Why Volunteering Doesn’t Need to be About Saving the Planet

by Emma Higgins

Many a young backpacker has set off to travel the world and change it, one step at a time. They face the challenge with that idealistic Mother Teresa-like look of determination in their eyes.

I’m all for partnering volunteer work with travel, and having done so for the last three years, I’m a serious advocate for travel with purpose. I too have had that look in my eye, although considering my first volunteer placement was at an organic dairy farm, it was more along the lines of “I’m going to travel the world and change it, one wheel of cheese at a time.”

As travellers, we all have the opportunity to make a small trail of changes wherever we go, and while they may feel very small at the time, collectively they can make a difference.

But I want to make a statement that might break the volunteering mystic—I think it’s okay for volunteering to be a partly selfish act. I don’t think you have to be some dreadlocked eco-warrior on a mission to save every living thing from starvation. Most people will and do have great intentions with volunteering, but why can’t it be about us and our experiences, too?

My original motivation for volunteering was that I wanted to feel like I was doing something productive with my travels and help some people out along the way. The more I travelled in this way, the more I realized that for the most part, I volunteer because of what it does for me. I volunteer because it saves me money, takes me off the beaten path, teaches me new skills, and gives me unusual travel experiences. What word do all of those points have in common? Me, me, me.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t care about the project you’re volunteering on, and for many placements, such as working with children, you definitely need to have your heart in the right place. However, what I am suggesting is that volunteer experiences can be mutually beneficial, and you can get as much out of it as the people you’re helping. You still have to maintain a level of responsibility with each placement and ensure you’re doing the job you’re there to do, but you don’t have to forget about your needs entirely.

Helping people and making changes to our world through travel is a very admirable part of volunteering, and extremely rewarding in its own right. But for those of you who thinking that you’re not quite altruistic enough, you should know that there are still volunteer placements out there for you. As the scope of what constitutes volunteering continues to change, the opportunity for personal benefit from the experience increases. You’re allowed to make it about you, as long as you don’t abuse the placements you’re working on.

Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Sometimes you can begin volunteering with the hopes of changing the lives of others around you, or have a more self-serving attitude to voluntourism from the start. Either way, you’re helping a good cause and creating unforgettable and unique travel experiences. In my book, that’s a win-win situation.