How To Travel Well and Do Good

Why do you travel?  Most of us would say we travel to "get away" for a little while, to find some time to relax and put our phones away ( but does this ever really happen?).  Or for some of us we travel to experience a new culture and do something we haven't done before.  And while we often find ourselves relaxing and exploring, we tend to do so buffered behind the walls of an all inclusive resort or the filter of a trained tour guide.  We have a conversation with a "local," buy a trinket from an indigenous child, get dirty on a rustic boat ride or trek deep into the real [insert country name] and then return home at the end of the day to our safe white sheets and stocked fridge.  We think we are experiencing the culture of our destination, but are we really?

Luckily, for those of us intent on traveling and truly giving back in a meaningful way, a sub-culture of travelers has developed a new type of tourism:  voluntourism.  In the past 10 years, voluntourism (traveling to volunteer) has become a popular alternative to the normal vacation, allowing travelers to get an up-close, intimate experience with foreign communities.  And while volunteering seems like an admirable way to spend a vacation, even the best intentioned have fallen short of truly doing any good.

The stories are all the same:  well intentioned but inexperienced gringo volunteers paying loads of money to go out and work on a once-in-a-lifetime project in some "exotic" remote village.  In her article entitled "The Reality of Voluntourism and the Conversations We're Not Having," Natalie Jesionka is one of many who have been quick to point out the flaws of the voluntourism industry:  "At the heart of these stories is the notion of inexperienced volunteers who use their privilege to go abroad for their own egos, and who are doing more harm than good on the ground."

While I agree with many of her points, and that yes, like any for-profit industry, voluntourism organizations can often become more focused on profit than on truly helping a community, I feel like too many of us are quick to judge, but slow to offer solutions.  Of course these companies need to be held accountable for failed programs, no follow-up, and unskilled volunteers.  But what if instead of taking the easy road and blaming someone else for their failures, we shifted the conversation away from them, and onto us as individuals?  If there's one thing this world needs more of, it's personal accountability.  The question remains:  how then do we go out and travel with meaning?

At the heart of voluntourism lies a very good, God mandated intention: to go out into the world and help others.  So how can we best do this?  Here are four thoughts on how you can travel well and do good.

It Feels Good To Help Others And That's Ok

After my trip to Malawi back in 2010, a spirit of giving descended on my heart and I started seeking out opportunities to give back, both in my community and abroad.  I founded RiseUp Malawi (formerly Bottles4Malawi), started going down to Mexico to serve breakfast in the ghettos, spent Sunday mornings handing out breakfast burritos to the homeless in San Diego and made sure that every international trip I took involved some kind of volunteer aspect.  And yet amongst all this good I knew I was doing, I felt a lingering sense of guilt.  Guilt because it felt good. 

And herein the lies the problem:  our society is quick to assume that the only reason people volunteer is to make themselves feel better.  Just take a look at Jesionka's article again:  "And that’s just it: We need to start being honest about why we travel and why we volunteer. Because the reality is that travel, at its core, has always been more about ourselves than about anyone else."

I disagree with her statement wholeheartedly.  This is the kind of message that makes us feel shame about why we travel to volunteer.  The reality is God designed us to be in community with one another, and not just be in community, but to serve one another:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
— Hebrews 10:24-25

If God wants us to go out into the world and help others, then it makes perfect sense why he designed us to feel good when we do so.  He didn't ask us to boast about it on Facebook, or get giddy when we add an experience to our resume.  He simply asked us to "meet" each other and "encourage" one another quietly, without the need for recognition.  Just like Jesus performed his miracles quietly, humbly, without ego.  So if you feel the need to travel and give back, then I encourage you to do so and put the noise of any shame or guilt behind you for feeling good about it.  Remember: He designed us to feel good when we help someone else. 

Just keep it off Instagram.  

Do Your Research and Ask Tough Questions

Instead of being quick to blame voluntourism companies for their shortcomings, take the time to do your own research by reviewing these companies websites, watching videos and testimonials, and reaching out to staff and former clients with questions.  Yes, this takes time (sigh), but remember: anything that is worth doing well takes time.

If you aren't sure what questions you should be asking, here are some key questions that will give you a better feel for where your tourism dollars are really ending up:

  • Can you give me a detailed breakdown of the cost of the trip? (To see how much the company may be profiting)
  • What have been the short-term and long-term benefits to the local community of this specific intervention?
  • For every dollar spent, what percentage makes it directly into the hands of this community?
  • Can you give me contact details of someone who has been one one of your trips to reach out to?

If the company fails to adequately answer any of these questions or lacks transparency, don't waste your time or money.  People who are honest are open.

Reach out to Local Non-Profits and Charities on Your Own

One word comes to mind here: GOOGLE.  We are so blessed to have so much information so readily available to us at anytime we may seek it.  The problem is, we've just become lazy.  We'd rather pay someone to do it for us, so we can get on with the more pertinent things in life.

While I understand the claim of a crazy busy life (sort of), the fact is only YOU know your skills best and where your heart lies.  Paying an organization to go on a trip that may or may not effectively apply these skills is where voluntourism falls short.  Identify your skill sets, and find an opportunity that aligns with what makes you unique.  And for those of you, who like me, may be thinking "I don't have any skill sets!" think again.  If you can copy a craft on Etsy, if you speak English, if you have a grasp of basic hygiene or if you just love the Lord, you have a skill that others out there need.  Here are a few places to get you started, organizations in need of and very welcoming to volunteers:

Give To Others Along the Way

The smallest gestures can often have an impact far beyond your time spent in a community.  Right after my trip to Malawi in 2010, I went to South Africa for 2 months to compile my research and ended up spending a week in Cape Town volunteering in Imizamo Yethu township in Hout Bay.  There was this beautiful young girl I met there named Nandipha, and she just had this spark that screamed "future leader of this community."  Her uncle had passed away recently, and she was telling me her mother had no way of funding the trip back to their hometown for his funeral.  Although I was tempted to offer to just pay the way for them, I was reminded of how handouts don't teach others the value of work.  So I asked her:  "If I gave you some of my clothing to sell, do you think you could raise enough money for bus tickets back to your hometown?"  She joyfully said yes, and a week later her and her mother and siblings made it back for the funeral.

This young girl went on to study at the University of South Africa and now is a program manager at One Heart Source.  The point of this story is this:  people need handups, not handouts.  When you give someone a dollar, they learn that they can get money without working (if you've ever been to India you know what I mean).  Here are a few ways you can give handups, instead of giving handouts:

  • pack clothing you are okay with passing onto others and give it to someone you meet along the way who has an impact on you
  • take some photos and offer to give an organization some of your photos for marketing purposes
  • buy some pencils, paper, crayons and all books and give these out to local children
  • bring along craft supplies and teach a spontaneous art class 
  • have a 10 minute conversation with a local, ask them questions about themselves, and remember their name (this seems so simple, but how often do we really listen instead of just speaking?)

What This All Means

It is a privilege to have the financial freedom to travel, no matter how you look at it.  Many of us have been blessed financially (and completely undeservingly so, as none of us choose the circumstances we are born into).  As such, we have a responsibility to help others in this world.  My pastor in LA puts it really well:  we are "blessed to be a blessing" to others.  I challenge you next time you book a vacation to try to find an opportunity to give back along the way.  Do your research, spend the time having the right conversations and find where your skills sets can best be used.  If you do this, I promise you travel will be become a much more profound experience.

So go out friends, travel well and do good.

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