Let’s be honest, when your potential customers hear the term “volunteer travel,” what’s their gut reaction? There’s a good chance they picture a group of college-age kids in a third world country. By day the agenda calls for physically demanding labor, while at night they envision sleeping in creaky wooden bunk beds.
While this assessment isn’t completely wrong, it certainly doesn’t paint the entire picture for this rapidly growing form of altruism. Companies like Discover Corps have proven that volunteer travel has evolved into something that can work for families of all ages with just a few minor tweaks to the experience.
To make this known, we need to debunk these 4 commonly held misconceptions of volunteer travel:
Myth: I shouldn’t be paying to volunteer
Whenever there is money involved, this statement will be made, as travelers are leery of paying money to support causes that are unclear. Justifiably so, as we’ve all heard sad stories of the misuse of funds by organizations.
When done correctly, however, your travelers’ financial contributions are crucial to bringing fundamental changes to the places they visit. This means the money their family spends on the trip and while onsite should stay in the local economy, if they are volunteering with an ethically-focused company.
The benefit of this influx of dollars cannot be overstated. This means their meals will stimulate locals restaurants and their lodging can provide a boost to family-owned accommodations. Tour guides or in-country hosts also earn a living from the money they spend. All of these funds can then be reinvested by locals into other nearby businesses, hospitals and schools.
Another portion of your travelers’ expenses are often allocated for supporting the mission of your volunteer organization. This could look like a company specializing in wildlife conservation that contributes monetarily to elephant rehabilitation.
Lastly, many families opt to mix in excursions during their time off from volunteering. These activities are frequently put together by the trip organizer (your company) and do come with a cost. But what’s not to love about a river rafting trip after a few days of meaningful work? Again, even the excursions that don’t involve volunteering can still help the local economy simply because of the money being spent (again, assuming they travel with a provider like you who carefully selects local companies to partner with).
Myth: The accommodations will be basic
Sleeping in a basic multi-person tent or a summer camp-style cabin are options while volunteering, but it’s important for volunteer travelers to know they are not the only options. As voluntourism has progressed, so have the alternatives for where families can rest their heads – something extremely important to consider when traveling with children or grandparents.
A perfect example is glamorous camping, or “glamping” while on safari in Africa. It’s not a hard sell when describing to customers the scene of unwinding after a long day of volunteering with conservationists in a luxury tent, with only the flickering glow of candles lighting the spacious abode (trust us, their kids will love it too). Another distinctive option to make travelers aware of are one-of-a-kind eco-lodges. There they can embrace the latest in sustainable practices while enjoying locally grown food and falling asleep to the white noise of the jungle.
So if roughing it is your customers’ idea of a good time, by all means they should enjoy. But for those that prefer to work hard and sleep well, there’s a comfortable bungalow out there with their names on it.
Myth: My help won’t really make a difference
As the book When Helping Hurts points out, sometimes even a volunteer’s best intentions to give back can prove to be unhelpful. This can be the result of “helping” a community with perceived needs instead of meeting their actual needs.
Your customers my also bring up the common objection, how much can I accomplish in only one week? Don’t let these occurrences deter them, as countless organizations truly need help – no matter the duration of the commitment. Make sure they are aware that the right volunteer companies will seek out nonprofits to partner with in-country to create the largest impact for both travelers and the communities they visit.
For example, here are a few purposeful projects from Discover Corps:
- Building bottle homes. If a family enjoys the rugged, get-your-hands-dirty, type of volunteer project, one unique opportunity is the building of clinics and schools using plastic bottles in the Dominican Republic. Not only do these buildings create shelter and resources for local people, but it has the added benefit of repurposing bottles that would normally end up in a landfill or the ocean. Plus, these structures can be built quickly so they can be put to use.
- Conservation projects. If travelers prefer less manual labor (or have young ones that aren’t quite ready for it yet), wildlife volunteer vacations are an excellent option. For conservation-minded volunteers, consider a purposeful trip to Belize to assist experts in preserving the native manatee population, or Croatia for a similar project with dolphin monitoring. Here volunteers can observe and document these creatures, then submit this data to ongoing initiatives that use the information to protect this endangered species.
- In and beyond the classroom. For travelers wanting to connect with children and teachers, trips to both Peru and Tanzania have developed from personal relationships with Discover Corps’ founder. Watch this video to hear from Esther “Mama” Simba about the impact travelers have on her village when they come to volunteer in Tanzania.
Myth: Most volunteers are 20-somethings
It’s no secret that many young adults have both the passion and energy needed to take on ambitious volunteer projects. What may surprise your customers, though, is that older adults and seniors actually account for more volunteer hours annually than younger generations. This fact directly disproves the belief that only 20-somethings take part in volunteer travel.
Having a diversified volunteer group, which more mature travelers provide, is important as every individual contributes unique skills. Those with more life experience can share their wealth of knowledge for the benefit of all involved. Ask your travelers to think of the difference a middle school teacher could have when teaching English in Africa or how helpful an accountant could be when collecting data on sea turtle nesting patterns. On the other end of the spectrum, remind them how including their children with youthful exuberance and energy, can also add a valuable dynamic to the group. Seeing things through a child’s eyes can also be an important reminder to keep things simple, and the connection between children of different cultures can be inspiring.
Ultimately, no matter their age, or the size of their family, if they have the desire to help, an opportunity exists!
If you’re interested in learning more, check out Family Travel Association Member Discover Corps, a company specializing in Vacations with Purpose for families and friends.
Scott Dye is the Marketing Coordinator for Discover Corps, an organization that offers Vacations with Purpose for families and friends including nature & wildlife adventures and cultural explorations in Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe, Cuba, South America and the Caribbean. An adventure lover himself, Scott believes travel can change people, perspective, and the planet.
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