Why do we volunteer? We want to help. We want to leave the world in a better place than we found it. We want to matter. Sometimes, we want to heal. I’ve explored the many ways volunteering helps teach a person to be a global citizen, and the many ways it enriches the spirit: helping others, seeing your work improve lives, seeing yourself through the eyes of people from vastly different worlds, feeling the connection we all share. But I haven’t explored how we can use volunteering to find ourselves—to put our pain and suffering in perspective, to get outside our own heads, and to process grief.
These days, an organization needs a fabulous website. It goes without saying: an attractive website communicates legitimacy, attention to detail, and professionalism. In the voluntourism industry, often a company’s website is the only impression that company makes. Many voluntourism companies don’t have physical offices. They don’t have a storefront. All of their business, from finding travelers to booking trips, is done online.
It’s interesting how we compartmentalize our minds. We expect non-profit organizations to be responsible, eco friendly, sustainable, and respectful of local customs and regulations. We expect it because they are designed without a profit-incentive. Their motives are supposed to be 100% pure—based on nothing but altruistic humanitarianism or environmentalism. Of course, this is extremely simplistic, nothing is ever 100% anything, but this is the stereotype. When it comes to for-profit organizations, we lower our expectations considerably. We don’t expect the same level of consideration because we recognize the equation has a business side. Why is this? Shouldn’t we be more concerned when an organization has a profit incentive?
In 1983, an older friend asked if I wanted to come down into deep Mexico, for a week, to help him with some volunteer work there. At that time, he didn’t think of it as “voluntourism,” an “ethical holiday,” or “sustainable tourism.” He called it going down to see some friends.
We drove through the border at El Paso, and into Juarez, in his old camper truck. The ride seemed innocuous enough, until we got down south out of the populated area. Within a couple of miles, I saw an abandoned car by the side of the road and … stopped breathing for a minute. It’s one thing to see a car on blocks with the tires gone. It’s another thing to see a car with the engine gone, the axles gone, the side panels gone, the hood gone, the seats all gone, the steering wheel gone … later, when the Terminator movies came out, I thought of that car. It looked like Hunter-Killer robots had mined it for any possible morsel of salable scrap. The stripped chassis of the car screamed “survival mode.” We ain’t in Kansas any more, Dorothy.