An Altruist's Vacation

Who's Doing It?
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Patient Registration Line
NAME, PLEASE: Women wait in line to register as a patient as part of a Relief Riders International program.

Trips centered on volunteer opportunities have been around for decades, particularly in the non-profit arena. The Earthwatch Institute, for example, was founded more than 30 years ago "to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education." Each year, they send more than 4,000 volunteers from dozens of countries on expeditions ranging from coral-reef surveys in the Bahamas to crocodile tracking down the Zambezi. Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1976, was literally built on the backs of volunteer labor and has since rehabilitated more than 150,000 homes all over the world. The list of well-regarded non-profit scientific and cultural organizations spreading the good volunteer word goes on: the Sierra Club, the Oceanic Society, the American Red Cross…

What has changed, then, are the ways in which these opportunities are marketed, organized, and perceived. Voluntourism International, for example, was founded in 2000 to promote the potential of volunteer travel among those who most closely stand to benefit—and profit—from that impulse: the travel industry itself. By drawing a line between tour operators and travel planners, like tourism bureaus and convention and visitor's bureaus (CVBs), Voluntourism International is striving to establish the ethos as part of our common travel vocabulary, just as ecotourism and adventure travel have become entrenched in the mainstream. Voluntourism International counts the Gulf Coast CVB, New Orleans CVB, and the Middle Eastern kingdom of Jordan among recent adherents to the voluntourism cause.

Better yet for the small guy, big companies, currently in a frenzy to burnish their green credentials, are also increasingly supportive of employees who wish to take time off work to do something worthy. The incentives range from the basic—like National Geographic Society's policy to offer one paid day of leave for staff to pursue volunteer opportunities—to the big—like Alcoa's annual program placing a lucky selection of its employees on one of Earthwatch's research expeditions.

Likewise, Starbucks' "Make Your Mark" program encourages employees and customers alike to donate their time toward charitable causes. This could involve AIDS charity walks, environmental cleanup projects, or community outreach. In return, Starbucks will donate $10 for every volunteer hour by either customers or its coffee-shop baristas. The effect, of course, is to take the volunteer ethic to the grassroots and empower both employees and the community to give a little back.


Published: 25 Jun 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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