We find ourselves at an interesting stage of the VolunTourism Industry's development process, in particular, that of the development of the VolunTourist. To date, voluntary service has been seen, by many, as a "free" offering on the part of the volunteer as it relates to the utilization of that individual's time, talent, and treasure. The volunteer gives; the organization, as the liaison for local residents or the environment, receives. An individual sees her/himself as being the benefactor, altruist, servant, or some other self-identified descriptor - whereby "riches" flow to the recipient entity from said individual.
But as VolunTourists continue to provide testimonials from their journeys, we discover via expressions of gratitude and recognition that the once, self-perceived role of benefactor has shifted to that of beneficiary. Words and phrases such as "life-changing," "transformative," "they changed my foundation" and others are cropping up like daffodils in the Spring-time.
We may just see a shift in how truly conscious people become in their process of engaging in a VolunTourism journey. We may experience a growth in the willingness of individuals to take more time and care in the selection of a trip. We may see an awareness and understanding that takes into account a level of responsibility that transcends the simple thought of: "Look at how much I am giving already, why should I have to do more?"
It is for those that want to look at VolunTourism as more than simply one more item on the "must-do-before-I-kick-the-bucket list," and visualize it as a real opportunity to step beyond the mainstream travel experience, that this article is intended. If you really are committed to being of service, then you will want to consider the following during your decision-making process:
1. Define/Identify Your Purpose
What is the underlying reason behind your determination to engage in a Voluntourism trip? Does it represent the fulfillment of a life-long dream? Is it an expression of your personal value system? Whatever you identify as the root decision behind your desire to be a VolunTourist is something that you should write down and place on your favourite mirror at home or in a conspicuous spot so that you have it well-memorized and can refer to it often throughout the weeks and months ahead.
2. Set Reasonable Goals & Objectives, Not Expectations
It is human nature to erect parapets of expectations around upcoming experiences. By placing the onus on others to fulfill our expectations, “I paid for this, remember,” we can readily pass the blame onto someone else if those expectations are not met. In the case of VolunTourism experiences, however, you have an unprecedented opportunity to set goals and objectives, within reason, of course, toward which you can strive during your adventure.
You may decide to have a daily goal: “I will meet one fellow VolunTourist each day and get to know them more personally.” You may have an overall objective: “I want to become more aware of the happiness/poverty paradox that I have heard, or read, other VolunTourists describe: “How is it that people who are so materially poor can be so incredibly happy?’” By proactively setting your goals and objectives, you circumvent the pitfall of expectations’ formation into which many unsuspecting VolunTourists plunge.
3. Select A Destination Accordingly
Especially for those who may be new to Voluntourism, you may want to consider selecting a domestic destination with which you are familiar. Why?
Because much of what occurs during a voluntourism journey is unfamiliar or can be unanticipated, you are much better positioned to enjoy your experience if you are simply seeing a different side of a “face” which you already know in some way. Not all VolunTourists will heed such advice but those who do, who really see a destination in a new light, will be able to hold a running conversation with themselves that begins something like this - - “How on earth could I have come here and completely missed seeing this aspect of the destination?” These conversations will become inspirational gems enlivening future discussions with friends and family that have visited these same places – not to mention great fodder for your travel diary.
4. Assess Your Personal Orientation: Accomplishment vs. Engagement
When determining what cause or issue you want to address on your Voluntourism trip, please keep this question uppermost in your cranium: “Do I want to accomplish something tangible through the service that I render or do I want to engage with others through my service?” Most of us will naturally say we want both. But having both does not necessarily mean that you will be fulfilled through your effort. Fulfillment for some of us comes in the form of erecting a structure that will very soon be brimming with little children studying science or mathematics. Others will be fulfilled through instructing a women’s cooperative on how to market their products and services or teaching them Basic English skills so that they can better relate the story of their village to tourists in the Mercado. Identify which one – accomplishment or engagement – will best serve you as you serve others.
5. Physical & Emotional Intensity
Voluntourism trips may entail some physically and emotionally intense moments. You should be aware of this. You should also be prepared to conceptualize the intensity of such things - - the labour involved or the degree of interaction with the residents and those whom you are serving - - based upon the trip descriptions offered by Voluntourism providers. (Should this not be the case, Ask Questions?)
If you are not prepared to see someone lying on a cot in the latter stages of death from AIDS, then be very clear about this from the beginning. Also, be sure to avoid selecting a trip that is both intense from a physical/labour perspective as well as from an interaction/emotional perspective. This can be overwhelming for your system and you know what that can mean for you and everyone else.
6. The Itinerary Mix
There are four basic elements that should be included in every VolunTourism itinerary:
- Voluntary service,
- Connection to a destination’s art, culture, history, geography, and other tourism activities,
- Recreation, and
- Personal downtime
When you begin to look for a trip, determine how much time you would like to dedicate to each of these areas. Why?
As is often the case, we reflect onto others our moods and emotional status. If you work too hard and don’t get the rest and personal processing time that you need or you fail to see the Taj Mahal when you go to Agra, this may very well create moodiness. This moodiness is easily transferred to your fellow VolunTourists and is most easily discerned by the residents with whom you may be serving side-by-side. Therefore, select an itinerary mix that balances your preferences in this regard.
7. Boundaries: Tolerance & Risk
Let’s be very clear about the word – tolerance; it does not mean patience. Think of tolerance as a rung on a ladder over a pen full of crocodiles. You will not step below a certain point and run the risk of becoming croc-bait. So too, you should be very clear about your boundaries and comfort level, especially in reference to:
- Type & style of accommodations,
- Transfer times and mode of transport,
- Environment & climate,
- Interaction & engagement with VolunTourists & residents alike, and
- Type of service work.
Do not over-extend or overestimate your capacity in these areas. Pick a higher rung and avoid getting bit.
8. Expect The Unexpected
VolunTourism trips are legendary in their tendency to generate “the unexpected.” This genre of travel seems to attract conditions that may defy either logic or your own desire to accomplish something. If you are doing a project that requires materials to be delivered from local sources, these may be delayed or may not arrive at all. But unexpected does not necessarily translate as a negative term, it is more a descriptor for helping you to understand that these trips, albeit having been crafted and scripted into a stellar itinerary, can easily be altered.
Note: In reference to tolerance and boundaries, if you select meager accommodations, long transfer times, extreme climate, intense interaction and engagement, or service work that may be difficult for you, count on the fact that you have increased the potential for “the unexpected” to occur.
9. Intangibles & Value Added
VolunTourism trips come in a vast assortment based upon such things as uniqueness of service and longevity of relationships between trip providers and destination residents. If you find, however, that two entities offer a similar trip to that which resonates with you, there are some additional determinants worth considering.
For example, if you are a veteran VolunTourist, you may want to select the itinerary that will give you the opportunity to travel with the Founder of an organization. There is nothing like the Power of the Founder to enliven your enthusiasm. Likewise, having a guide for the trip that has lived in the region for an extended period of time offers a value added proposition described, by one organization, as “Sabios de la Frontera” – Wise Ones of the Border. These nuggets will only be unearthed if you are conscious of their value during your selection process.
10. The VolunTourism Footprint
At its very best, VolunTourism is balanced engagement rooted in reciprocity. There are, for example, benefits that can accrue to all stakeholders, especially if you are willing to seriously consider the financial, social, and environmental implications of the “investment” that you are making. Your service can have both a social and environmental impact depending on what you elect to do.
A balanced mix of service and tourism-related activity within your itinerary can mean that local residents benefit from the service you render but also by you affording them a chance to reciprocate that service - residents being compensated for such things as providing a guided tour of the surrounding area or your purchasing of their arts and crafts. In addition, a portion of your payment may also be funneled into programs that serve the local community beyond the term of your visit. Be aware of the potentiality of your time, talent, and treasure.
As you begin to develop your conscious approach to VolunTourism, you will discover that your personal judgments and criticisms of others will start to fall away. You will not see yourself as an activist or a purist, but as one who spends her/his time in improving self and personal approach - striving continually to make yourself the best VolunTourist you can be. At the very least, this has been my personal experience; perhaps, it will be yours as well.