[updated December 2019]
Today people are doing much more than taking a vacation — they want to help the communities they visit. But how do you know which organizations to trust? Learn how to find ethical volunteer vacations.
Kathryn and Mike Pisco quit their Chicago corporate jobs to travel around the world, dedicating a good chunk of their time to volunteering. They quickly learned that the current volunteer travel industry and “volunteer vacations” weren’t what they expected. Many organizations lack financial transparency, don’t actually focus on the local communities, and offer little to no volunteer preparation and support.
When they returned home, they decided to do something about it and founded Unearth the World to allow others to experience the amazing aspects of volunteer travel while avoiding some of the pitfalls.
“So much can go wrong,” said Kathryn Pisco, the co-founder. “If we can make it possible for people to have really immersive, meaningful experiences, we want to do it.”
Ethical Volunteer Vacations
They personally visit and handpick their partners – from a grassroots project in Zambia that helps build homes for families affected by AIDS to organic farming in Nicaragua which supports food security and promotes sustainable food systems.
Unearth the World is one of the few volunteer travel companies that itemizes where every single dollar goes. Plus, experiences start as low as $500 per week (including everything, but airfare). Additionally, there is pre and post trip support to educate travelers on the community they will visit and the project itself. This really helps create a broader understanding, a real sense of ownership, and a strong vested interest for the future.
“I felt incredibly overwhelmed with humility,” said Raziel Fuertez, a student at Marquette University who recently volunteered at a school in Peru. “Saying that my time there was ‘meaningful’ or ‘impactful’ would be an understatement. My experience in Peru has changed me for the better.”
Unearth the World also plans group trips for corporate groups and universities like Cornell.
Helping the Environment
For more than 40 years, Earthwatch has stayed true to their mission. They basically connect citizens directly with scientists who are leading research projects designed to address climate change, ocean health, and wildlife conservation.
“It works because the scientists get the data they need and the volunteers leave with a renewed sense of understanding and empowerment in knowing that one person really can make a difference,” said Kristen Kusek, the Director of Strategic Communications.
Earthwatch expeditions are more than your typical “volunteer vacation.” Kusek says that travelers work side by side with leading scientists and contribute directly to improving the understanding of conservation challenges.
The average expedition costs $2500 and they also detail where all the costs go.
“[We’ve had] volunteers who literally change their profession upon returning home, start a new community project, or change a behavior so that they lead more sustainable lives,” said Kusek.
Today, travel and philanthropy can go hand in hand. Read here about how many luxury hotel and tour operators are giving back as well.
buildOn’s goal is to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education. Across the U.S., this organization empowers urban youth to transform their neighborhoods through community service projects. Plus, around the world, buildOn has constructed more than 900 schools.
buildOn also works with major fundraising groups—schools, businesses, or just a group of friends— to raise the approximately $30,000 needed to build a school. Each group travels to help build the school itself and is therefore totally invested in the project.
“We don’t really think of ourselves as voluntourism or a vacation, but an opportunity to have an incredible cultural exchange where you are partnering with communities in a long lasting and sustainable way,” said Carrie Peña, the Chief Marketing Officer. “When you are there, you are really serving alongside the parents of the children who will be going to that school.”
After you return home, you receive reports on the progress of the school as locals continue the construction.
“They know from the moment you set foot in the village that you have a really huge stake in this school; that you are true partners in this project,” said Peña.
For volunteer and service learning experiences in Latin America, check out Maximo Nivel. They have volunteer programs in Peru, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.
Where to Start?
Pisco’s biggest advice when researching a volunteer trip is to know what questions to ask.
Where is your money going? What kind of training will you get? How is this project really needed in the community? How is that impact being measured? And are you serving a true purpose and not taking a job away from a local person?
She says, “When you connect with someone across the globe and realize that you can learn from them and are probably more similar than different, it’s really inspiring.”