According to a paper published in Harvard Health, true happiness lies in helping others – with volunteering giving you comparable happiness levels to that of a life-changing salary boost. So how can we apply that to our holidays?

Voluntourism is a travel trend that has taken off over the past five years, especially among the Millennial crowd, with a 2015 survey claiming 84 per cent of Millennials said they would travel abroad to participate in volunteer activities.  

Combining voluntourism with a wellness retreat seems like a no-brainer for a feel-good holiday – yet volunteering is a path that needs to be tread carefully. Last year revealed there was a rise in conscious travellers, with 59 per cent of people choosing not to go to a destination if they thought it would negatively impact the people who live there.

“The practice of volunteering itself is not inherently unethical. Poorly executed and poorly chosen international volunteering programs, however, run the risk of compromising the dignity of locals, creating dependency on aid projects, and worsening environmental and conservation efforts,” Shannon O’Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, told the Standard.  

“Some even whitewash what amounts to a for-profit business model trading on the good intentions of travellers keen on impactful travel to provide, but without doing the hard work of prioritizing locals, communities, and environments affected by voluntourism.”

O’Donnell has spent the last decade travelling and volunteering in countries across the world, including a five-month stint in Oaxaca, Mexico working with indigenous women to help them grow small businesses. The American native wrote her book in response to a negative experience with a middleman organization in Nepal – something that prompted her to talk more deeply about the volunteering industry and the accountability of volunteers.

“It is the volunteer’s responsibility to learn about the ethical quandaries, issues, and attitudes within this industry. There is no easy answer as to what is ethical—that’s why good intentions are not enough and it’s not enough to learn on the ground, because there are very real people affected when we essentially use developing countries as classrooms for our own learning. To make volunteering more ethical, every volunteer must research the industry, really begin to understand the key issues and develop their own ethical framework for what it means to travel responsibly.”

The ethical cues to look for

If you want to combine your next holiday with volunteering, O’Donnell said there are some ethical cues to look out for.

“Before working in any volunteer capacity, you should first consider the issues of dignity and dependence:

  • Does the organization (be it an independent local company or a major voluntour operator) centre their programs on maintaining the dignity of every person in the community?
  • Is the organization responding to the community’s specific and communicated needs (not perceived needs) and empowering them toward a long-term, sustainable community that is not dependent on international volunteers to thrive?

Also ask: Are they appropriately vetting volunteers? Can anyone with money sign up, and is that appropriate in this project. I am wary of organizations that will send anyone with money onto any project they desire—you want projects that are choosy about connecting with volunteers qualified to offer those volunteering duties.”

How to incorporate volunteering into your next wellness holiday

There are a lot of grey areas in volunteering, O’Donnell noted, which is why you should always assess if you have the right skills for the task you’re putting yourself forward to do.

O’Donnell continued: “Some of the more popular activities are better left for months-long sabbaticals, while other volunteer experiences can be done well and ethically in just days. Learn which are which. Perhaps that means spending money through social enterprises, or paying for responsible experiences (tours, cooking classes, workshops) that infuse money into the economy and can even directly support your key issues. Sometimes these have even more impact addressing things like helping disadvantaged street kids and employing women in rural communities.

“The best way to incorporate volunteering is actually to take an honest look at your goals and assess if adjusting your plan is a better fit. Should you be traveling responsibly to truly help serve those issues you’re passionate about helping? And if you do have the time and skills to help, then find an organisation working directly with local communities over the long-term—organisations that have involved people at the destinations in designing the volunteer programs projects. That’s how you can ensure your efforts will be valued and needed.”

Three retreats where you can get your wellbeing fix and get involved in some (ethical) volunteering

In Mexico, you’ll help baby sea turtles reach the ocean (Unsplash)

109 designs and curates experiences to help raise awareness and support impactful initiatives worldwide. Focussing on everything from female empowerment to safe water and animals, its retreats are the perfect way to combine wellness and volunteering. The Animals retreat in December this year is five days of daily yoga and meditation intertwined with volunteer work, helping baby sea turtles.

How to volunteer: working with the turtle sanctuary at Playa Viva, you’ll help to build hatcheries and patrol beaches at night to help the newly-hatched turtles find the ocean.

The 109 Animals retreat will take place from December 5 to 10, 2019. Rates from £1,724 for five nights,

Help restore the reef in Phuket (Unsplash)

This beachfront hotel is located just 20 minutes from Phuket’s International Airport and offers a luxury stay along with mindfulness sessions, yoga and spa treatments for guests with an eco-conscious mentality. The hotel, which is single-use plastic free, also offers day trips to the turtle sanctuary with all proceeds going towards the charity ‘Pure Blue Foundation’ which supports reef restoration and turtle conservation.

How to volunteer: the akyra Beach Club Phuket have just launched sustainability bootcamps that allow guests to participate in beach clean ups and meet with local schools to discuss the importance of plastic waste.

The next Sustainability Beach Bootcamp in August 31 to September 1, 2019. Price on request.

Help with classes in Marrakech (Unsplash)

Another 109 retreat happening this year is a five day-long yoga x volunteering retreat in Marrakech, Morocco. Here, you will experience daily yoga and meditation classes while spending time working with organisations that help disadvantaged women and girls in Morocco by helping the team at Henna Café with their free community classes and the Project Soar team with their workshops for teenage girls.

How to volunteer: working with Project Soar and Henna Café, you will work on supporting women and teenage girls of Morocco who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The 109 Education Retreat will take place from May 23 to 28, 2019. Rates from £1,915 for five nights.

You can purchase The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook here and follow O’Donnell on Instagram here.

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