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Volume 6 Issue 2 Highlights



For VolunTourists: How To Make The Most Of Your VolunTourism Experience - Part 1

The last several years have seen an increasing amount of guidance targeted at voluntourists to assist them in such things as selecting a trip, compiling a packing list, and pitfalls to avoid. This advice has come in great quantity and in many forms: from blog posts, articles, and books to podcasts and videos. The practical importance of this wisdom cannot be denied. However, I would argue that much of what is the VolunTourism Experience actually occurs within the VolunTourist – thoughts, emotions, memories, perceptions, shifting world views, and revelations. In the first of a two-part series, I will discuss the VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle and introduce three practical items to assist VolunTourists in making the most of their inner, as well as outer, VolunTourism Experiences.


Volunteering itself is multidimensional; add travel and tourism-related activities to the mix and we are most assuredly talking about a quasi-dimensional, integrated form of leisure engagement for participants. It should be duly noted that as ‘voluntourists,’ if you will, you are serving and touring simultaneously on multiple planes of your own perception – what is happening in the world around you and what is happening in the world within you. Therefore, to support your highest level of functioning in these extrinsic and intrinsic environments, you should be provided with a set of psycho-social tools to pragmatically manage you experiences. But first, we need to take a closer look at the constituent parts of a voluntour, in particular, the voluntary service aspect.

As a potential voluntourist, you are motivated to participate in a voluntour for numerous reasons, the least likely of which is to be solely focused on altruistic idealism – sorry to burst your proverbial bubble. Walter Rehberg, in the concluding paragraph of his study, “Altruistic Individualists,” based upon research he conducted to discover the motivations of 118 Swiss youth who showed an interest in international volunteering, offers the following advice for voluntourism providers:

Rehberg’s commentary is wisdom-filled, but it does not address what a voluntourist should be prepared to do in the event that any of his suggestions are not followed by a voluntourism provider or fail to reach fruition. It is the personal capacity to address the extrinsic and intrinsic challenges of voluntourism that will go a long, long way in securing your overall enjoyment of the experience and the interplay of your attitude and behavior in relation to local residents, your fellow voluntourists, and the coordinating team that oversees your engagement.

To this end, I will take the remainder of this article to discuss the VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle. In the follow on to this piece, part 2, I will discuss the following suggestions that you may want to consider as you develop your capacity to excel even in the midst of 'disorienting dilemmas' you may encounter:

  • Incorporate the 'Buddy System' into Your VolunTourism Experience
  • Set Yourself Up For Progress
  • Learn To Manage VolunTourism Dilemmas

An Introduction To The VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle

Recently I was speaking with a journalism student who was writing a paper on alternative travel experiences for students. She asked me if I had specific advice for young people who might be interested in voluntouring. “Your service begins when the commitment is made,” I told her. And, to her credit, she immediately understood what I meant; what’s more, it resonated with her.

It is very easy to become entangled in the thought that one’s service, as it relates to voluntourism, has a time-stamp on it: ‘From this day to this day while I am in such-and-such destination, I will be rendering service to local residents or the environment.’ Who can argue with this logic? It makes absolute sense. It’s written right there on the website, with a description of what the voluntourist will be doing during the 7-day, 14-day, or 21-day itinerary. Simple. Straightforward. Is it accurate?

Technically, perhaps; in reality, however, your voluntour starts well before your feet leave the ground of your home turf and long after they are replanted on it. Although you may be inclined to believe that Voluntourism represents a major financial investment (it does, of course), the majority of your investment will be the amount of time and effort you put into it. And don't forget that others are investing in your experience as well. There are the investments of the local community, of the entity that hosts you, of the entity that coordinates your activities (if different than the hosting entity), and of your fellow voluntourists.

In considering your service commitment, it is probably best to understand the flow of the voluntourism experience, its life cycle, in other words. Over the years, I have discovered seven 'phases' that make up the life cycle of any voluntourism experience. The bulk of the 'activity' related to these phases is conducted internally, through mental processing, thinking, etc. Each phase corresponds with an 'action' - Know, Ask, Discern, Prepare, Listen, Reflect, Act. Figure 1 (below) introduces these seven phases - the Decision Point (Know), the Trip Determination Phase (Ask), the Trip Selection Phase (Discern), the Pre-Departure Phase (Prepare), the Trip Participation Phase (Listen), the Post-Trip Phase (Reflect), and the Future Participation Phase (Act). 

Figure 1: The VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle

The Decision Point

For most individuals, there is an instantaneous knowing, though it may follow much deliberation and seemingly countless discussions with others, that you will venture forth on a voluntourism journey. This 'decision point' is uniquely arrived at by each and every potential voluntourist. No two persons will undergo the same process, so do not think that you will be able to compare notes until after the Decision Point has been reached. You simply know. Then you are ready to move on to the Trip Determination Phase. (Remember: until you 'know,' you do 'not know.')

The Trip Determination Phase

Where will you go? What is your purpose for traveling in this way? What do you hope to achieve? What makes you angry, scared, uncomfortable? How do you respond to others' opinions, thoughts, viewpoints, when they are contrary to your own? Questions, questions, and still more questions. During this phase of the VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle, the most important thing to realize is that you have actually begun the journey, and service, true service, will be your mantra from here on out. The key to this phase will be - Asking questions.

Prepare yourself for the first big hurdle to address: figuring out your preferences and aversions, your levels of tolerance, and your capacity to be flexible. You will be tempted to respond in a socially desirable manner, but honesty and integrity are most essential as you ward off this temptation. Any departure from being true to yourself in these early stages will certainly result in pain to yourself, but it will likely create discomfort for others, if not immediately, certainly later in the process.

The Trip Selection Phase

At this point in your journey, you have done some 'serious soul-searching.' If not, go back a step and dig deeper. You have a fairly firm grasp on the things that you want and do not want as part of your 'voluntour.' Now you want to flex the muscle of your discernment because you can find books with 100, 300, 500, or even 700 options to choose from. You will find websites chock full of experiences. Search engines will give you thousands upon thousands of opportunities. How do you deal with all of this?

You will want to have two lists for yourself. One list represents the practical, physical aspects of what you will and will not accept - a room of your own, a hot or cold climate, insects, etc. The second list will be the internal, emotional life that will be important to you, 'time by yourself,' for example. One of the items that you will want to include on your emotional list, and is often overlooked, is the level of expense you are willing, truly willing, to incur. Make sure to include this on your emotional list.

Five to ten items on each list is all that you will need to remove potential programs from your final selection options. Then, engage your discernment in finalizing your selection by creating a score card which lists your five to ten items in the most important order of preference for you. If a program does not score high in your top three items on your two lists, discard it. In fact, if you do not check a 'yes' box on the top three items of both of your lists for a program, I recommend that you remove the program from your list. Continuing this process and narrowing your decision to three or four final options, you should be able to select your program.

The Pre-Departure Phase

Key Activities For Each Phase Of The VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle

  • Know - Decision Point
  • Ask - Trip Determination Phase
  • Discern - Trip Selection Phase
  • Prepare - Trip Preparation Phase
  • Listen - Trip Participation Phase
  • Reflect - Post-Trip Phase
  • Act - Future Participation Phase

You will find guidance on packing and what not on various websites and in guidebooks. Your trip provider will have additional items for you to review. Yet, what you will probably not find, is how best to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for the journey that lies ahead.

Trust me when I say, this is a BIG DEAL! This journey you are about to embark upon is going to target the little hidden places inside yourself, those little shadow pockets that you cannot see. The precision with which the marksman of this experience hits the bullseye of unrecognized prejudices, emotional soft spots, etc, within you is absolutely uncanny.

If you are feeling the least bit uncomfortable, nervous, or otherwise as you prepare for your journey, you have some options available to you. Here are some suggestions:

  • Identify a volunteer project in your home community, especially if you think it will have some connection to what you will be doing on your voluntour, and get engaged
  • Take up yoga, meditation, or some other contemplative practice
  • Communicate with other voluntourists
  • If you have not done so already, formalize your relationship with your 'VolunTourism Buddy' (we'll talk about this in Part 2 of this article)
  • Exercise - that's right, get out there and run, walk, ride a bike, do whatever it takes to process the extra 'stress-related' chemicals that are being released into your system
  • If your nervousness is acute, review your cancellation options - again, keep in mind that you are already in 'service mode;' being of service also means stepping away from something if you are not prepared to be fully engaged in it

The Trip Participation Phase

The key to this phase is 'listening.' Listen to that little voice inside your head. Listen to your desires to have some time by yourself. Listen to your body when it tells you you are overdoing it. Listen to the group leaders when they tell you to drink plenty of fluids. Listen to your stomach when it tells you that it is not ready to handle goat meat tacos (tacos de chivas). Listen to your heart when it tells you that what you are seeing is beyond your capacity to absorb. Listen, with your eyes, by watching the way that community members do their work. Listen to the stories that are told. Listen to your fellow voluntourists. Listen.

Of course, you need to be willing to follow the advice that is provided, but it starts by being open and ready to hear what is being said.

The Post-Trip Phase

Patience. If you are to make the most of your voluntourism experience, you will need to take your time when you return home. Again, if you keep in mind that 'service' is the all-pervading essence of the VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle, then you will do yourself and others a great service by letting your experience percolate, marinate, or whatever word helps you to be patient with simply sitting, reflecting, remembering, processing your journey.

During this phase, you can also reintroduce some of the items that you used during the Trip Preparation Phase (see above) to process your stress and discomfort. Think about how you can build on your experience - what you learned about yourself, about the types of activities that resonated and did not resonate with you. Begin to list these items and speak with others about them.

But the greatest service you can provide during this phase is to communicate your reflections on your experience. This can be done through a blog post, if you have one, or via an online forum. You may like podcasting. If so, do a podcast about your experience. You may prefer video; have someone interview you on camera. Whatever your medium, share your VolunTourism Experience in a manner that will allow others to access your comments, thoughts and feelings about it. And if it was a lousy experience, all the more important that you communicate this information as it will support everyone, including your voluntourism provider. This is a definitive expression of real service.

The Future Participation Phase

You will know that you are beginning to move beyond the Post-Trip Phase of your voluntourism journey when you start to consider "What's Next?" Remember, the course of action that you take does not necessarily need to be one of engaging in another voluntour. You may decide to start your own voluntourism operation. You may change your career path. You may volunteer locally. Be sure, however, that you are not motivated by 'post-trip blues.' You want your thoughts regarding your future participation to be proactive, not reactive.

It is always helpful to have an example of what has been done by others in the aftermath of a voluntourism experience. I have mentioned the Kugler Family on several occasions over the last couple of years. Just this past week, they sent a library of 25,000 books to A.V. Bukani Primary School (Port Elizabeth, South Africa), the very school at which they volunteered in 2008 through their voluntourism experience with People & Places and Calabash Tours.

This is, perhaps, an extreme example, but it does help to illustrate the fact that Future Participation comes in many different shapes and sizes. Simply make sure that the shape and size are right for you.

Final Thoughts & Next Up...

In explaining the VolunTourism Experience Life Cycle, I have attempted to expand your view of what VolunTourism truly is. It is much more than a multi-day travel and service engagement - much, much more. Greater understanding of what all is involved will hopefully assist you in embracing some of the suggestions that will follow in part 2 of this article.

In part 2, I will discuss the VolunTourism 'Buddy System,' Setting yourself up for progress, and Managing voluntourism dilemmas.


Chambre', Susan M., & Einolf, Christopher J. (2009) Is Volunteering Work, Prosocial Behavior, or Leisure? An Empirical Study. Baruch College Center For Nonprofit Strategy & Management Working Paper Series, 1 - 30.

Rehberg, Walter (2005) Altruistic Individualists: Motivations for International Volunteering Among Young Adults in Switzerland. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 16(2), 109-122.

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