Naturally, the voluntourism industry aims to serve the largest number of people possible. It’s kind of like politics: one party trying to appeal to the largest demographic by riding the middle. As the market grows, more and more organizations are providing streamlined, polished, non-threatening excursions that get people excited without frightening them. This is great because it means more people are deciding to travel and volunteer. But for adventurous volunteers who are looking for something less polished—something challenging, remote, and raw—these voluntours may not be a good fit. These travelers are the third party voters, people who like small organizations that don’t compromise on specific issues (like adventure). For them I suggest Fronteering, an exciting volunteering organization that brings travelers off the beaten path to experience isolated cultures in remote areas.
Cultural diversity is a phrase that could be used to describe an increasing swath of our world. Here in the U.S., the melting pot is constantly growing, as immigrants move here and have children, establishing communities across the country. Despite the immigration reformers in government, America has always been a place where people of all sorts can live side by side. This is one of the things I love the most about this country. But, while living surrounded by people of many different cultures is wonderful, it is no substitute for traveling to foreign countries, to experience other cultures in the places where they originated. We all become Americanized living here—we adapt, learn to cater to our environments, and, of necessity, leave a little bit of ourselves behind. We have an incredibly high standard of living in America. Even the poorest among us have access to goods and services that would be completely unavailable in much of the rest of the world. To truly learn about other cultures—to embrace the uniqueness, the authenticity—requires travel. It requires time spent in far off places meeting new people. It requires immersion without access to the comforts of home.
Through volunteering, far away places become real to us. Every day it seems like we’re hearing about another international conflict—another community struck by hardship. Some of the hardship is civil, between governments and citizens. Sometimes it’s environmental, the result of a drought or natural disaster. Whatever the calamity, it’s easy to feel disconnected, like these stories are happening in another world. We go about our lives focused on what we do—our work and our families—immersed in our own everyday dramas. But for those of us who have volunteered, international conflict affects us viscerally, in real and immediate ways. We know that each of these places is as real as our hometowns and our back yards. We don’t just know it intellectually, we know it in our bones. UBELONG is a volunteer organization focused on promoting this kind of understanding. Their mission is to create “a world where people are united behind their shared humanity and committed to working together for positive change.”
It’s been a while since I wrote about a volunteer organization on the business side of the volunteering equation. The for-profit volunteer industry is one of the main engines driving our global increase in volunteer travel. These are travel companies that provide a vital service for communities in need while they offer great travel and volunteering adventures to their customers. The links between tourism and volunteering continue to blur as itineraries increasingly include volunteering stints amidst sightseeing and outdoor adventure. Often volunteering opportunities are half-time and include room and board, permitting a much more long-term vacation than would otherwise be possible.