I am embarrassed to admit that Shannon O’Donnell’s book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, has been sitting on my desktop for about a year now. I kept looking at the icon, knowing that I needed to open it so I could review it, but it wasn’t until I was doing research for an article on voluntourism that I finally got around to reading it … and what an awesome read it is!
This is the must-have guidebook for anyone who wants to give back while on the road because it is comprehensive and comes full circle from the planning stages through the volunteer work itself. Voluntourism is a murky area of the travel industry because there are so many ways to define the sector and many organizations are using the term simply to draw interested travelers without actually providing a sustainable, meaningful experience for travelers and the communities in which they serve. Because of the state of this muddled industry, this handbook smartly begins with an introduction into what, exactly, international volunteering entails.
In the book’s first section titled “Laying the Groundwork,” it answers basic questions such as who should volunteer, why people should consider volunteering, understanding the motivation behind volunteer work as well as a deeper exploration into the effects and ethical issues inherent in the activity. I know Shannon is a strong believer that people should understand the root causes that necessitate volunteer work, so she also includes a comprehensive list of resources that potential volunteers should read. This helps travelers appreciate the deeper issues behind the need to dig a well or teach women business skills.
The second part of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, “Choosing the Right Experience,” helps readers understand what they should be looking for when deciding on a volunteer organization and experience, and it breaks down the differences between organized and independent experiences. Extensive space is also given to the intersection of volunteering with family travel, long-term travel and practical skill application. The other particularly important part of this section focuses on managing expectations. I think this is a grossly under discussed and yet essential thing to think about in order for a volunteer stint to be both successful and satisfying.
Part three, “While on the Road,” discusses a lot of basic travel tips such as cultural immersion and knowing how to travel with a light footprint. The fourth section, “The Nuts and Bolts of Travel,” is similar, with information on safety, health, cultural norms and the like. Of the book’s sections, these parts are the most common sense and universal in application for travelers in general. However, buried in this fourth section is an important piece of information about what to do if there are problems with the volunteer placement. Don’t skip this section even if you skip the rest of part four.
One of the most valuable things that Shannon offers in The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook is a comprehensive resources collection. There is a lot of information out there about voluntourism, much of it fluff and incomplete. In compiling all of these resources, Shannon has saved readers a ridiculous amount of time and guesswork in planning a voluntourism experience.
If anyone is capable and qualified to write a book about volunteer travel, it is Shannon. The foundation of this book is based on her experiences volunteering in a variety of countries, conditions and positions. Her global volunteer work started in 2009, when she taught English to young monks in Nepal, and she continues to serve many of the communities in which she travels today. Her passion for ensuring travelers make well-educated choices about volunteer work led her to launch Grassroots Volunteering, which serves as a resource to empower travelers interested in volunteering on the road. She is a trusted source and expert in this field, and anyone thinking about embarking on a trip that involves volunteer work would be wise to invest in this book.