“The world is finally open again and the past two years have shown us how much we yearn for human connectedness,” says Debbie Haski-Leventhal, a professor of management at Macquarie Business School, specialising in corporate social responsibility, responsible management education and volunteerism.
The benefits of combining travel and volunteering are many – it’s a great way to meet people, it can enhance your CV and it simply makes you feel good, says Haski-Leventhal. “Voluntourism lets people combine volunteering with overseas travel. Instead of just going overseas and enjoying all the sights and experiences – which is awesome and we haven’t been able to do it for a while – many people now want to do something meaningful, even with their international holidays.”
She’s been studying volunteering for more than 20 years and brings her expertise to the sector by helping to show people how to find purpose through volunteering. Doing it as part of a trip is, she says, “an amazing opportunity to explore and do something impactful”.
Many projects call for volunteers to be on-site for a while, so international voluntourists are usually forced to slow down – which has its own benefits. “You get to really connect and know the local community and that makes your whole trip a lot more meaningful.”
Haski-Leventhal is originally from Israel, where she says there is a concept that drives a lot of philanthropic projects, including voluntourism. “It’s called tikkun olam, which in Hebrew means repairing the world – it’s part of a very strong concept in Judaism where you have an obligation to make the world a better place,” she says. Some spend months in a single location volunteering. “Not everyone can do that, but when you are able to stay for a longer time, you really get to understand the local communities and see things behind the scenes that a normal tourist would not.”
Learning on the job is fine – but do research your project
Just as you spend time checking out reviews and terms and conditions before you book a regular holiday, “you need to do your due diligence into volunteering opportunities overseas, especially in the developing world”, says Haski-Leventhal. “Ask your employer if they have opportunities, or if you’re a student ask your university.”
Macquarie University’s Professional and Community Engagement (PACE) program has been extremely popular with students for many years. “We’re hoping international volunteering will come back to the PACE program next year – all universities should offer volunteering opportunities for their students,” she says. “If you can’t go overseas, there are needs for volunteers in Indigenous communities interstate or doing environmental clean-ups or helping with research on the Great Barrier Reef. There are so many things you can do that are cool and purposeful.”
Haski-Leventhal also points to Australian Volunteers International (AVI), which has been running for more than 70 years and works with universities to offer student programs across 13 countries. The organisation has stringent protocols to ensure best practice for the volunteers and the local partners alike. She advises volunteers looking into overseas opportunities to “make sure you’re not being sold some staged volunteering opportunity – you want to do real, meaningful work”.
A bright idea for business
As companies come back together, they’re hunting for innovative ways to engage employees. Haski-Leventhal believes voluntourism – domestically or internationally – is a perfect option.
“Of course, it would be more expensive than doing the traditional way of volunteering, where you get people to wear the company T-shirt and paint walls or plant trees for a day in their local community. But think about what an amazing way for employees to have a new experience with their colleagues! Then they come back to the company with new skills, new competencies, new emotional intelligence – and bring all of that to their role.
“In my opinion that would be totally worth the investment in airfares and accommodation and a lot more impactful than just sending employees to a weekend away somewhere, that has no purpose.”
Export your skills
“A lot of volunteering is not tied to things we know or the skills we use in our day jobs,” says Haski-Leventhal. “But sometimes people are more effective in their volunteering if they leverage their skills and competencies to volunteer. Perhaps you’re an accountant – you could volunteer overseas to help a not-for-profit organisation.”
She says this kind of brain-over-brawn volunteering is a perfect opportunity for retirees who might not feel up to the physical slog many of us associate with helping out communities in need. “Retirees have the time to take a month and lend their professional skills.”
Australian Volunteers works with Australian Aid to manage numerous in-country volunteering assignments. “They have amazing opportunities for retired professionals to do meaningful work overseas.”
Don’t expect your experience to be free
US-headquartered Global Vision International (GVI), a social enterprise founded in 1998, has an Australian arm. It has numerous projects, divided into those that are conservation-focused (GVI Planet) or community efforts (GVI People).
Some run for months at a time and there is something for everybody here – for a price (GVI says more than 65 per cent of the funds it receives go directly to supporting projects). GVI says people should expect to pay when they sign up to offer their time to overseas volunteer projects and that it ensures proper training, that the work is focused on planned and needed projects and that the volunteers aren’t a drain on local resources.
One of Haski-Leventhal’s favourite overseas volunteering stories comes from a dear friend of hers. “She went with her son to volunteer in a poor village in Thailand,” she says. “Her son was only nine, and they had an amazing time working with the elephants, teaching English to the local kids, working hard, and getting to know the community. The experience of working with those beautiful animals was incredible – the two of them will be sharing that story for the rest of their lives. I’d love to do it one day with my daughter.”
Her friend, Ruth Tofler-Riesel, was so moved by the experience that back in Australia she co-founded Kids Giving Back, a charity that offers local volunteering opportunities for youngsters from the age of six to 18, aiming to “inspire the next generation of generosity”.
For those travelling purely for a holiday, there are still simple ways to lend a hand to those less fortunate. Qantas has been supporting UNICEF through its Change for Good program since 1987. Simply pop cash – any currency is accepted – in the envelope provided onboard, or jump online to donate directly. You can even donate using your Qantas Points.
Feeling good comes in all shapes, sizes and countries.