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Planning a Volunteer Vacation

Volunteerism with author, Doug Cutchins

Please welcome Doug Cutchins, co-author of Volunteer Vacations: Short Term Adventures that Will Benefit You and Others.

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Your volunteer vacation defined

how can I help with volunteer travel?how can I help with volunteer travel?Your volunteer vacation has been on your calendar for weeks or maybe even months. You found the organization somehow - maybe a friend suggested it or you got an email advertisement or you read an article - and you signed up quickly, almost impulsively. You were excited at first, of course, but then life took over, and the departure date snuck up on you, almost before you knew it. Suddenly your bags were packed, the plane was taking off, and you were on your way.

And maybe that's when the problems started.

  • You want me to sleep where?
  • Wait, this is the work we're doing?
  • I've worked all day and now you want me to do dishes?
  • And now that the dishes are done, the other volunteers want me to party?
  • Or maybe instead: And now that the dishes are done, the other volunteers are all going to bed and nobody wants to party with me?

Volunteer Vacations ~ how can I help?Volunteer Vacations ~ how can I help?Not knowing what you're getting into when you sign up for a volunteer vacation can lead to a miserable experience, one that unfortunately might make you never want to sign up for one again.

A reporter once interviewed me about volunteer vacations, bound and determined to write an expose into the "mistreatment" of volunteers. She'd had an unfortunate experience on her own volunteer vacation. The program she volunteered with overseas only provided a few hours of work each day, with lots of free time. As a busy mid-career professional who had given up vacation time and spent a lot of money to undertake this project, she felt ripped off.

I asked her about the other volunteers on the trip. "Oh, they loved it," she told me. "They were all in their early 20s, and were mostly there on their parents' dime, and didn't want to work very hard."

And there's the problem. It's not that the organization was bad; the younger volunteers would have raved about it. It's that she hadn't done her homework and hadn't found a volunteer organization that matched her needs and desires.

What makes a successful volunteer vacation?

Volunteer Vacations by Doug CutchinsVolunteer Vacations by Doug CutchinsIn researching and writing Volunteer Vacations, I've been overwhelmed at times by the diversity of trips and experiences that these programs offer. You can go just about anywhere, at any time of year, with a range of prices, doing all different kinds of work with various amenities and people involved. It's like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, but in real life.

With all these choices, you have to put in the time to find the right adventure. The key is to be smart about your decisions and careful in your planning, giving lots of forethought to what you want your volunteer experience to be. Don't just jump into an experience without thinking through what success means and looks like to you.

  • What do you want out of this trip?
  • What are the most important elements to you?
  • How much comfort do you need?
  • What kind of work do you want to do?
  • What skills do you already have that can make the biggest difference?
  • Where do you want to go?
  • Who do you want to surround yourself with?

Then, do your homework. Read books like Volunteer Vacations and use the indexes to help you pinpoint the organizations and trips that best meet your needs, hopes, and expectations.

I've often said that everyone can be a great volunteer in the right situation and every organization appeals to someone. It's all about finding the match between the volunteer and the organization.

So put in the time, and find your match.

Doug Cutchins authored Volunteer VacationsDoug Cutchins authored Volunteer VacationsIn the end, nobody wins or is happy if you sign up with the wrong organization. Not you, not the organization and certainly not the people you were there to serve. Create a victory for everyone by engaging in some self-reflection before you start searching for an organization, and put in the time on the front end to find the right one.

About Doug Cutchins

Doug Cutchins is the co-author of the last four editions of Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, published by Chicago Review Press.  He is also the Director of Social Commitment at Grinnell College, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Suriname.

Where have your Volunteer travels taken you? Tell us about your experiences ... Chat with us on Facebook or connect with us on Twitter. We'd love to hear your stories!

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