Volunteering Abroad In Local Communities: 14 Tips
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Volunteering Abroad In Local Communities: 14 Tips

Volunteering abroad done right paves the way for positive outcomes for both the local communities and the volunteers. We pride ourselves in the fact that 97.6% of students returning from our community service trips improve on at least one student learning outcome. The community projects our students participate in create positive change for local communities around the world. The impact is real.

Ann Fuller, Rustic Pathways’  Director of Global Community Service, talked with our partner about “voluntourism” on our volunteer abroad service projects, and we thought it was worth sharing her thoughts.

These are Ann’s tips to creating better volunteering abroad experiences for both the students and local communities.

14 Tips for Responsible and Impactful Volunteer Travel Experiences

  1. Plan volunteer travel responsibly for mutual benefit
  2. Prioritize life-changing experiences and sustainable results.
  3. Have program leaders manage logistics and facilitate student engagement.
  4. Build long-term partnerships with local communities.
  5. Design projects based on local community needs and priorities.
  6. Create student roles that leverage their strengths.
  7. Collaborate with communities to meet shared goals.
  8. Ensure projects are maintained and sustainable.
  9. Conduct regular evaluations with project partners.
  10. Use student feedback to improve volunteer opportunities.
  11. Train and support local staff.
  12. Visit project sites and evaluate impact regularly.
  13. Aim for travel as a model for sustainable development.
  14. Strive to be a leader in best practices for volunteer tourism.

Hear more from Ann on how Rustic Pathways creates responsible and impactful volunteering abroad programs worldwide:

Our Approach to Service

Service is at the forefront of the conversation when we are getting ready for our programs, and countless hours are devoted to our service programs—before, during, and after—to ensure their success.

Continuous Improvement of Volunteering Abroad Programs

We recognize that we are in an imperfect industry. We are driven to continually improve our model to make sure we are serving, not saving, our partner communities responsibly and effectively. Our approach to gaining a volunteer abroad experience is quite different from other volunteer programs.

We approach projects abroad with a holistic, community centric approach instead of a volunteering tourism centric perspective. It is about getting better for our partners, not just for ourselves.

Student caring for an elephant with a hose at a conservation project in Thailand.

Student helping bathe an elephant at a conservation project in Thailand.

Responsible Volunteer Travel For Community Development

When planned responsibly, volunteer opportunities can be beneficial experiences for both the traveler and the community in which he or she is traveling. At Rustic Pathways, a volunteer trip has two priorities: providing our students with opportunities to have life-changing experiences and achieving sustainable results for the communities we serve.

Role of Program Leaders On a Volunteer Abroad Program

Our students get those life-changing experiences not only from their new environments, but also from our program leaders. Program leaders plan logistics (accommodations, meals, fun activities, risk management, etc.), help students get accustomed to their new community partners and projects, and facilitate discussion about service and what it means to truly be an “engaged global citizen.”

Volunteers and community members building a wall together in the Dominican Republic.

Community members and students working on a service project in the Dominican Republic

Designing Volunteer Overseas Service with Community Partnership In Mind

We build long-term partnerships with the communities we visit so that, together, we can develop programs to support communities as they overcome challenges and achieve their goals.

This includes spending time with local residents in their towns and villages to understand their priorities—and what kinds of support they really need.

Student Preparation for Key Impact

We collaborate with communities to design volunteer work for our students that build on their strengthens. For example, to prepare our student groups for education-based projects on their volunteer programs, we work with local teachers to create learning sessions that use our students’ skills to meet teachers’ goals. Students then prepare activities for those sessions with guidance from our program leaders.

Group of student volunteers teaching English to children in Mongolia, seated in a circle.

Student volunteers teaching English to young students in Mongolia.

Collaboration for Goals on Volunteer Abroad Programs

During our programs, Rustic Pathways’ students work alongside community members to make projects a reality. Together, they build real friendships and learn from each other.

When designing projects, we work with our community partners to ensure that projects will be maintained and sustained in the future. Throughout the year, our staff and local partners collaborate to push projects forward.

Monitoring and Evaluation of Community Development Projects

We constantly learn from our experiences and strengthen the impact that we make. Our evaluation process includes regular evaluations with project partners about the impact of our initiatives. We also use feedback from students to improve students’ roles and experiences as volunteers.

Impact at Rustic Pathways graphic

Support from Local Staff

We also succeed because we have a great team of local staff around the world! As Rustic Pathways’ Director of Global Community Service, I work with our local teams to provide training and support.

I spend significant portions of the year visiting project sites and meeting with local partners to evaluate the impact of our volunteer program work and to ensure that the initiatives we support provide real, tangible benefits for our community partners, international volunteers, and high school students.

Challenges and Goals

Managing travel programs is challenging and complex, let alone ones with volunteer abroad opportunities but we believe that they have the ability to both provide life-changing education experiences with local organizations for students (like you!) and to achieve real outcomes for local partners.

Our goals are to create a world where travel is a model for sustainable development and to be a leader in defining best practices in global volunteering.


About Ann Fuller

Ann Fuller is the director of global community service for Rustic Pathways and has worked for the company for eight years. She has a bachelor’s in anthropology from Bates College and a master’s in urban planning, specializing in International Development Planning, from NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Her graduate studies culminated in a capstone project with the United Nations in Nicaragua that focused on community and district-level planning systems. She also has extensive experience designing and managing volunteer projects.

About the Author

Kelly Moynihan

Peru Country Director

More than a decade of program leader experience, fluency in Spanish, and commitment to community service make Kelly a natural fit to direct our Peru operations. Previously, Kelly worked in Costa Rica with indigenous communities and turtle conservation efforts after joining Rustic in 2008. Originally from New Jersey, Kelly earned a degree in journalism from American University in Washington, D.C.