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How To Find A Worthy Volunteer Job On The Road

Dec 22, 2013
Originally published on December 22, 2013 12:33 pm
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Volunteering while traveling isn't really a novelty anymore. But sometimes that work you're doing, say, in a developing country, well, it could be doing more harm than good. On this week's travel segment, Winging It, we look at what it means to travel ethically.


MARTIN: Shannon O'Donnell is the author of "The Volunteer's Handbook," and she's the founder of the website Grassroots Volunteering. It's a database of information that allows people to find ethical ways to travel, either through volunteering or supporting a local business, like a restaurant or a coffee shop. We caught up with Shannon O'Donnell recently and asked her what makes someone a sustainable and ethical traveler.

SHANNON O'DONNELL: Someone who is a service-minded traveler, who has committed to doing research and understanding development and aid issues and everything that they can to maintain the dignity of the local people. Sustainable and ethical travel means you look at the ethical issues so you understand when you can be of service, when your skills might be useful and when it's better to responsibly spend your money in the local community.

MARTIN: So, can you give us some examples of the range of opportunities that exist, that you have vouched for in your database?

O'DONNELL: You could support a coffee shop in northern Thailand that uses that money to fund a community. And these Akha villagers have their own plantation and they're working toward fair trade certification. And you go to the coffee shop. And when you do that, the money goes directly into the hands of this cooperative that they've built. And then the money goes back up to the village to further their own effort. And so instead of volunteering there, you are supporting them on their own terms and you are funding it through your tourism.

MARTIN: So, you're not necessarily volunteering or working for that coffee shop. You're saying you're supporting them by giving them your business.

O'DONNELL: Absolutely. And that's the core of social enterprise travel for me. These social enterprises need tourism dollars. And then the volunteering side, there's conservative volunteering opportunities in South America, teaching English.

MARTIN: What do those look like when you say conservation opportunities? What does a volunteer job look like?

O'DONNELL: You could work in the office of a conservation team, you know, in Patagonia, that are working to clean up the forests or keep an animal from going extinct. And there are opportunities like that. Many of these take months. So, if you are taking a sabbatical, you can find those opportunities that have you doing field work. Or if you have a week to give, you can go work in the office and do paperwork or help wherever your skill base is.

MARTIN: The skeptic might point out that, well, the traveler gets to walk away with this great story, right, and gets to pat themselves on the back and say, well, I didn't just go on a trip. I, like, helped the local community.

O'DONNELL: I really put an emphasis on using our database as a starting point but then asking organization how are you working within the community and are you invested there? So, my volunteer fee that I'm giving you is going into a long-term project that you have going on. And maybe half of that fee goes toward training me but the other half is invested in the project that this organization is doing. And that's the tradeoff - is the children in these small communities often dream bigger when they meet a Westerner who is a photographer or, you know, is a teacher or philosopher, all these things that perhaps they've never been told they can be. And so there's intangible benefits as well to having the mixing of cultures.

MARTIN: Shannon O'Donnell. She's the author of "The Volunteer's Handbook" and the founder of the website Grassroots Volunteering. Shannon, thanks so much for talking with us.

O'DONNELL: I really appreciate you having me on today. Thank you.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.