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June 2005 - Wisdom & Insight

JUNE 2005 - Home


So You May Know
Wisdom & Insight
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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Wisdom & Insight

Here is this month's inquiry:

So what KIND of voluntary service can we offer as part of our VolunTourism products and services?


As we go forward to create a strong relationship between volunteering and touring – VolunTourism, it is important to understand the nature of the various realms of volunteering and determine with whom we will work and what impact we aspire to have. Below please note the spectrum of volunteer work that is available.

Types of Voluntary Service

Charitable Acts Relief Efforts Development Work
Providing support to those who cannot help themselves, yet are in need of help and support. (Immediate Term Impact) Providing support to those who, due to circumstances beyond their control such as a hurricane, drought, or war; are unable to support themselves. (Medium-term Impact) Providing support to those indivi-duals and/or communities that desire to be self-reliant, have some plans to this effect, and can benefit from external help. (Long-term impact)

Non-profit partners who may benefit from the charitable acts of volunteerism include: orphanages, senior homes, and facilities for those with physical or mental challenges. These non-profit partners may or may not be organized to receive volunteer groups.

To be successul... the non-profit agency must be willing to set up activities that can be meaningful for their clients and for the volunteers. The volunteers must be made aware that their intervention is an immediate, charitable act and will brighten the day of those receiving the service and will brighten the day of the volunteer.

It is important to consider that in most cases the volunteer action will not create long-term change in the life situation of those receiving the service. Children, seniors, the unemployed single mother, sufferers in the final stages of AIDS/HIV - all may benefit from such charitable acts .

(To create long-term change for these populations, however, it may be possible to focus on development work (see below) to create local structures to address the needs and participation of these groups in their own society. This can be achieved through long-term volunteer visits of persons that are likely in and of the community.)

In VolunTourism programs offering these charitable acts opportunities, there is usually ample time to see sites, experience the culture, and tour.


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Volunteerism that is dedicated to relief efforts generally needs to be organized by non-profit partners with experience in extreme situations of hardship. Much of the community and social service structure may not exist or may have been eliminated due to the devastation following a "tsunami-like" disaster. These organizations have expertise in situations where no potable water may be available, medicines needing refrigeration are being brought in through a network of “cold chain” locations, food movement is being provided through precarious transport networks, and the people being served may be suffering from trauma.

As was apparent during the Southeast Asian tsunami, the zealous response of millions of concerned global citizens resulted in many organizations sending inappropriate items and an overload of inexperienced “volunteers” making efficient water and food delivery even more difficult.

If a relief organization has put out a call for volunteers, then those responding need to be aware that they may have very primitive living quarters, contracting disease is a real possibility, and long hours may be required.

In these scenarios the volunteer must not expect a lot of moment-to-moment guidance and direction from the non-profit organization. These are rugged opportunities to provide service best filled by people able to be very flexible and make decisions on the fly.

In terms of impact, the volunteer realizes that her/his effort is intended to provide a bridge until the emergency has passed and those affected can once again participate in re-developing their community.

Another aspect of this type of voluntary service is that, unlike in the case of charitable acts where there is time to relate one-on-one with those being served, relief efforts, for example, often support the large numbers of those needing to be fed. This means that the interaction with individuals may be limited. Also there may be little opportunity to experience sites or learn about the culture. In other words, this type of VolunTourism may be skewed more heavily toward service during certain periods. But it is quite possible to add a long-weekend, cultural-tourism experience to the latter part of one's commitment.

In the arena of development work and volunteerism, the concept is that the volunteers engage in community projects that have been identified and planned by the community. The volunteers become complementary participants in a process that is already determined and underway in the community being visited and served.

This type of engagement offers the opportunity for community members and visitors to learn about each other through mutual discovery of the similarities and differences of culture and context, rather than from a position of simply supporting those in need (charitable acts) . Visitors may provide much needed resources for construction and additional manual or technical labor.

Community members are "invested owners" in the project. They have dedicated time and effort in assessing the needs of their communitiy and determining what steps may address and support the development of the community. Thus the VolunTourism products are most viable when the engagement with volunteers is well designed and planned so that mutual exchange can occur. This generally requires good translators to be coordinating the work, if language is an issue.

There are a multitude of non-profit organizations focused on development work in the third world. However, it is a special few that are organized to receive visitors, coordinate logistics and hospitality for volunteers, translate, and orchestrate work projects with groups that are a mix of local community members and visitors.

What VolunTourists interested in these types of experiences will know is that the impact they are having is complementary to those efforts of local people to improve their community and achieve their own self-reliance. Depending upon the non-profit or NGO coordinating the experience, there may be ample opportunities to also visit sites and sufficiently engage in the culture of the destination.

Another aspect of volunteer service in the development work category includes projects in which volunteers provide support to research projects, archeological digs, historical preservation or other causes that seek a long-term impact for the community served. In most of these opportunities the volunteer may have little or no inter-action with the local community. In some environmental volunteer programs, for example, the volunteers may be living as a group and engaged only with the particular site or animal group being studied. Again, the amount of time volunteering and the amount of time touring varies with these groups depending on the project and the orientation of the hosting organization.

VolunTourism provides a wide range of opportunities for those “VolunTourists” interested in traveling and making a difference. VolunTourism - willingly entering into service to another or to a cause as you travel – offers a wide range of opportunities to serve and journey. Let your creativity flow and, from the Buddhist prayer, may all beings everywhere, with whom we are inseparably interconnected, be fulfilled, awakened and free.

Elisa Sabatini is the Executive Director of Los Niños. She has over twenty years of community development experience in Central and North America including: Gutemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and the United States. You may email her with additional questions regarding the types of voluntary service as she has provided them in this response.

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