I must admit I’m both excited and distressed by the recent rise and rise of volunteer travel and volunteer work overseas.

On one level, I loathe the word voluntourism, and know I’ll use it one day; on another, issues of post-colonial guilt, the politics of power and an all-too-critical socio-economic outlook make me very nervous about setting foot in the domain of travel and voluntary work. Especially short-term jaunts.

But the internet, that great leveller of information access, has made it easier for organisations to spring up, meeting the needs of people around the world and lowering the barriers for normal people to head out the door and help, especially with disaster response. Not much could be more exciting than that.

Whether your experiences of volunteer travel have been positive or negative, I’d like to hear about them in the comments.

Below are several book reviews, looking at resources to help you get the most from your volunteer gig at home or abroad.

Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others

9th edition (2006), by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, and Anne Geissinger.

This book opened my eyes to the possibilities and cautions surrounding Volunteer Vacations or VolunTourism.

I happen to own and am going to talk about the 9th edition of this very helpful book, but it is frequently updated, and since I purchased mine a 10th edition was published in 2010. I recommend that you look for the newest edition available.

It is wise to approach your decision with caution, because as the popularity of doing good while traveling has rapidly grown, so has the number of people out to make a quick buck on well-meaning travelers. The book Volunteer Vacations starts with a list of ten questions to ask yourself to help you make wise decisions.

Of course you will want to look at your own interests and skills, the geographical area you are most interested in, and the cost. But they also suggest “Do I have the same goals and values as those of the organization?” That question is key since many volunteer organizations are religion-based or have overt political goals. Another good question is “What is the demographic of the volunteers?” I heard a story about a 20-something traveler who envisioned her voluntourism as a kind of match.com — an opportunity to meet men with rippling muscles, building structures in the jungle. But she found herself in a remote area with a group of only half-a-dozen volunteers, mostly senior citizens.

Volunteer Vacations is organized alphabetically by organization name, but in the back, handy indexes allow you to check out just the geographic area, type of project, cost, length of project. This allows you to zero in on what will fit you best. Make sure to look for the organizations that are very clear about what they offer. For instance, Global Volunteers offers three levels of personal comfort, so each traveler can choose an experience that’s right for them.

Volunteer Vacations does not review the organizations, but they do make sure of facts. Illustrative stories that have been supplied by former volunteers bring the experiences to life. The book impressed me with its even-handed approach, and the number of organizations included. Heed the authors’ warning to ask the tough questions, and you will not be disappointed.

Volunteer: A Traveller’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World

2010, from Lonely Planet.

The first 98 pages of The Lonely Planet Guide to Volunteering presents several articles explaining all of the facets of volunteer travel. The first section, an introduction to volunteering, provides an elementary overview of the various types of volunteering available. I was a bit confused by the choice of sidebars which gave detailed information on seemingly random topics like Archaeology volunteering and Asian Volunteering. Additionally these sidebars were printed in a hard-to-read pale green.

The next section addresses how to choose your experience. It considers ethics, cost, the challenges of culture shock, living conditions, what can go wrong and what to do about it, and useful websites.

The how-to section of the book plays to the strength of Lonely Planet guidebooks, with practical advice on getting a passport, booking an airplane ticket, health concerns, etc., while also presenting helpful suggestions on how to raise money for the trip — a subject I have not seen widely addressed elsewhere.

The listing of opportunities starts with Organized Programmes, which begins with a subsection titled Opportunities Under 30 (a good idea given LP’s demographic), but the other subsections I frankly found illogical. It just seemed a jumble to me — part personal assignment differences and part emphasis of the organization. Each major division seems to be based on the way the organization operates (self-placement, religious organization and other) with a jumble of subheadings under each.

Final sections cover adjusting to returning home and starting your own charitable project. Those are sections you will not be likely to find in other books of this kind. They are interesting, but take up space that might better be served by covering the organizations that are listed in more depth.

The above books were reviewed by Vera Marie Badertscher from A Travelers’ Library in May 2011.

Your Totally Awesome Guide to International Volunteering

Sarah Van Auken

I stumbled upon this ebook download recently and was immediately impressed by the clear writing style and amateur-but-graceful layout. Sarah Van Auken had put it up for sale but, with low sales, decided to offer it free. I’m sad she had low sales, but I’m so glad it’s available.

She tackles issues of cultural imperialism and motivations early on, clearing a space for an enthusiastic and rather complete overview of voluntary work and travel. Early highlights include a month-by-month preparation checklist and fundraising tactics.

The book finishes with a massive list of over 400 organisations, grouped by geographic region and by type of work. It’s more than half the book’s volume, and you’re almost certain to find a suitable connection there.

Get your Totally Awesome Guide to International Volunteering by Sarah Van Auken.

The Underground Guide to International Volunteering

Kirsty Henderson

I’ve been in touch with Kirsty Henderson through her noms de plume Nerdy Nomad and @Travoholic for a few years. I know she’s been spending an increasing amount of time volunteering and was interested in seeing what she thought.

The book weighs in at 63 well-laid out pages, perfect for reading on a computer screen or iPad. The text is even big enough to be readable on an iPod touch with iBooks, which is a big bonus in my opinion.

The information is laid out clearly and covers everything I wanted to know, including short discussions on the ethics of volunteering, critiques of paid-for volunteering programmes (as well as showcasing their strengths) and plenty of links to other resources.

Unusually for me, I really enjoyed the myriad interviews throughout the book. The interviewees range from mid-twenties to in their sixties and include NGO start-ups, holiday volunteers and long-term disaster-relief helpers. These give a real flavour of the variety of work available.

Get The Underground Guide to International Volunteering by Kirsty Henderson.

The above books were reviewed by Craig Martin from Indie Travel Podcast in September 2010.

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