“If you crave real contact with real people in other parts of the world, if you dream about seeing the stars over an empty desert, … if you want to hold the handiwork of a prehistoric hunter in your hands, if you want to bring clean water to an African village instead of just making a donation … then join an expedition.  If you want TV, piña coladas by the pool, and a quick drive past the sites, this is not for you.”  Earthwatch Institute warns on its Web site.

Thousands of short- and long-term volunteer trip opportunities exist for students, families, and young, middle-aged, and retired adults. Projects range from healthcare to construction to teaching to environmental conservation. They vary in intensity from “very rigorous and challenging to pretty comfortable — so know what you want,” advises Barbara DeGroot, spokeswoman for Global Volunteers.

Some organizations specialize in one type of volunteer work, such as Habitat for Humanity (home-building) (www.habitat.org) or Earthwatch Institute (environmental research) (www.earthwatch.org). Others, such as Global Volunteers (www.globalvolunteers.org) or Cross-Cultural Solutions (www.crossculturalsolutions.org), offer a range of opportunities that might include caring for orphaned or disabled children, teaching business skills to entrepreneurs in developing countries, or working for women’s empowerment.

It is also important to consider if you want to work as part of a religious or secular organization and whether you’d like to be part of a smaller or larger group.

Group sizes typically range from a handful of people to two dozen. Although some volunteers travel as a couple or small group, many travel solo, according to the Earthwatch Institute Web site, which notes that its trips are a safe way to travel to remote or unfamiliar places.

Costs and Details
Trips range in length from a week to several months. Volunteers pay their own transportation costs to and from the destination as well as a program fee, which usually includes food, lodging, and local transportation for the duration of the volunteer period.

The fee also includes administrative expenses for the volunteer organization and sometimes a donation. Some volunteers choose to add sightseeing days onto the volunteer portion of the trip at their own expense.

Costs vary depending on the length of the program, the location, and the accommodations. The program fee for trips through Global Volunteers ranges from $795 for a week in the U.S. to approximately $2495 for three weeks in the Eastern Europe.

DeGroot points out that all costs are tax deductible as a charitable donation. Many organizations offer fundraising suggestions for those who need help paying for their trip.

Organizers of volunteer trips stress that these are working expeditions, not tours. In most cases, volunteers will remain in one location for the entire time, with the exception of optional (extra cost) weekend jaunts. 

Those willing to work can usually find a program where the accommodations fit their requirements for comfort. DeGroot notes that lodging can range from “sleeping on a community center floor in Australia or Jamaica to a very nice hotel in Italy.”

Checking Out the Trip Organizers
DeGroot encourages prospective volunteers to do their research to ensure that the organization they are considering is a reputable one and to talk with volunteers who have traveled with the organization. Sources for information and evaluations of charities include Guide Star (www.guidestar.org), Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) and the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch (www.charitywatch.org).

Transitions Abroad magazine (www.transitionsabroad.com) includes articles, advice, and resources on volunteer vacations.

DeGroot advises seeking out an organization with a fairly long history and a healthy percentage of repeat travelers. Having Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) status with the United Nations is also a good sign.
Finally, the sponsoring organization should provide you with information, training, resources, and an orientation.