Combine a volunteer and a tourist and you get a "voluntourist." Voluntourists provide dental and medical care, mentor young men and women, build houses, clear trails, play with orphans, teach practical skills, monitor sea turtle nesting grounds and much, much more. A 2008 survey of 300 organizations that market to voluntourists found that in a year's time, 1.6 million people used their vacations to do good deeds.
Altruists get it, since they're the folks already working in local soup kitchens and writing checks for children in third-world countries. Overworked realists don't. Why would you pay somebody for the "privilege" of swinging a hammer or rocking a baby during your vacation?
Indeed, the movement is not without critics. In Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Volunteering, Judith Lasker outlines the downside of medical volunteer programs, noting that some medical teams are not committed for the long haul, that their presence can undermine local medical programs and that short stays may have no significant long-term impact.
Other critics say voluntourists may set up orphans up for attachment disorder, take jobs away from locals, or offer unrealistic expectations and promises, dropping in and dropping out.
Read on to learn about five voluntourism organizations (and Inland Northwest travelers) that take the starch out of those criticisms. Each organization has a track record of establishing long-term commitments, working side-by-side with their local counterparts, consulting closely with local leaders and and adjusting programs when necessary.