By Shannon O'Donnell

The voluntourism industry has come under intense criticism in the past several years-many organizations working in international aid and development call into the question the value in unskilled, en masse volunteering in particular. And though I am a frequent international volunteer, it might surprise many to know I think much of the criticism is valid.

There are many poorly run volunteer programs out there-programs that are not ethically helping the people and places. The industry has issues. I am not denying that. But, I also strongly believe in the value of volunteering on two levels-its ability to fundamentally shift the perspective and world-view of the volunteer, and it also has the ability to provide sustainable, long-term development to communities that want and need the help and funds.

Meeting these two needs, with priority to the second need, is always in place for good volunteer programs. And the book I recently published, The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook, goes into detail about how to find and vet ethical volunteer projects-it is a process but it's worth the time it takes to get right. And for the volunteers though, there are things they can do to really maximize the benefit their time and efforts have on themselves, as well as those communities where volunteers spend their time.

The importance of volunteer travel

I have volunteered in a handful of countries all over the world, and though arriving with simply enthusiasm could work out well enough in the long-run, I believe that if travelers, and volunteers in particular, take steps to really use their travel time effectively-to immerse in the new culture, they have the ability to take away so much more.

The most prominent memories that stand out for me over the past four and half years of near constant travel are the tiny, seemingly insignificant conversations that gave me windows into that slightly different way someone else views the world. Nearly any type of travel has the ability to transform you-to shift your perspective and call into question many of the things you thought you knew about the world, but it was the time spent slowing down and immersing myself in the new cultures that has had the most profound impact on me.

Every moment of travel has something to teach, but if you as the traveler increase the time you spend interacted with new people-more time pushing at the walls of your comfort bubble, that's where the profound often lies.

Cultural immersion tips from The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook

One of the major reasons to travel is for the cultural exchange. Successful volunteers are those who feel like they were given the opportunity to learn a lot about their volunteer community and the local culture. It's entirely possible to go abroad and then cloister yourself away from the newness and diversity, to take the immersive aspect out of the cultural exchange-but really, what's the fun in that?

During your free time from the volunteer experience, consider these ideas for more robust cultural immersion.

  • Aim for a diverse experience: talk to children about their perspective, then head to grandparents for an entirely different end of the spectrum.
  • Behave as though you are representing your entire country-because you are.
  • Find local events, festivals, plays, and parks-places outside of the major tourist spots.
  • Practice the local language often, with gusto, and tackle it with an open willingness to learn from those you meet. (Always carry a notebook to write down new words and phrases.)
  • Find classes and activities you can join that are appropriate for the length of your stay. Try cooking classes, weaving lessons, a new sport, or attend religious events.
  • Take local transportation; this is truly an icebreaker and leads to new friends, new foods (locals are always passing around snacks, so be sure to bring some fruit or treats to share as well!), and a great story.
  • Eat street food and visit local restaurants. Restaurants run by expatriates become hot spots for foreigners (and are great for occasionally recharging and enjoying the comforts of home) but finding delicious local eats is a cultural adventure unto itself.
  • Stay offline. The Internet is addictive, but step away from your screen during your off-time to enjoy face time with your new community.

I believe in fully immersing in the travel experience via food, conversation, and living like a local. For regularly updated on-the-road travel tips for volunteers, visit:

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