In an era of easy worldwide travel and the ubiquitous, information-packed Internet, new kinds of volunteering have grown quickly over the past decade. There's voluntourism — in which travel is combined with service work — and computer-based volunteering initiatives that invite Internet users to participate in social-issues campaigns. Reactions to both are mixed, however.
Combining volunteering with travel as an alternative to traditional vacations is growing in popularity, partly because of some other trends in volunteer behavior, wrote Beth Gazley, an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. More people are volunteering today, including more young people, “but for fewer average hours” than the typical volunteer committed in the past, she wrote.
Spending a week's vacation performing service in a potentially exotic location — such as a wild-elephant preserve or a remote village abroad — fits in well with the shrinking time frame of modern volunteering, Gazley said. Furthermore, “potential volunteers often cite lack of available leisure time as one barrier to service,” so “volunteer vacations neatly circumvent this problem.”
Volunteer vacations also can last from a few days to months, most involve hands-on helping, such as building a trail or helping conduct research, and tourist volunteers pay their own way and, in some cases, also make additional financial contributions.
Earthwatch, one of the oldest voluntourism organizations, began sponsoring environmental voluntourism in 1973. “We began with rocks and stars, where amateurs couldn't hurt anything,” said founder Brian Rosborough. Now Earthwatch projects enable volunteers to help conduct scientific research and protect endangered animals and fragile habitats, Rosborough said.
Nevertheless, since many, if not most, “voluntourists” are attracted more by the exotic travel than by the service itself, there's a danger that trips will be created “just for the travelers,” and that is “usually a waste of money and not a lasting solution to any problem,” said Daniela Papi, founder of PEPY Tours, which arranges voluntourism in Cambodia. “The hardest part is finding projects that both make the volunteers feel ‘needed’ and really ARE needed,” said Papi. A good project, for example, would be to have volunteers clear land for a new school in a community “already organized in a way that will take care” of the land when the tourists depart, she said.
Teenagers Cranston Mitchell and Amelia Hampton assemble parts for a water filtration system for use in Senegal last June. Eight students from Kalamazoo, Mich., spent 15 days in the West African nation last year doing community service as part of the Urban Youth for Africa program sponsored by the Kalamazoo Deacon's Conference. (AP Photo/Kalamazoo Gazette/John Lacko)
While some web-based volunteerism initiatives draw criticism as promoting a dangerously shallow view of what constitutes useful service, others provide substantive help to those in need.
In the Thurston school district of Lacey, Wash., the Intergenerational Grandfriend Project helped students, including those with special needs, link online with older people in nursing homes or retirement communities. The elders mentored the teens, while the teens provided stimulating youthful companionship. “Silver [Web] surfers and high-school students exchanged e-mails,” and most were extremely enthusiastic about the project, wrote teacher Martin Kimeldorf, who directed the project.
Some websites link volunteers with service projects that need help. At San Francisco-based Sparked.com, for example, nonprofit service organizations post “challenges,” or projects where added assistance and expertise are needed. For example, Cincinnati's Ronald McDonald House — which houses families of sick children during hospitalizations — used the site to find Arabic translators for its written materials, while Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest found computer experts to help figure out how to prevent hacks of its website.
For volunteers who can't travel, some websites post do-at-home opportunities. The Extraordinaries, another San Francisco-based website, developed a mobile phone app that alerts users to small volunteer tasks that can be “completed in small snatches of time,” wrote Mike Bright, founder of a British microvolunteering site, Help from Home. Microvolunteering “invites quick actions” such as signing up to donate your hair for wigs for sick children suffering from hair loss, making a “micro loan” to someone in a developing country, signing an online petition, or counting plants or birds in your back yard for a biodiversity project. Evidence is accumulating that microvolunteers can make “meaningful contributions,” Bright wrote.
Others aren't so sure. “My favorite pet peeve at the moment is … the notion that you can volunteer spontaneously via your cell phone for tiny periods of time — saving the world in 10-second intervals,” wrote Steve McCurley, editor of the online journal e-Volunteerism. “It's an idea that is emotionally endearing and intellectually absurd.”
Other trends attract similar criticism. For example, some analysts worry that a shallow view of service may arise from high-profile volunteerism-related activities such as “sporting colorful empathy ribbons” or forwarding social-media messages — such as Twitter posts calling attention to a dangerous disease or environmental threat. “It's legitimate to worry that public displays of emotion run the danger of diverting people from a more complex message … or course of action,” wrote e-Volunteerism Editor-in-Chief Susan J. Ellis.
Nevertheless, wrote Ellis, even such shallow service participation presents an opportunity. “Public outpourings of emotion imply reservoirs of desire to affiliate and make a difference,” and service organizations and longtime volunteers could help to turn ribbon-wearers and message-forwarders into active volunteers, said Ellis.
— Marcia Clemmitt