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How Voluntourism Got Its Groove Back

This company is changing the face of voluntourism for the better.

Lately, voluntourism has gotten a bit of a bad reputation. While the industry was built on the core values of helping others and promoting cross-cultural understanding, the unfortunate truth is that those values haven’t been able to keep pace with the now-multi-billion dollar industry’s sudden growth. Potential volunteers find themselves forced to navigate a maze of scams, ineffective organizations, and excessive fees imposed by expensive placement agents, often only to end up repainting the same school building that has been repainted by hundreds of volunteers before. Host communities don’t fare much better either—after all, they know the building doesn’t need to be repainted, but in a system riddled with middlemen, they often lack the autonomy to speak up about their real needs.

But all that is about to change thanks to GivingWay.

A refreshing change from the rest of the fast-commercializing industry, GivingWay is a free online platform—part-search engine, part-organizational hub—dedicated to establishing a direct line of communication between volunteers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in hopes of maximizing the potential benefit to everyone. Not only do NGOs create their own profiles that outline their exact needs and requirements, but—and hold on to your hats, potential volunteers—GivingWay also provides NGOs with free, easy, and user-friendly online customer management tools such as application forms and scheduling tools. Gone are the days of confusing email chains, of showing up to a volunteer site only to find the NGO thought you were arriving a week later, and of repainting that same damn school building.

It will come as no surprise that GivingWay’s clear-eyed approach to some of the biggest frustrations in the industry has its roots in personal experience. CEO and founder Orit Strauss got her start as a volunteer teaching English on the Thai/Burmese border in her late teens. After launching a career as a high-tech lawyer, Strauss turned her focus back to the world of volunteering. “I was amazed to discover how popular volunteering abroad was, but I was also shocked to see how commercialized the industry had become,” she says. Strauss created GivingWay because it didn’t make sense to her that a person who wants to volunteer his or her skill sets and time has to pay thousands of dollars to do so and, even worse, that often only a very small fraction of that money reaches the volunteer community. Can we get an amen?

Because GivingWay is a platform, not a placement agent, the community aspect is key. Any organization can create a profile, provided it fulfills certain conditions: It has to be a registered NGO, it has to be a grassroots organization, and it absolutely cannot be an orphanage. (Read more about why volunteering at an orphanage can be a bad idea.) But once GivingWay has vetted a potential new organization, monitoring active organizations becomes a community effort. Strauss says that volunteer reviews have been extremely effective checks. “Our endgame is to be completely impartial, so we will publish good reviews and bad reviews about an organization if they are submitted, so prospective volunteers will know what they’re getting into,” she says. “We’re trying to create a community where people can come and share their experiences, share their knowledge, ask questions, get tips, and get in touch with past volunteers and volunteers on the ground.” And did we mention that the site is attractive, modern, and easy to navigate?

If you’re fired up and ready to get involved, Strauss says that most popular tourism destinations are also popular voluntourism destinations and that many active organizations on GivingWay are based in Thailand, Cambodia, India, South Africa, Uganda, and countries across Central and South America. It seems that more and more people are looking to include volunteering in their vacation itineraries, even if it’s just for a day or two. Contrary to popular opinion, Strauss has seen that even short-term volunteering can be effective. “If it’s done properly and with a very clear purpose and good communication, then even a very short- term period of volunteering can have a great impact. For example, if you’re a retired accountant or a social media expert—someone with a very specific skill set—and you don’t have much time, even just spending a day or an afternoon giving a very specific course to 15- or 16-year-olds or a microfinance NGO audience, is very valuable. Volunteering is not just about doing things that seem more obvious.”

GivingWay is encouraging other less obvious forms of volunteering, too. The company—and yes, it is a for-profit social impact company—recently launched a revolutionary volunteer-from-home feature. After all, we do live in a digital age where so much can be done online, from website support and design to database entry. Glamorous? Maybe not, but it’s some of the most impactful volunteer work you can do. By supporting an organization remotely, you can lend a hand even when you’re not vacationing or, better yet, get to know the ins and outs of an organization you may volunteer with in the future. Another recent addition to the site is a donations feature that allows volunteers to support organizations with their wallets, and Strauss notes that they’re also hoping to expand into local volunteering in the future. She says, “The same way you can find an organization in Uganda to support through the platform, you will be able to find a local charity in your own neighborhood, because volunteering really is a way of life.”

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