On occasion, people who hear about our travel plans ask if we intend to do any volunteer work on our round the world trip. I always feel a little uncomfortable when asked this question because the answer is no. Now that’s not saying we’re against it or we wouldn’t do it if the right opportunity arose, but that’s saying that we didn’t plan this trip around the idea of doing volunteer work and we aren’t actively seeking opportunities.
Volun-tourism is huge these days, but I’m going to go ahead and be honest here and say that I’m not a big fan of it. In most cases, I think it’s much more of a way for you to feel good about yourself than for any real difference to be made in the world. Oftentimes, little of the money you pay for your volunteer vacation actually goes into the community that you’re “helping.” Instead it goes to paying for your hotel, your food, your entertainment, your supplies, and the overhead of the company through which you’ve organized your trip (and very rarely are they a local organization with local staff).
Additionally, I don’t think most people have the type of skills or training that are really needed. I certainly don’t. Sure, I could help build a house but really what am I doing but taking a job away from someone who could use it? People all over the world can build, and they can probably do it much, much better than I can. They don’t need me to hammer nails or shingle a roof. What they might need me to do, however, is donate the money that will let them buy the hammer or the shingles or that will allow an organization to hire them on at a living wage. Though just sending money doesn’t make us feel as good as offering our time and sweat, sometimes it’s really the better option.
Finally, I think that really making an impact requires more than one week of your time. Ever wonder why the Peace Corp requires a two-year commitment? You have to get into a community, learn its needs, gain its trust, and help people help themselves. There are some fabulous organizations out there that have already laid this groundwork and allow you to contribute on a short term basis, but take a look around and you’ll see that the organizations that are really getting things done usually ask for a minimum commitment of at least one month. The time, money, and effort that goes into training you to do any work for a shorter period than that often means that the organization is on the losing end of the deal.
Now hold on, before you run off to comment on how wrong I am, let me continue. I’m really not anti-volunteer. I think much good is done in the world by people who don’t ask a dime in exchange for their hard work. And I believe that if you have a cause that you hold near and dear and you want to contribute to it, than you, by all means, should. Additionally, if you have a skill, talent, or profession that’s rare/in demand—if you’re in the medical field and can provide health care to those without it, if you’re a lawyer and can represent those who are voiceless, if you have accounting skills and can help someone start a business, if you’re an artist and can bring the joy of art to someone—than go out there and put your skills to work. But if you’re just a Joe-Schmo like me, take a moment to ask yourself whether it’s really helpful for you to build a school when A) you’ve never hammered anything more than a nail into the wall to mount a photo and B) the community you’re building a school for doesn’t have any teachers.
So am I just offering an excuse for people to say “Well, there’s nothing I can offer here” and go off and do whatever they want without a care for the world? No, of course not. There are plenty of ways to make the world a better place without going on a volunteer vacation. For starters, while you are traveling, do your best to buy local. Support local restaurants, local hotels, local outfitters. Put your money into the community you’re visiting rather than some international business that will take the money right out of the country. Second, if you come across an organization that inspires you, ask how you can help. If they say that they need volunteers, great. If they say what they really need is money, then consider making a donation. And finally, remember that charity begins at home. Look around your own neighborhood and see what needs to be done there. If you want to build a house, I bet Habitat for Humanity can put you to work. If you want to teach English, see if your library has an ESL tutoring program. If you want to inspire kids, become a Big Brother/Big Sister. A staggering amount and variety of opportunities are available, and usually they just want your time, which means you can then put your money to work to actually improve another corner of the world (rather than attack it with a hammer you don’t really know how to wield).
[Jeff will be returning to the topic of how much a round the world trip costs in an upcoming post (hopefully this week), so continue to register your thoughts in the straw poll below.]