The numbers are staggering. According to a recent Virginia Tech University study, nearly 10 million people do volunteer work while on vacation each year. Those volunteers also spend about $2 billion on global excursions each year, making volunteer vacations one of the travel industry’s fastest-growing segments.
There are thousands of volunteer vacation opportunities, and they vary widely by mission, ages of participants and accommodations. Some involve a few days of volunteering at a local school, followed by a two-week safari. Others include, for example, living with local families in Central America for two weeks while building a cistern. Some volunteers camp out in bunkhouses while collecting scientific data on coral reefs near the Philippines.
It's not hard to understand the motivations. Some volunteers want to help people in need or support causes they believe in. Others want to see parts of the world they might not be able to see on their own. And many want to forge a close connection to a local culture.
Before signing up for a volunteer program, however, it pays to ask yourself some questions. Here are five to start with.
1. Is the organization reputable?
This segment of the travel industry is unregulated. And while many organizations work through local nonprofits and are welcome where they serve, some volunteer-vacation companies don’t always enjoy stellar reputations. Some even question whether volunteers do more harm than good. Research the organization's reputation and make sure its mission and values align with your views.
2. What are the fees for?
Most volunteer vacations charge volunteers for in-country support staff, training and insurance, as well as food, accommodations and local ground transportation. Make sure you know what fees cover and what you will be expected to pay for on your own.
3. How will I be serving?
Do your skills, temperament and physical abilities match the program needs? If the work requires, say, lifting 50-lb. boards and you have weak knees, it won't be a good fit. The best organizations are fully transparent about expectations for volunteers.
4. Where will I stay?
While many volunteers stay in local hotels or hostels, some reside with host families and a few trips (usually geared toward younger travelers) involve sleeping on the floors of churches. Make sure your vacation expectations match the program's offerings.
5. Will I get to see the country?
You will naturally absorb information about the country you are volunteering in through your service, and some programs offer tourist excursions to volunteers. If yours does not, plan to stay a week or so longer to travel and learn more about your new home away from home.
Explore and give back
Thrivent Builds with Habitat for Humanity offers trips to a variety of U.S. and international locations combining service with an opportunity to develop lifelong relationships with others through the Thrivent Builds Worldwide program. To learn more, visit Thrivent Builds today.