Traveler of the Year: Shannon O’Donnell

Helping voluntourists do the right thing


“Wanting to help is the easy part,” says Shannon O’Donnell about the altruistic aspiration that hits many travelers to developing lands. “It’s a wonderful motivation, but the who, what, where, and how of providing assistance really matter. Not every solution is right for the people you want to help.”

While traveling, volunteering, and blogging (, the 29-year-old studied ethical ways for travelers to help and published her tips in The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.

“One of the refrains I hear most is that it’s hard to sort through the heaps of options,” she says. O’Donnell launched Grassroots Volunteering, a database of free and low-cost volunteering opportunities and sustainable tourism enterprises.

Working with students and volunteers, O’Donnell researches each organization and business in her growing list. It’s a labor of love—and a slow one at that. But as her site grows, so do the opportunities and their impact. “More travelers would do good if it were easier to do good,” she says. Her next step is to develop a mobile app that surfaces responsible enterprises nearby.

“Travel has the power to transform your life,” says O’Donnell, who will spend the next year volunteering in Kenya. “With a little planning, it can also positively transform the places we visit.”

—By George W. Stone


National Geographic Traveler: What’s your dream?

Shannon O'Donnell: My big dream is to create a streamlined and simple way for travelers to connect with social businesses on any trip, anywhere in the world. With a tool like this, we can think beyond profit and toward the greater good.

NGT: How will this benefit travelers?

SD: My goal is to create a movement empowering us to spend our money at businesses thinking beyond profit and to the greater good. I have seen this trend in the U.S. as the organic movement spreads and the public becomes more aware of corporate ownership of food systems. If we grow that same awareness in the travel space, into grassroots level support in communities, there will be a great shift in power.

NGT: How can you make this happen?

SD: One goal with the site is to geo-locate all the tiny shops and business doing wonderful work in their communities—often with no internet presence—and to make this information accessible from a mobile device so that wherever you go you can support a social business model.

NGT: Even your volunteering site has volunteers!

SD: Yes. The project has been the accumulation of service and help from a lot of people who believed in the idea and volunteered their own time. I met the site’s designers, a husband-wife team, while traveling and they were so enthusiastic about the project they agreed to steeply discount their fee. My best friend has a degree in literature, so she helps run the blog. I’ve worked with regional expats and students from my alma mater, the University of Central Florida, to build the database. It's a team effort and the fact that these people believed enough to give their own time is part of what made me sure that others saw the need for a site that help travelers find an easy way to integrate service into their journeys.

NGT: What does it mean to travel with passion and purpose?

SD: Traveling with purpose is a mind-set as much as an action. To travel with passion is to find the way to make it happen in your life. So many of us dream big about vacations and where we want to visit, but life gets in the way. But with a true passion comes priority. So I look at travel as one of the most important gifts you can give yourself throughout the year. It becomes a priority to find the way to save money or arrange your life to make it happen. It’s also important to give back in whatever way feels right.

NGT: What’s your advice for voluntourists?

SD: It’s not about volunteering in one particular way when you want to; it’s about being useful to the cause you’re trying to help. You have to be willing to show up and do whatever they need. And sometimes that means not volunteering in the way or place you expect—even if that’s what you showed up to do. Things go wrong. An organization’s website may show lots of smiling local faces, but you may arrive on a day when everything goes wrong and when everyone has to be flexible to make a useful impact.

NGT: How can aspiring voluntourists get started?

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Search Trips

SD: Find an organization or cause that’s close to your heart and then do your research. Your first step should be to research what established development and aid agencies have to say about a particular cause, so that you’ll get a better sense of needs and realities from their point of view. If you don’t do that research, you’re really going in blind. In short: research, research, research!

NGT: What inspired you to start traveling?

SD: I took the leap and bought my plane ticket before I had everything figured out. And that was the scariest part of my trip, to be honest. When I decided that no matter what, I would find a way to travel for a year, I chose a date in the future where I reasonably assumed I could be ready, and then I bought the ticket immediately. I deeply wanted to travel long-term, and once I decided I was willing to drastically change my life to make it happen, I bought the ticket and committed to stripping my life down to the core elements to make it happen. That included selling everything—taking on extra work, and hours sitting on the floor of my local library researching. Travel has the power to transform your life if you let it; I believed this before I left and I wanted to experience that shift. The very fabric of my life and my goals changed when I decided to set out on a long-term trip overseas and it took finding the courage to make that first tangible step: buying the plane ticket.

NGT: Where are you headed next?

SD: My goal in 2014 is to make it to Africa for six to eight months and do some overland travels for a couple months before settling in and volunteering with contacts I have in Kenya. During that time I’ll research new connections for my Grassroots Volunteering project.

NGT: What’s your best travel advice?

SD: When something seems impossible, shift your perspective and live within the assumption that there is a solution you haven't found yet. This worked not only when I thought long-term travel was an unattainable dream, but anytime I encountered a sticky situation on the road when life and everything seemed stressful and overwhelming. My dad taught me this perspective shift growing up and it has proven invaluable. When you step back from the problem you're encountering, and approach it from the assumption that a solution does in fact exist, you are more open to possibilities and the opportunities around you.

>> Read the Next Traveler of the Year Interview

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