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4 questions to ask before you take a volunteer vacation

Learn how to vacation and volunteer at the same time.

Taking volunteer vacation has become more than an isolated occurrence: About 1.6 billion people across the globe give back while traveling, generating more than $173 billion in economic impact.

But the concept of a working vacation in which you give back, sometimes called “voluntourism,” isn’t without controversy. The quality of organizations that offer volunteer trips varies dramatically, as does the preparation, skills and interests of volunteers. Can you make a positive impact and experience a country or a culture that’s eye-opening, too? Yes — but it takes research and thoughtful consideration. Here are four questions to ask.

What Can You Offer?

Some nonprofits that organize volunteer opportunities that let you travel may help place professionals. For example, Doctors Without Borders, which emphasizes both neutrality and impartiality, sends skilled medical aid where it’s most needed. But you don’t need to be a highly specialized professional in order to contribute; sometimes two strong hands and a willingness to help can be enough. Assess what you can offer, consider how it aligns with your volunteer passions and decide if the opportunity is family-friendly. A conservation activist is likely to get more satisfaction from (and, ultimately, contribute more to) a forest preservation project than someone who’s uninterested in the issue.

What Do You Know About the Organization?

Many groups that focus on volunteer vacations are actually for-profit companies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but learn the goals of the organization, the fees it charges and the actual dollars that go toward local efforts, not the group’s bottom line, to ensure that you’re signing on to a reputable volunteer program. Dig deep into the charges you’ll incur and find out what those dollars cover as well as what the goals are of the volunteer vacation. Charity Navigator offers a comprehensive look at domestic organizations, while Giving Way helps connect global opportunities with your interests and the area you’re interested in visiting.

Who Will You Help?

While you might want to make a connection with the people who live in the area and may benefit from your efforts, there are reasons that reputable volunteer programs discourage that. You may not understand (or be able to quickly absorb) local customs or cultural influences, particularly regarding children. And your here-today-gone-tomorrow presence may create bonds that are difficult to break.

Are You Ready to Dive In — No Matter the Task?

If you have the ability to consider a working vacation, make sure you want to commit to the hours and demands required of you. You won’t be relaxing on the beach, but you will be making an impact that has far-reaching and long-lasting positive repercussions.

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