Volunteer Vacations: Save the Sea Turtles, Save the World?

Awesome article just out from Julie at PeterGreenberg.com, I took her on this FAM back in the day to Gandoca – really interesting perspective and honest look at voluntourism.

On her last volunteer vacation to Costa Rica, Julie Manis was tested to her limits while helping to save the Leatherback sea turtles. Here, she explores how would-be voluntourists can thoroughly vet a program before signing away their vacation time.

“That’s crazy.”

This was my friend’s response when I told him about a recent trip to Costa Rica, where I’d spent my vacation trying to help save endangered Leatherback sea turtles.

He got right to the point: “So wait a minute. People pay their way there. They work for free. And they also pay for the privilege?”

Trying to explain voluntourism to a pragmatic person isn’t easy.

It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the desire to help. Everyone is aware that the world is full of hunger and hurt, and that our planet itself is in dire need of care.

The truth is, local volunteerism is at an all-time high. VolunteerMatch.com recently reported that they’ve made more than 4 million referrals to people who have visited the site looking for ways help out in their community.

Even President Obama is encouraging American citizens to engage in volunteer service. Free work is the new donation. But Americans shouldn’t confuse volunteer trips with charity, at least as far as taxes are concerned. According to IRS publication 526, travel costs can be deducted only if there is no “significant element of personal pleasure, recreation or vacation in the travel.”

But paying to work? And working during your vacation time? Some would say that smacks of workaholism. Of course, you’re not doing your own work, you’re in an interesting setting, and—given the right project—you have the opportunity to change, if not the world, at least a tiny part of it.

Those who have ever considered becoming a voluntourist, have probably shared some of my friend’s concerns. “How are you sure they even know what they’re doing?” and, “All this money you’re paying—where does it go?”

Actually, it’s hard to know who’s doing what. The first thing to realize when looking for the right volunteer trip is the over-abundance of possibilities.

Google a country and the word “volunteer,” or even a specific interest, and you’ll be overwhelmed with hits. Does a fancy Web site with all the bells and whistles mean the charity has its act more together? Does a plain Web page mean it’s more sincere, giving more of the proceeds directly to the project? Both are silly ways to evaluate an organization, but it’s hard not to be swayed by a poignant photo.

Read the full article here: http://www.petergreenberg.com/2009/06/22/volunteer-vacations-save-the-sea-turtles-save-the-world/

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