grassroots volunteering
grassroots volunteering
Photo courtesy of mangostock via Shutterstock

Ethical travel, particularly relating to voluntourism, has become a hot topic recently. It’s an important subject, but it can be a bit difficult to differentiate the good from the bad when it comes to travel and volunteering abroad. We interviewed Shannon O’Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook and founder of Grassroots Volunteering for some advice on traveling ethically.

Note: For more discussions on responsible tourism make sure to check out Responsible Tourism Twitter Chat (#RTTC) Wednesdays at 6pm GMT.

1. What is Grassroots Volunteering? How did it begin?

Grassroots Volunteering (GV) is a dual database of both independent volunteer opportunities and social enterprises located all of the world. The social enterprise database is my favorite, because it geo-locates local businesses all over the world that need tourism dollars to support both the local economy and their social issue.

The website started as a reaction to the chaotic volunteering industry I found myself facing when I left to travel around the world in 2008. I wanted to create a website that helped de-commodify the volunteering landscape.

2. How are organizations chosen for the site? What makes an organization an ethical place to volunteer?

The organizations are hand vetted either by myself or by volunteer GV Ambassadors who are currently mapping the world with these types of projects. Organizations in the volunteer database are often found as independent local level organizations in need of long-term support. We look for a community investment strategy in the organization, as well as at the financial relationship between volunteer fees and the project at hand.

The social enterprise database is generally aimed at increasing the ability for travelers to support the local economy when they’re on the road. These projects are often founded by locals in the community and address a social issue on their terms.

grassroots volunteering
Photo courtesy of Janaka Dharmasena via Shutterstock

3. For travelers interested in volunteering with an organization not listed on the site, what is your advice? What should they know prior to volunteering?

There are so many possible organizations out there, that one database could never encapsulate every possible opportunity or skill needed. For volunteers looking to use another organization, they should do their research ahead of time into best development practices, and understanding the relationship between the volunteer industry in the development an eight industries. I developed a primer on the developing world here.

Before volunteering, volunteers should really assess their trip and their potential volunteer opportunity and make sure that the time they have to give in the skills they have to offer are actually a good fit for the organization.

Learning about coffee farming at the Akha Ama social enterprise

4. “Voluntourism” has become a hot topic recently. What are the downsides to volunteering abroad? When is it not an ethical choice?

There is a lot of debate in the voluntourism industry, and much of it centers on the relationship between the volunteers, the placement organizations, and the communities where volunteers are spending their time. There are questions as to whether these projects do more harm than good, and if the intentions of the volunteers are at odds with the needs of the community.

There are countless examples of projects that come into question, like volunteering with children, construction work when local labor is often needed and affordable, and things of this nature. There is no hard and fast rule of when it might not be an ethical choice, but in general volunteers should assess whether or not they are bringing something valuable to the community. Sometimes that is simply the volunteer fee, and that is valuable to the project; however, in other instances volunteers are going for selfish reasons and in these cases, organizations fostering this type of volunteering should be questioned.

5. What other opportunities are available for those who want to give back but cannot volunteer (or when volunteering is not the best option)?

Travel and tourism as an industry has the potential to be the largest redistribution of wealth between developed and developing countries. Simply visiting and traveling with a conscious mind of spending your money with local businesses and social enterprises is its own form of service. It may not formally fit the definition of volunteering, but it is definitely a way that travelers can be of service to the places they are passing through.

6. What is the most important thing someone should know before deciding to volunteer abroad?

That their actions are not going to change the world. Change is built slowly and the best hope for new volunteers in particular is that they can approach volunteering with a humble attitude, remain flexible and potentially add a small piece to the ongoing work of an ethical organization.

Learning about Maasai culture at Maji Moto in Kenya
7. Grassroots Volunteering has launched an Ambassador program. Can you tell us more about the program and how others can get involved?

The GV Ambassadors program was an exciting development this year! The positive response to led to many people asking if they could volunteer their time during their own travels to help map the world of independent volunteer opportunities and social enterprises. The GV Ambassadors program specifically enables volunteers to help access the database and then find and vet organizations while they are on the ground in these places. The Ambassadors are able to ask questions, visit the project and get a feel for if it’s a good fit for the type of projects GV lists.

For any travelers with an upcoming trip, they can read more about it here.

8. What would you like to see in the future – in terms of Grassroots Volunteering and voluntourism in general?

My goal with GV, and in my talks at universities with college students, is to gradually shift the conversation from volunteering to instead look at how we can best be good global citizens and to be of service to the places we travel. It is with this mindset travelers are able to look at grassroots level travel and spending money at the local level as a form of service. I would love to see this attitude penetrate deeper into the travel in volunteering industries.

9. Can you share more about your personal experiences volunteering? What is the most meaningful or memorable experience you’ve had while volunteering?

There’s so many positive experiences and amazing stories I have heard while traveling and volunteering around the world. One of the most recent social enterprises I visited in Kenya this past spring has an amazing story. The founder of a cultural camp uses tourism dollars to help positively campaign for the education of young girls within the Maasai culture and against female circumcision. Visiting the Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp and learning their story was an incredible memory from my recent travels through Africa and stands out as memorable.

By Sky Fisher

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Sky Fisher is a small-town country girl with a passion for travel. She has a love affair with Central America and currently calls Costa Rica home. Follow her adventures at Sky vs World.

Sky Fisher

Sky Fisher is a small-town country girl with a passion for travel. She has a love affair with Central America and currently calls Costa Rica home. Follow her adventures at Sky vs World.

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