How You Can Ethically Travel to Help Others and Maximize Your Impact

Everyone loves to travel, only for some people, simply visiting new places and lounging on exotic shores is not enough.

Despite how it may seem, the world is actually doing much better than it has any time in human history, at least from a big-picture point of view. Wars are less deadly. Fewer people live in poverty than ever before. Medical advancements are saving lives that even a few decades ago would have been lost. Even though the world isn’t as on fire as social media may make it seem, this doesn’t mean that we’ve solved all the problems that are out there. Places where clean water is difficult-to-impossible to come by or food insecurity is the norm, and they need help. If you feel strongly about these issues, you might want to travel to help others instead of simply going on holiday. 

You can pay your own way or link up with an organization that takes care of travel arrangements. However you get there, going abroad on a mission to make a difference can be even more rewarding than trips of luxury and leisure. Instead of hitting tourist traps and dealing with crowds of other vacationers, you really get to know a place. You will meet people, both volunteer colleagues and local residents, who can change your life in more profound ways than any luxury resort concierge. In order to travel to help others in an ethical way and ensuring you are doing needed work, here are some things to consider when planning your trip.

Travel to help others

Dhilung Kirat

Important Tips to Keep in Mind When You Travel to Help Others

You may have a dream to travel to help others. What could be better than seeing a new place and also leaving a positive impact behind? But, there are a few things to keep in mind before setting off. Before you travel to help others, read our tips.

1. First, Find Help

Travel to Help Others

The one thing you do not want to do if you plan to travel to help others is just show up somewhere without a plan or contacts. So, the first thing to do is to align with some sort of goodwill organization that can both help you figure out where to go and what to do when you get there.

Now, this is tricky, because some of these organizations aren’t as helpful as they’d have you believe. So, when researching which organizations to partner with, do your research. Make sure that they are actually a goodwill organization and not just some money scam or exploitative group.

If you have a specific skill set, such as medical or engineering, look to organizations within your profession, because they might have better insight on where help is needed. No matter what you decide, you don’t want to go it alone. An organization has resources both on-the-ground and back home in order to make sure your trip is both productive and safe.

2. Abandon Your Ego

travel to help others

The attitudes and ideas around social justice are changing rapidly, especially as younger, more diverse voices are speaking up. There is some legitimate criticism of Westerners “dropping in” to some country, building a thing, smiling for selfies, and so on. It speaks to the old philosophical question of whether or not altruism actually exists.

To offer a condensed form of the argument, some believe that there is no such thing as truly altruistic behavior because “doing good for others” makes you feel good about yourself. While this is a fun exercise for a college classroom or academic roundtable, there is some real-world practical advice here.

Of course doing something nice for others makes us feel good about ourselves. Yet, this should not be the goal. If you truly want to make a difference, put your ego aside. Defer to experts and locals so that you are providing the help they most need. It’s okay to feel good about helping others, but don’t let your own feelings be the end goal of the trip. 

3. Abandon All Your Expectations

travel to help others

Along with abandoning your ego, when you travel to help others it’s best to also let go of any expectations you have. Chances are, unless you know someone with firsthand experience, your actual trip will be nothing like you thought it would be. The best way to deal with this is to go there with an open mind and no expectations.

Remember, if the goal is to go there and serve the people of the country you are visiting in some way, you have to be prepared to do that their way. The point of travel to help others is not to be some missionary for your cultural and societal beliefs or expectations. If you go there with no preconceived notions, you will likely find the experience that much more rewarding and surprising to boot.

4. Don’t Expect a Vacation

travel to help others

If you travel to help others correctly, you will almost certainly not end up sleeping in a luxury resort. Depending on how long you will stay there, you might also not have time for sight-seeing or any other tourist-y activities. If you are visiting a new country, it’s natural to try to take advantage of that.

However, if your goal is to be of service, you might end up in a place that needs more help than you can even provide. In those cases, you have to both work as hard as you can to make a real difference and also get proper rest and take care of your health. If you know this going in, you will likely find yourself enjoying the experience nonetheless.

5. Listen to the Locals

travel to help others

When Westerners travel to help others but are intent on telling its citizens what is best for them, that’s more colonialism than service. So, make sure you do your research not just on the issue you hope to address but the country itself. If you plan to volunteer in Peru (just a hypothetical example), you would need to learn about the culture of Peru.

You should be traveling and working with an organization, as mentioned above. So, they will likely be able to help you learn what you need to know. However, while on-the-ground wherever you travel to help others, listen to those you are helping. Be respectful and curious. If the locals tell you something that seems at odds with your group’s mission, don’t be shy about challenging the leaders on it.


travel to help others

Perhaps the most important part of your trip will be the actual work you are there to do. If you are, say, helping with clean water and irrigation in an arid climate, that’s going to be difficult, dusty, and hot work. No matter what your specific goal is when you travel to help others, it will require real effort.

So, while you are there, make sure you put in the effort like you would if it were for your own business. Even if what you plan to do sounds good now, about six hours into a ten-hour day it will feel very different. But do your best to push back against those feelings, because any job worth doing is worth doing well.

7. Bring Your Experience Home, but Keep Working

travel to help others

Eventually, when you travel to help others, you also have to get back home. Done right, your travel to help others will not just leave a lasting impact where you visited, but on you as well. Rather than just being an abstract cause in the world to be generally concerned about, it’s personal to you now. Your experience in another country helping those who need it is one that you will revisit for the rest of your life.

However, just because you’ve gone home, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on the cause. Attend or organize fundraisers for the group you traveled with. Raise awareness in your community about the problem. You can even use your experience (and talking about it) to recruit others to help. Service doesn’t have to stop just because you go home. 

If your goal is to travel to help others, it’s not easy to do but you can do it right and make a real difference.

It takes a special kind of person to give up their time, their sweat, and their bodies to help people they’ve never met before. Whatever your reasons are for doing it, make sure you do it ethically and in a way that truly helps. The people you meet and the work you do will inform your life and outlook on the world forever after.

Travel to help others can be both the most challenging and most rewarding thing you do in your life. As the late children’s television icon Mister Rogers always advised his neighbors, when something bad happens you have to “look for the helpers.” If you have the ability and the willingness to travel to help others, you will actually be one of the helpers those people look to.

What do you think? Are there other ways you know of to travel to help others? Tell us along with your thoughts, reactions, and experiences in the comments below. 

You Might Also Like

Previous Story
Next Story

Leave a Reply