It’s no wonder the world of “voluntourism” has become a $3 billion a year industry. Volunteers get to travel internationally and out of pocket costs are nominal since volunteers are essentially trading the experience for their skills. And, of course, there is the good feeling side of helping make the world a better place. While these are all great reasons for getting involved, “Travel with Purpose” author Jeff Blumenfeld tells ExpertFlyer that well-intentioned volunteers need to be wary of scammers whose heart may be located a bit closer to their wallet.
“Thanks in part to the pandemic, volunteers can lend a hand around the world by sharing skills and expertise via Zoom or Skype – you don’t even need a passport,” explains Jeff Blumenfeld during his One-on-One interview with ExpertFlyer.com. “But you have to do your homework in vetting not-for-profits in this space. Another point to be mindful of is respecting those you are there to help. This act of generosity should not be confused with virtue signaling. I’ve seen younger volunteers snapping selfies with poverty-stricken locals to up their Instagram creds. There’s a way to document your story and give light to an important cause. Just stay true to the mission, which is about making a difference in the world however small it may be.”
Although a $3 billion a year industry will always attract unscrupulous behavior, Blumenfeld is quick to note that the overwhelming majority of organizations are upstanding and beneficial to local communities. In fact, Konstantinos Tomazos, a senior lecturer in international tourism management at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, told NPR that Habitat for Humanity estimated its trips alone brings $6.9 million to the drivers, hotels, restaurants and gift shops that serve international volunteers when they visit.
So, how does someone begin to find the right volunteer opportunity? Blumenfeld found his opportunity through contacts at The Explorers Club, a New York-based exploration society founded in 1905. In his book, Travel with Purpose, Blumenfeld describes about 30 different opportunities to consider with 30 reputable organizations. And if you can’t commit to a few weeks as a volunteer, there are many opportunities to help without skipping a beat from everyday travels.
Pack For A Purpose is a group that matches a country’s needs with scheduled travel plans. For example, if you’re planning to visit Honduras, the organization might say, ‘that’s great. That country needs aspirin. Can you bring five pounds of aspirin with you, and someone will meet you when you arrive?’” Blumenfeld also likes an organization called Hope Floats, which caters to cruise ship passengers. Instead of taking daylong excursions, cruisers can volunteer with local charities.
And for those in the U.S. who don’t wish to travel internationally, Blumenfeld suggests a group called Volunteermatch.org. “This is the Match.com of volunteering,” he quips. “The site links volunteers in the United States with literally thousands of opportunities around the country or in their own neighborhood. The point is there are endless volunteer opportunities around the world. You just need to do your homework and align yourself with trusted organizations.”
But many travelers still wonder if the process is worth the effort. Jeff Blumenfeld recalls his time in Nepal volunteering with DooleyIntermed.org where many people are blinded by cataracts due to a lack of medical care, high altitude, and scarcity of sunglasses. “I remember seeing this one woman named Chinja. She was 65 years old, and her son had to carry her into the village on his back. Due to cataracts, she’d been blind for three years and didn’t like to wear shoes because she couldn’t feel the ground. After the surgery, she suddenly has her sight back and sees her son for the first time in years, and her grandchild for the first time ever. And just that one experience for me makes it all worth it.”
To listen to the full interview with author Jeff Blumenfeld, visit ExpertFlyer’s blog.