Short-Term Volunteer Vacations: 10 Charitable Trips for the Time-Crunched Traveller

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Thinking of mixing some volunteer work in with your next holiday, but feeling tight on time? Short-term volunteer vacations are out there: We’ve rounded up 10 types of voluntourism trips that can be done in two weeks or less.

Some of these trips operate on exchanges — meaning, you volunteer in exchange for things like meals and a place to stay — making them very affordable, but many run on a you-pay-your-way basis. We’ve found some great ways to give back while you see the world and, to help get your planning started, pointed out a few organisations that offer each kind of trip. Keep in mind, however, there are tons of voluntourism opportunities around the world operated through many different organizations. As with all travel plans, we encourage you to do your homework to find out which organisation is right for you.

If you’re looking to do a lot of good during your travels (even with just a little time off), one of these 10 types of short-term volunteer vacations may be for you:

Help Save Leatherback Turtles: Costa Rica

Head off to biodiverse Costa Rica where you can experience unmatched natural beauty and adventure, while doing your part to help revive the Pacific leatherback turtle population.

Threatened by a number of factors, these endangered turtles have been on the decline since 1980. Many of Costa Rica’s beaches serve as nesting grounds for female leatherbacks when they lay their eggs beginning in March each year.

Volunteers are often charged with attaching transmitters or tags to the turtles, tracking these gentle giants and moving their eggs away from potential danger. Organisations such as the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the Earthwatch Institute, La Tortuga Feliz and i-to-i all feature programmes less than two weeks long.

A leatherback turtle in Costa Rica (Image: bizosilva)
A leatherback turtle in Costa Rica (Image: bizosilva)

Work on a Farm: Various locations

Want to plant strawberries in New Brunswick, Canada? Help out at an organic garden in Bali? How about tending to growing vegetables and grains in Iceland, volunteering at a plant nursery in Australia, or working on a coffee plantation in Hawaii? Short-term farming volunteer opportunities are certainly plentiful around the world.

Travellers can search for host farms or other venues in every corner of the globe through organisations such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which organises exchanges between volunteers and organic farms, or Help Exchange (HelpX).

A volunteer will typically work in exchange for accommodations and meals. Programme lengths vary and are usually mutually agreed upon between the host and volunteer, but many stays range from several days to two weeks in length.

WWOOFing in Japan (Image: strikeael)
WWOOFing in Japan (Image: strikeael)

Care for Asian Elephants: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Visit Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand where you can participate in wildlife conservation by helping rescued Asian elephants.

Volunteer programmes run for different amounts of time — some offer one-night stays, while others have one-, two- or three-week programmes available. Volunteer tasks often include feeding and bathing the elephants, learning about the challenges these animals face, locating elephants in the forest and leading them to their health examinations, assisting elephant caretakers and, yes, shoveling elephant excrement (pack your nose plugs!).

Elephant Nature Park gives volunteers the opportunity to stay at the sanctuary and rise in the morning to the sound of elephant calls. Other programmes are offered through various organisations such as gvi and i to i.

Asian elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand (Image: christianhaugen)
Asian elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand (Image: christianhaugen)

Tackle Trail Work Along the Appalachian Trail: Georgia to Maine, USA

Get back to nature along the Appalachian Trail, a 3,508km stretch that passes through 14 states, running from Georgia‘s Springer Mountain all the way up to Mount Katahdin in Maine; it’s one of the longest marked paths of its kind in the world. Each year, a few million people visit “the AT” and an estimated 1,800 to 2,000 set out to hike the entire length of the trail in one go — a feat that takes several months to complete.

Volunteers are said to donate about 220,000 hours to the trail each year, taking up activities such as trail maintenance, removing invasive species and constructing things like bridges and shelters. Search for volunteer opportunities in line with your time frame and interests at any point along the trail through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. And leave a little time to do some day hikes along this famous footpath, which has been welcoming foot traffic since the 1930s.

The New Hampshire-Maine state line along the Appalachian Trail in the United States (Image: chewonki_mcs)
The New Hampshire-Maine state line along the Appalachian Trail in the United States (Image: chewonki_mcs)

Help Run Sports Programmes: Cape Town, South Africa

Donate a few weeks of your time to supporting physical education for kids in one of the many townships surrounding Cape Town.

You’ll likely work with local volunteers and staff to make fitness a daily part of kids’ lives, imparting valuable lessons around teamwork, health and leadership. That could mean organising soccer, netball or basketball games, running drills or teaching nutrition — for the most part, the activity opportunities are only limited by your creativity.

Short-term opportunities are available through organisations like gvi and Projects Abroad, though you may be paired up with long-term volunteers. No previous coaching experience is necessary, but pack your enthusiasm — the kids won’t forget theirs!

Kids dance in a township near Cape Town (Image: freetheleah)
Kids dance in a township near Cape Town (Image: freetheleah)

Build Something: Various Locations

Whether it’s a house, a school or a library, volunteers have the opportunity to join a team and help build in one of many international communities around the world.

Grab your hammer and can-do spirit for these volunteer trips, which could involve activities like constructing buildings for an orphanage in Romania, making repairs on apartments in Asia Pacific, building a school in Ghana or providing affordable housing in India.

Most building-based trips also provide opportunities to learn about local culture, interact with and often work alongside local people, and discover challenges in the host region. Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village volunteer program runs short-term (most of the trips are between nine and 15 days long) builds in more than 40 countries around the world, while other organizations like United Planet and Universal Giving offer up similar construction-based trips with short-term options.

Habitat for Humanity volunteers put up the last wall on a house in Ohio (Image: usdagov)
Habitat for Humanity volunteers put up the last wall on a house in Ohio (Image: usdagov)

Contribute to Natural Disaster Relief: Various Locations

The natural world can produce some heartbreaking events at times — earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes — rendering a near-constant need for volunteers to lend a helping hand for any time they can in locales around the world.

Whether it’s contributing to ongoing rebuilding efforts in New York and New Jersey following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy or traveling to the Philippines to pitch in following 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, volunteers are always needed to help deal with the crippling aftermath of major natural disasters. But there are plenty of other less widespread disasters that also require volunteer help. Organizations like Volunteer Match, All Hands Volunteers and the American Red Cross can help point you to projects and give you more info on what it means to be a disaster volunteer.

Volunteering in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan (Image: dfid)
Volunteering in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan (Image: dfid)

Volunteer via a Hostel: Various Locations

If you’re booking a hostel for your next stay, you may have some volunteer opportunities right at your fingertips.

Guests at The Backpack in Cape Town, South Africa, can get involved in various community projects including a rope skipping project, a soccer project and a knitting project in which volunteers create blankets for orphans (many of whose parents lost their lives to AIDS) in a nearby township. You can also donate your key deposit to a fund used to pay for educational opportunities for hostel staff and their children.

INOUT Hostel in Barcelona, Spain, is part of a non-profit that aims to promote opportunities for people with disabilities. The majority of the hostel’s staff comprises people with disabilities, and guests are encouraged to connect with staff members and support them in their work. Check in during your next hostel stay to inquire about volunteer opportunities — a small price tag for your stay and the chance to give back along the way.

Staying at a hostel? Inquire about volunteer opportunities (Image: desheboard)
Staying at a hostel? Inquire about volunteer opportunities (Image: desheboard)

Control the Lionfish Population, Belize

Adventurous travellers can combine diving with doing good by contributing to lionfish research off the coast of Belize.

Volunteers will work to examine and curb the growth of the lionfish population (an invasive species with no natural predators in this area) as a means of minimizing the impact these fish have on the Belize Barrier Reef as well as other fish populations in the area.

Divers stay at the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve dive camp, which serves as a home base while participants learn about the lionfish population. Blue Ventures offers seven- and 16-day trips, and volunteers must hold a PADI Advanced Open Water certification to join an excursion.

A lionfish in Belize (Image: sergemelki)
A lionfish in Belize (Image: sergemelki)

Clean Up a Beach, Various Locations

Turn part of your beach vacay into a volunteer vacay by cleaning up debris along the world’s shores. Ocean trash can be hazardous to marine animals and beach-lovers alike, so volunteers are always needed along beaches around the world.

In 2013, hundreds of thousands of Ocean Conservancy volunteers picked up more than 544,311kg of trash across coastlines in 92 countries.

From Brazilian shorelines outside Rio de Janeiro to the beaches of Los Angeles County in the USA, there are plenty of playas in need of a little TLC. In addition to the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup® program, which offers international volunteer opportunities, other smaller, local organizations offer organized opportunities to clean up coastlines. And the time commitment is small — you can usually spend just one day helping to clean up a beach if that’s all the time you have to spare.

Beach clean up in England (Image: Port of Dover)
Beach clean up in England (Image: Port of Dover)

Featured image by tirch

Short-Term Volunteer Vacations: 10 Charitable Trips for the Time-Crunched Traveller was last modified: November 18th, 2015 by Melisse Hinkle
Author: Melisse Hinkle (383 posts)

A New England native but explorer at heart, Melisse has traveled throughout North America, biked through rice paddies in Bali, seen the Northern Lights in Iceland, walked alongside llamas in Machu Picchu and made her way around Europe while studying abroad in London. She is the Head of Content and Social Media for North America at Cheapflights.