient-eye with ornate hawksbill sea turtles over inky reefs, making underwater notes as they flapped their way through languorous, sponge-grazing lives. We rescued boat-sized green sea turtles tangled in fisherman’s nets and battled wild dogs away from the fresh eggs of oblivious loggerhead sea turtles caught in the act of laying. We conducted community outreach around the issues of hunting turtles and their eggs. In between we hiked, swam, explored, drank and got to know the local fishermen. Another volunteer, a craggy U.S. navy vet named Billy whose specialty had been underwater demolition, regaled me with horrific diving tales that would have made the famous diver-environmentalist Jacques-Yves Cousteau cringe. This was another dimension: the mix of volunteer personalities and what they had brought.

You went WHERE to do WHAT?

“On these trips you can have people coming from every background and motivation imaginable,” says Aaron. “And they will all work together and learn from each other as well.”

Similarly, GoVoluntouring has organizations from across the spectrum joining its camp, and has moved well past the stage where it has to sell itself to an Earthwatch or World Wildlife Fund. “On any given day three or four organizations contact us to be listed because their projects are stalling and they want to fill spaces. We don’t select many—the vetting process is long and particular.”

GoVoluntouing is now the leading full-service specialist for both volunteering and applied learning programs around the world. Unique search filters allow you to perform a detailed and customizable search from a huge database of projects and programs. At the same time, its fundraising tool can help to remove cost as a barrier for helping those that need it the most.

This shows just how right Aaron was about the volume and diversity of opportunity out there. And just how many turtle-saving projects on or around surf beaches you can sign up for.