Get Away, Give Back

You can have an unforgettable experience on a “volunteer vacation.” Here’s what you need to know—including how to find a getaway that fits your passion.

A vacation—whether it’s reading a good book on a beach, discovering a new city, or reconnecting with friends in a far-flung locale—allows us to recharge. But it can provide another kind of good feeling—one that comes from giving back.

Increasingly, many of us are looking to get to know the community or environment we’re visiting by volunteering while on vacation. This can be anything from a half day of donated time to an entire getaway built around service.

“People may think the need for volunteering is in the third world, but they forget how big the need is locally, in this country,” says Robert Rosenthal, vice president of communications for VolunteerMatch, a website that has more than 90,000 participating organizations.

Finding a Match

Whether you want to clean up trails in a national park, build housing, or work with at-risk youth, Rosenthal suggests asking yourself a few questions when planning a volunteer vacation for you or your family.

What is your availability? This may sound simple, but often people’s ideas for volunteering are different from the experiences that are available.

Do you want to go urban or rural? Urban areas afford more opportunities to do social and community-based volunteering, whereas rural locations of lend themselves to more environmentally based service projects.

Are you able to use your skills? If you are good at a particular craft or trade, consult professional organizations to see if your vacation destination needs people with your skills.

What’s your personal passion? If you are truly passionate about, say, protecting beaches, channel that interest to help steer your vacation.

Are you traveling with a group? Families can have difficulty finding the right fit, but you will have an easier time if you focus on projects that need large numbers of people, such as cleanup events, housing rebuilds (such as through Habitat for Humanity), or trail renovations.

Resources for Planning

Not sure where to start? The VolunteerMatch site can help you view opportunities by location, skills, and interests.

In a region recently hit by disaster, you might consider jumping in and helping to rebuild. County governments or a mayor’s office will often link to approved organizations, as will the American Red Cross.

For those who are passionate about the environment, the U.S. National Park Service, Sierra Club, and American Hiking Society have listings for ways to volunteer.

If your vacation planning has you gazing far beyond the shores of the U.S., there are myriad opportunities to volunteer in other countries. Websites such as GlobeAware and Global Citizens Network offer listings around the world.

No matter where your travels take you, volunteering can enrich your experience. “People are looking to bring meaning and purpose to a time when they might otherwise tune out issues or problems,” says Rosenthal. “The desire to squeeze some volunteering into a vacation is a really noble one.”