A book review by Jessica Jonas
The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, by Shannon O’Donnell, provides an overview of typical “voluntouring” opportunities, questions to consider in selecting an ethical, effective program, and advice for preparing for travel abroad issues such as culture shock and safety. O’Donnell provides clear explanation of the difference between volunteering with a “middleman” placement organization and independently arranging an experience, and she offers thoughtful consideration of the pros and cons of each.
At the heart of the book is O’Donnell’s own passion for volunteering and her desire to steer newcomers toward programs offering what she terms the “two D’s”: encouraging dignity and avoiding dependency in the communities served. As she explains, the most dangerous pitfall of volunteering is accidentally doing more harm than good. Companies that encourage volunteers to work closely with orphans, for example, often lead to the children bonding with a rotating series of volunteers who leave after a few weeks. Instead, she urges interested volunteers to research ways to empower communities to become independent, such as teaching women a craft they can make and sell to help support themselves. The book is punctuated with brief stories from O’Donnell and other volunteers highlighting cherished memories or their reasons for volunteering while traveling.
Readers will also find a thorough grounding of basic questions to ask when researching programs: How is the organization’s money spent? How much will they provide (training, accommodation) versus expect the volunteer to find independently? Do they invest in long-term projects and value steady, incremental progress? Do they actually finish what they start (a story of an unfinished, unusable playground was particularly saddening)? When it comes to slightly more advanced questions, though, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook falls a little short. I left the book still unsure what a reasonable distribution of money is, or where to find impartial organizations that would audit or evaluate a volunteer experience I was considering.
The book lends itself well to new volunteers and those dreaming of a trip, providing introductory information and frequent, inspiring vignettes from volunteers in various countries. This handbook, however, is not for the half-hearted! The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook touches on ideas for volunteers with a week or less to spend, but the author clearly favors a longer commitment. The emphasis in most of the book is on programs that last multiple weeks, months, or occasionally even longer. This stems in part back to the idea of the “two D’s.” Short-term volunteering programs are by nature less stable in terms of their rotating workforce, which in some cases can mean the experience is more for the volunteer’s benefit than the community’s. Those looking for a brief experience may find a jumping-off point in this book, but people interested in investing more seriously in a cause they are passionate about are more likely to find a kindred spirit in O’Donnell.