Everyone, it seems, is getting into the act.
Even cruise ships and hotels now offer guests the opportunity to volunteer. Last summer, Holland America launched the "Cruise With Purpose": Passengers stopping in Juneau boarded research vessels to collect water samples and record ocean temperatures to try to predict the success of Alaska's salmon season. Ritz-Carlton arranges half-day volunteer activities at 74 locations: In Cancún, Mexico, guests travel to a Mayan pueblo to help renovate a school. In Jakarta, Indonesia, they cook and clean at a shelter for street children.
From charities to tour companies to luxury hotels to cruise ships, there's no shortage of nonprofits and for-profits willing to organize a volunteer trip for the altruistic — and paying — traveler. For good reason: Nearly one in 20 U.S. travelers has taken a trip to help the less fortunate or support a humanitarian cause, according to research firm Y Partnership's 2009 National Leisure Travel Monitor.
"Voluntourism" has grown in popularity since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the destruction of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. Experts cite another reason: It's trendy. Think Angelina Jolie touring refugee camps in Sudan.
"There's just much more interest in reaching out and helping people in poverty," said Genevieve Brown, executive director of the International Volunteer Programs Association, a group of nongovernmental organizations involved in volunteer work.
Voluntourism usually works best when the volunteer contributes to a well-organized project while interacting with other volunteers and local residents. But sometimes volunteers don't have a fulfilling experience. Worse, sometimes they actually harm the community.
For instance, some voluntourism experts advise against volunteering at an orphanage, because the children can get too attached to someone who won't stick around. Others say volunteers should make sure they aren't taking jobs away from locals. "Any project can be harmful to the community if it's done wrong," said Zahara Heckscher, co-author of How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas.
With so many opportunities, and so much that can go awry, how's a traveler to choose?
David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org, said potential travelers should carefully consider their motivation. Anyone doing it just for school credit (some programs offer courses) would probably be better off getting a summer job. Anyone doing it to write off a vacation probably shouldn't do it at all, Clemmons said.
Prospective volunteers also should assess their skills to figure out what they can offer. There are many different types of volunteer opportunities: educational, environmental, research-oriented, humanitarian, cultural. Setting realistic goals is important.
Other key points to consider:
• Ask practical questions: Where do you want to go? What kind of accommodations will you tolerate? How much time do you want to spend volunteering vs. sightseeing? How long can you volunteer?
• Take care when choosing an organization. Interview someone who works for the group. Make sure you share the organization's values, as some have overtly religious or political views.
• Find out whether the organization is running the program in the community you are being sent to or whether it's simply matching you with a local organization. It may be cheaper if it's a matching situation, but you also may lack support on site.
• Prices run the gamut from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Ask exactly what the fee covers. Some organizations cover only housing and food; others include transportation, supplies, insurance and more.
• Be clear about what kind of on-the-ground support you'll be getting. If you're volunteering abroad, will there be a bilingual staff member on site?
• Find out what the organization would do if you were to become ill or get injured. Is there a crisis management plan?
Above all, ask to speak to former volunteers. Many organizations have Facebook pages, and groups usually will put you in touch with former volunteers (though usually only those who had good experiences). Talk to the happy volunteers, but ask them to refer you to someone who was not so pleased. "The happy customer/critical customer technique," Heckscher said. "I think that's the way to go."