Research has shown that as we get older, we tend to become more altruistic.
As “narcissistic and materialistic values wane in influence” (with age) writes Jim Gilmartin, CEO of the Chicago-based agency Coming of Age, which specializes in marketing to baby boomers and seniors,”concern for others increases.”
In the travel field, this trend has helped fuel the rapid rise of volunteer vacations, also known as “voluntourism.”
The concept is simple: rather than go on a more traditional vacation, such as taking a cruise or staying at a resort, you sign up with a company or agency that sets you up to work on a project such as helping in wildlife conservation, building classrooms and homes, or improving local water systems, usually in the developing world.
Yes, you pay for the privilege of helping others, but it’s not necessarily all work and no play, and benefits accrue to the travelers as well.
One voluntourism company, Discover Corps, describes its tours as a “mix of light volunteering, cultural immersion, and sightseeing — in a comfortable, all-inclusive package.”
Volunteer vacations are a great way to immerse yourself in a local culture and perhaps pick up some new language skills as well. And sightseeing forays or recreational outings are often part of the package.
“Not only is it the right thing to do,” as Discover Corps puts it, “it also provides richer experience for the travelers….a new way to explore life and culture around the world in a way that rejuvenates the human spirit.”
Like many trends in the travel industry, baby boomers are on the cutting edge of voluntourism, not just because they want to give something back to the world but also because many have more time and the financial wherewithal to make it happen.
Finding The Right Voluntourism Fit For You
When searching for a volunteer tourism company, keep in mind that there are differences in approach. As an avid traveler, I like the ones that offer a reasonable balance between working and sightseeing; you may want to tip the balance in favor of one or the other.
There’s no dearth of choices. Hundreds of companies and agencies — both for-profit and non-profits — now offer volunteer vacations. So it’s good to shop around a bit for your ideal fit. After all, you’re paying for it.
Here are two voluntourism organizations that I’m familiar with, and something about how they work:
San Diego-based Discover Corps has been arranging volunteer vacations since 2004. Most of their trips last either one or two weeks and include a maximum of 12 travelers, allowing for an “intimate, grassroots experience.” During most of the year, the average ages of participants range from 45 to 65, right in much of the baby boomer wheelhouse.
In summer, special “Family Friendly” dates draw families with children as young as ten. These could provide an excellent opportunity for meaningful multi-generational travel including grandparents and their grandchildren. Volunteering can also mean helping kids learn basketball.
Discover Corps relies on local communities — primarily in Asia, Africa, and Latin America — to request assistance on needed projects in which volunteers can make a meaningful impact within a week or two.
Once the project is approved, the agency’s local staff goes to work, planning everything in advance and ensuring that the voluntourists will have the support they need in a safe environment.
In 2013, Projects Abroad put out an urgent call for volunteers to help clean up in the wake of a devastating typhoon that struck the Philippines.
Most Projects Abroad trips, though, involve activities such as teaching, building, and care-giving. However, they could include other fields such as medicine, sports, or journalism. Volunteers get to choose the field they want to participate in. No prior experience is necessary, just a willingness to devote at least two weeks to helping out where it’s needed.
Since 1992, Projects Abroad volunteers have put in more than ten million service hours in a variety of destinations in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, Eastern Europe and the Pacific They are housed with host families in safe and secure environments and, like Discover Corps, they have the support of local staff while abroad.
With a motto of “help, learn, explore,” Projects Abroad offers a full range of pre-departure advice and assistance. They will pick you up at the airport when you arrive at your destination, take you to your host family, and offer the help you need on site to adapt to a new culture and fulfill your chosen tasks.
I also recommend having a look at StrideTravel.com, whose comprehensive worldwide tour listings include specific voluntourism tours and trips offered by Discover Corps and other companies.