Volunteer Vacations in the Dominican Republic

David SearbyGRT Guest Blogger: David Searby, Founder of BeachCorps

With International Volunteer Day on December 5th, it’s important to recognize the growing $2 billion global market for volunteer vacations, often called “voluntourism” by both supporters and detractors.  Existing volunteer vacations in the Dominican Republic range from church groups, individuals and families who arrange their own travel and volunteer work, to loosely organized trips offering a place to sleep and volunteer work, to “one-stop shop” volunteer travel providers who book travel, accommodations, all transportation, excursions, and volunteer work.  Some of the organized trips are dubious in terms of their benefits for sustainable development.  Reputable firms include the nonprofit International Student Volunteers and the for-profit Education First.  While these firms do great work, their high costs and lesser appeal to older clients may limit their popularity and thus their impact.

shutterstock_289991156Existing voluntourism tends to focus on youth education, where volunteers are making a major difference supporting countless faith-based projects and worthy nonprofits like the Dream Project, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, Fundacion Mir, Hogar del Niño, and the Charles Decker Foundation.  English programs in particular can have a major impact on a child’s development by opening up career paths that would otherwise be closed.

Volunteers are also making a major difference in the area of community development, where activities like basic painting and carpentry abound.  A reputable non-profit like Techo, which uses construction projects to advance fundamental transformations of communities, achieves more than volunteer projects which only promise a light coat or two of paint on a wall–for the third time in a year.  The Punta Cana Foundation supports outstanding volunteer opportunities in this area.

shutterstock_141425935The third general focus area for voluntourism is environment and animals/wildlife.  The Dominican Republic has high levels of biodiversity and also threats to that biodiversity, creating significant opportunities for environmental volunteer vacations.  This is an area with enormous potential for expansion, including via GFDD programs like Recrearte (which teaches children to recycle and not litter by turning trash into art) and Ecohuertos (which helps clean up trash-covered urban sites by creating urban gardens that also teach healthy eating).  The Punta Cana Ecological Foundation has numerous volunteers who enjoy volunteer work in the environment.  Another wonderful nonprofit that regularly receives voluntourists is Dogs and Cats of the DR, which helps promote spaying and neutering of stray dogs and cats, adoption of stray dogs and cats, and greater appreciation, love, and respect for our furry friends.

To promote sound sustainable development principles on your volunteer vacation in the Dominican Republic, follow these five lessons learned from existing volunteer vacations:

1) avoid one-off projects designed to please volunteers and take their money, and focus instead on sustainable projects with real impact, particularly projects with strong institutional backing like an IRS-registered 501c3 nonprofit;

2) focus on projects that combine volunteer work and donations from volunteers rather than just volunteer work;

3) focus on projects that empower beneficiaries and avoid a culture of dependency.  For example, give any in-kind donations like backpacks and school supplies for kids to institutions that can use these resources wisely rather than directly to kids, no matter how good that feels;

4) favor projects that can partner with the private sector businesses to create win-win scenarios and expand sustainability;

5) ensure volunteer work supports, and does not undermine, local employment;

6) ensure the project includes real opportunities for positive, substantive engagement with locals as equals, not as objects of pity or charity.

With some care and a focus on sustainability, the future of voluntourism in the Dominican Republic can indeed be bright.  The Dominican Republic provides great advantages for this growing trend, with its rich culture and superb hotels near excellent volunteer opportunities.  Carnival’s “fathom” cruise line is focused on volunteer work and will begin in the Dominican Republic in April 2016.  There is great interest in this new experiment to test the market for tying volunteer work to nice vacations.  Thus far, reaction has been mixed to fathom, ranging from excitement to doubts about the fathom sustainability model and its effect on local communities.

GRT Guest Blogger David Searby is the Founder of BeachCorps (http://beachcorps.com), A New Kind of Volunteer Vacation. He is based in Washington, DC

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