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Shannon O'Donnell picking coffee with her niece on the Akha Ama Coffee Journey in Thailand (Photograph courtesy Shannon O'Donnell)

DIY Voluntourism: A Manifesto

More than a hundred years ago, when Hiram Bingham brought the Inca site of Machu Picchu to public attention, he and other explorers of his time traded on travel as a vehicle for high adventure.

Motivations have shifted in the modern era, with many of today’s travelers driven by a deep desire to create meaningful connections within communities and across cultures.

When I left home to travel around the world, I was driven by a desire to give back, in one way or another, to the communities I encountered along the way. It’s been five years, and I’m still going.

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Shannon O’Donnell, one of Traveler’s Travelers of the Year, poses for the magazine’s photographers

Over time, I’ve grown more and more convinced that the most positive way travelers can ethically and sustainably discover the developing world is through DIY voluntourism. It is a prism through which travelers may visit new places and foster deeper connections with the cultures they encounter while adhering to the basic tenets be of service and do no harm.

Time and again on the road, I encountered other travelers who wanted to give back, but were wary of the word “voluntourism.” I understood why. My earlier forays into travel and service had involved organized volunteering efforts abroad. While some experiences were better than others, I came to notice a widespread perception that large-scale organized opportunities are the only way travelers can make a positive contribution to developing communities.

This just isn’t the case.

As I logged passport stamps, I met locals who were addressing social issues and creating lasting change where they live in creative ways–as individuals and in the form of self-started social enterprises and businesses. Coffee shop owners in Thailand who supported a hill tribe farm collective by roasting and selling their beans directly to consumers, and an indigenous group in Panama that welcomed travelers into their small community for weekend courses on the origins of chocolate, slowly building a grassroots tourism business, are but two examples.

Through conversations and interactions with people I met, I realized that “being of service” goes beyond simply volunteering. It involves a shift in perspective and a willingness to allow that new perspective to inform how you spend your time and money in a given place. It also involves going to the source and actually asking locals how you can be most helpful.

Lastly, this kind of DIY voluntourism–I call it grassroots travel–involves making as small a footprint as possible, adhering to cultural norms, and lending support to local communities on the terms they’ve set themselves–be that by volunteering or in the form of tourism dollars.

In this way, travel has the potential to become a great equalizer, as tourists from all over the world put their money directly into local hands rather into the teeming bank accounts of multinational corporations.

Beyond mainstream charities and volunteer opportunities is a system of exchange and support that is just as valuable. Spending money at local businesses, on-the-ground social enterprises, and projects that promote sustainable solutions to wealth disparity is the essence of grassroots travel. This is the attitude I now bring with me on my journeys around the world.

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A local indigenous woman prepares roasted cacao seeds to press them into chocolate at Urari in northern Panama. (Photograph by Shannon O’Donnell)

As travelers become more aware of their impact on the places they visit, they are able to more accurately assess their actions and ultimately, to be of service in interesting ways wherever they go.

In some cases, you might best serve a community by donating your knowledge, skills, and time to a  locally supported project. In others—and for the vast majority of travelers—service is instead a commitment to investing tourism dollars in ways that will actually benefit local communities and ensuring your presence there does no harm.

As more and more travelers adopt the grassroots approach, we get closer to a planet where benevolence and service come first, shape our interactions with new countries and cultures, and yield nothing less than a greater feeling of community and shared humanity.

It’s less about eschewing other travel priorities—historic landmarks have a place in any trip—than about adding a layer under the travel experience that seeks to see and understand new places, peoples, and cultures.

How to Get Started:

If you’re keen to get started in voluntourism, there are a few simple steps you can take to add elements of grassroots service on your next trip. Keep in mind, no matter your level of time investment, there are easy ways to travel and connect more deeply with local communities and causes that support smart growth in the world’s developing regions.

  1. Do Your Research: Understand the cultural norms in each new place you visit; read widely about the local history, culture, and even celebrated literature from the region. If you plan to volunteer, take it a step further by doing your homework on the specific development and aid issues the communities there face so you can better assess the impact a given volunteer project may have (this is a good starting place).

  2. Assess Your Level of Service: Analyze your motivations for volunteering and assess which level of grassroots service best suits you. For many trips, consider finding small ways to infuse money into the local economy. If you have longer to give and the motivation to be useful to a long-term project, list out your skills and interests so you have a starting point for your research. If you have professional skills to offer, sharing and teaching that knowledge may be the best use of your time.

  3. Plan Your Service: Use regional and international databases to find small independent organizations in need of help and determine where your skills are most needed. Many long-term DIY voluntourism projects are informal, low-cost, and require more travel planning on your part. Vet potential projects for their long-term goals and their relationships with local communities and ecosystems: the best projects work with locals, not for locals.

Shannon O’Donnell is a storyteller sharing stories of the people, places, and communities that have touched her life in the course of her travels around the world. In 2013, National Geographic Traveler named O’Donnell one of its Travelers of the Year. Follow her story on Twitter and Instagram @ShannonRTW.

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