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October 2005 - Study and Research

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Study and Research


Happy October! The focus of this month’s segment is on voluntourist’s motives and perceived benefits of participation. This is a second installment from Sally Brown, President, Ambassadair Travel Club, and President and Founder of Ambassadors for Children. Sally is also currently pursuing a Ph.D. in hospitality and tourism management at Purdue University with emphasis on voluntourism.

The types of voluntourism projects available to potential participants are varied. Experiences can involve agriculture, archaeology, community development, conservation, construction, education and teaching, environmental protection and research, technical assistance, historic preservation, medical and dental, and work camps, just to name a few.

With so many choices, how does a voluntourist determine which type of experience is right for her/him?

In a recent study of participants who have experienced a volunteer vacation, a focus group was conducted and the following questions were asked of respondents:

What motivates individuals to volunteer while on vacation?

What benefits do they derive from the volunteer experience?

What are the highlights of the volunteering experience?

How do the volunteer activities influence their overall vacation experience and satisfaction?

The following is an overview of the findings that just might help you as you plan, promote, and look to the future of voluntourism activities for your organization.

 The Motivators: Why Volunteer While on Vacation?

As a result of the study, four major motivational themes appeared to take shape as to why individuals volunteer while on a leisure trip: cultural immersion, giving back, seeking camaraderie, and seeking educational and bonding opportunities.

Cultural Immersion


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When asked, “Why volunteer while on vacation?” it was found that being able to physically and emotionally immerse oneself in the local culture and community was a strong motivational factor. It was a common sentiment from those participating in volunteer work that opportunities to immerse oneself in a local culture and enjoy interaction with local people were paramount in the decision to become volunteer tourists. These volunteering opportunities enable travelers to experience and learn beyond the typical tourism experience, where one may be surrounded by staged settings typified by beautiful beaches and fancy resorts.

Volunteer tourists further reported that they very much wanted to have the opportunity to see real people, their lives, and their everyday living environment. It appeared that volunteer travelers tended to attach strong value to seeking and experiencing the authenticity of a place. They also reported a healthy curiosity about other people and places. Respondents reported that working and interacting with the local people and communities lead them to opportunities to become immersed in local culture and to connect with the local people in a more profound way.

Giving Back and Making a Difference

 The second motivational theme that emerged was the desire to give back and reach out to the less privileged. Many participants felt that they had done well in life and wanted to give back. Spending time to help people in need is a good way to just do that. “A trip with a purpose” is appealing to participants because it offers them a chance to help with the less fortunate instead of pure self-enjoyment. One focus group participant referred to using voluntourism as a way to seek a “purpose-driven life” and felt that volunteer vacations served as a means to give back to society.

Seeking Camaraderie

A third motivational theme reflected the camaraderie that was sought on volunteer vacations. For well-traveled individuals, these trips brought together the “most enjoyable groups,” according to half of the study subjects. Meeting and interacting with people from the same travel group who shared common interests and values appeared to be a major motive behind volunteer vacationing. Many volunteer vacationers concurred that traveling with people with similar minds and making friends added value and enjoyment to the overall leisure trip experience. Seeking camaraderie appeared to be a sentiment voiced by the majority of volunteer vacationers as a stronger motivator for volunteer vacations. This finding re-enforced results of an earlier study that were presented here in the Voluntourist Research Forum when McGehee (2001) reported finding that network ties established during a voluntourism experience had a positive effect on participants.

Seeking Educational and Bonding Opportunities for Children

The volunteer vacationers appeared to also be motivated by the educational and family-bonding opportunities that a volunteer-vacation experience presented. In cases where volunteer vacationers traveled with their children, informants agreed that the volunteer experience was an opportunity for them to impart their value system to their children. They believed that the volunteer experience they shared with their children could teach children that there are people in the world who are less fortunate, that there is broad diversity in the world, and that material items should be of minimal importance. Informants also believed that the volunteer experience helped teach children the value of giving - an important component in life. It was apparent that participating in volunteer work with children while on vacation was perceived as having an educational component for the younger generation.

Another related, but distinct, motivational factor could bereferred to as seeking better bonding opportunities with children. Volunteering together with children appeared to be an opportunity for parents and their children and/or grandchildren to interact. For volunteers, it was very important to be able to spend quality time with loved ones, especially children or grandchildren. Taking a volunteer vacation together appeared to enable them to achieve that goal. A volunteer experience can build a special shared experience with children.

It’s All About Relationships! If you take a look at the findings just laid out in the previous paragraphs, you’ll see a pattern begin to emerge: the various levels of social interaction as part of the voluntourism experience provided the primary motivation for participation:

 First, interacting with people from the destination com-munity promoted mutual understanding, appreciation, and friendship.

Second, interacting with travel group members with similar interests and values promoted friendship and peer bonding.

Third, interacting with family members, such as spouse and children, promoted healthier family relationships and tighter bonding.

So, to paraphrase a famous presidential campaign mantra: “It’s the relationships, stupid!” For anyone in the business of providing and promoting volunteer tourism experiences, you know how important it is to determine the type of project that will best attract volunteers. That being said, we also cannot forget the importance of developing the type of program that provides opportunities for these three levels of relationships to be established, grow, and flourish!

If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail Dr. Sally Brown. Next month we will continue this conversation with a discussion of research Sally recently conducted examining participant’s motives and perceived benefits of voluntourism. In other words, why do they say they do it?!?

Nancy McGehee, PhD., Virginia Tech University

See you next issue!

Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.

Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech

Blacksburg VA


For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum. Go There >>>

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