A Little Bit… About Grassroots Volunteering

Last updated on November 11, 2021

After months in Africa this past spring, which was a tough trip for me, I spent summer on a hiatus from A Little Adrift and instead headed to the beach with my nieces and nephews, hiked a bit in the Pacific Northwest, spoke at convention in Atlanta, dinner-ed with friends in Florida, and lost myself in the streets of New York City. It was a needed break. But now, as hurricane season approaches Florida, the patter of raindrops and cool breezes send me back to my computer. And so, as I finish editing my 6,000+ photos from Africa, I’d like to share the what, why, and how about Grassroots Volunteering, a project I’ve mentioned a few times on A Little Adrift but somehow never formally shared.

grassroots volunteering

I beta-launched Grassroots Volunteering in 2011, three years into my travels, and the has site grown slowly in the background since then. As I traveled and learned more about the humanitarian and volunteering industries, the site’s mission solidified to give travelers tools to connect with local causes and communities all over the world. My trip to Africa expanded my understanding of the effects—both positive and negative—that travelers have on the places they visit and further shifted the way GV supports travelers wanting to be of service on the road.

GV grew into the community we have today because of the people who believed in the idea in the early days, as well as the early adopters using the site on their round the world trips. So before I delve into the specifics of what it is, why it’s important, and how I could use your help, a sincere and heartfelt thanks to those who have helped shape Grassroots Volunteering.

  • Bridgid and Brian, a husband and wife duo who built and coded the first iteration of the site; they created a dynamic, flexible site designed to grow with the GV community.
  • Hannah Loaring, the designer who transformed A Little Adrift last summer, donated her skills and created the beautiful, hand-painted logo you see on the GV site today.
  • National Geographic Traveler, they believed in the site before I was even confident GV was ready for a full launch into the world;  they helped grow the community wider and deeper than I could have imagined.
Social enterprises from all over the world
I have found wonderful social enterprises and grassroots business all over the world. From a weavers co-operative in Laos to a calligraphy project in Jordan, a cacao farm-stay in Panama to a Coffee Journey in the northern hills of Thailand. The are all tied together by a common thread: a for-profit organization supported by tourism dollars, founded by locals, and addressing social issues in their own communities.

Why is Grassroots Tourism Important?

The global travel and tourism industry is one of largest job creators in the world. This massive industry has the potential to become an equalizer and the greatest redistribution of wealth from developed economies to developing economies as tourists from all over the world put their money directly into local hands rather into the teeming bank accounts of multinational corporations. And yet, this is largely not happening, and is particularly not happening in the countries with the most need. The United Nations Environmental Programme notes that:

Of each US$ 100 spent on a vacation tour by a tourist from a developed country, only around US$ 5 actually stays in a developing-country destination’s economy.

As much as 95% of the money generated by an international trip is not serving the destination, people, or communities you pass through. Much of this comes from the effects of packaged tours and cruises, but travelers at every level often gravitate toward slick marketing and recognizable names when traveling, which are often signs of foreign influence. I saw so many signs of this trend in Africa—the safari companies with the largest marketing budgets receive the bulk of international money, even though small local operators offer boutique experiences just as likely to deliver an incredible trip to the Serengeti.

The alternative to this trend is deceptively simple: let’s shift the conversation to leaving leave more money inside the countries you visit.

It’s not a panacea, but it’s one more step in the right direction.

Let’s make a pledge to use travel as a force for good. Support social enterprises and mom-and-pop businesses offering incredible tourism experiences while also addressing local social issues. The voluntourism industry is seeing astronomical year-on-year growth, yet packaged voluntourism experiences have similar fault-lines to packaged travel—in most cases they miss the point of lasting economic impact. GV’s mission is to decommodify the travel and volunteering industries—we freely offer local organizations a platform to share their social enterprises and long-term volunteering opportunities.

My piece on the National Geographic blog provides more details on this idea shifting tourism dollars to local-level businesses as one effective part of the solution for addressing poverty.

What Exactly is GV?

gv icon

Grassroots Volunteering is a dual database of community-based social enterprises and independent, long-term volunteer opportunities. These two databases form a core knowledge-base from which travelers can pull grassroots travel experiences that fit the needs of their next trip. The volunteering database displays more traditional forms of long-term international volunteering, while the social enterprise database supplements traditional travel—you use your time in a new city to patronize restaurants and organizations with an underlying social mission.

Social Enterprise Database

Not every (not even most) vacations are a good-fit for volunteering overseas, for that reason, the concept of supporting social enterprises is one I am particularly passionate about. Social enterprises are for-profit businesses operating to help address local social issues, usually through skills training and capacity-building, and are often funded by tourism dollars.

GV has the world’s largest geo-located database of social enterprises around the world. This database supports a sustainable tourism model that helps travelers engage in thoughtful, purposeful travel that expands perceptions and immerses them within the community. Travelers also leave their tourism dollars directly with the local communities and people; they give support and aid by exchanging their tourism dollars for locals services and experiences.

Independent Volunteering Database

Over the years, I have shifted and refined GV’s volunteering database to better support organizations relying on long-term skilled volunteers or interns. That being said, there are trips and projects in need of short-term help as well, and so GV’s volunteer database includes a mix of hand-vetted volunteer projects all over the world.

These projects are generally low-cost and take out the middle-man, which means it’s ideal for more confident travelers willing to research their destination and travel without some of the facilitation inherent in the massive voluntourism companies. Though vetted, anyone contacting a volunteer project should ask lots of questions and ensure their trip is a good-fit for what the organizations and communities need from their volunteers.

How Does GV Find Projects?

I funded Grassroots Volunteering myself, and the database is forever free for travelers. Like A Little Adrift, GV is ad-free and organizations cannot pay to be listed. Instead, organizations are hand-vetted before being added to the site. Members of the GV community regularly email me with their successes and the joys they found in supporting one of the listed organizations. Emails like:

“I used your site to support an organization in Guatemala, I’m in Ecuador now and here’s a local organization I found doing good work and in need of support.”

That is the heart of the GV database. One recommendation opened a traveler up to looking at communities in a new light. This network of travelers has vetted projects on-the-ground and added their discoveries into the database, expanding GV’s reach. But there’s more work to be done and I alone cannot map the world.

The GV Ambassadors program launched early this year, and in June seven GV Ambassadors committed to mapping the world as they travel. Ideal Ambassadors are expats and long-term travelers keen to volunteer their time to expand the database to better serve travelers walking the path after them. This is the single most important way to expand GV’s impact and ability to help a range of travelers connect to social causes and communities on their travels.

If you’re interested, I would love your help as a GV Ambassador mapping the world.

GV Ambassador

How Can You Help?

NatGeo Traveler‘s feature last year gave the project wings sooner than expected and spurred the sites most rapid growth to date. To continue growing, this is a call to arms for all readers who believe in the site’s mission and in the ability for the choices each of us make as we travel to catalyze positive change.

If you like the project, the mission, or even just like me enough to support something I am working on, here are a few ways I could use your help:

  • Use the site on your next trip. Our database of social enterprises span the globe and we have responsible travel guides for the most popular travel destinations.
  • Join us online. Join GV on Facebook, Twitter, or via Email.
  • Help map the world. If you’re a frequent traveler, expat or planning a round-the-world tripper, dedicate a tiny part of your time to find and vet projects for all the travelers coming after you. There are now seven ambassadors mapping regions of the world, join them.
  • Spread the word. Help this project and mission spread far and wide. Mention the site to any friends planning their vacation, share GV on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Heck, I’ll even take good vibes. :)

GV is small but mighty to be taking on the multi-nationals in travel and tourism. As more GV Ambassadors join, we are on target to expand manifold and truly become a hub of businesses and organizations all over the world in need of tourism and travel support. I believe in GV’s ability to shift perspectives and encourage a new wave of travelers setting off on their adventures to focus on supporting ethical and sustainable approaches to tourism.

Thank you for your help!


39 thoughts on “A Little Bit… About Grassroots Volunteering”

  1. Hi Shannon great post and GV sounds like a great initiative… I am heading to South America in April for an extended trip and would love to hear of any volunteering projects you would recommend throughout the region… I would like to bring awareness to some of these systems and organisations while I am travelling through their country… Hope to hear from you

  2. I have been enjoying your site for hours this morning… I am HOOKED! I really want to do a volunteer travel stint. But I am overweight and very out of shape. Not to mention aging quicker than I like. That is why it is so important to me to do something like this. How long did it take you to prepare for your first trip? Did you do “mini” trips prior to doing your RTW? I don’t think I could do one that long… and if I put my mind to it with focus I can probably get in better shape with the goal of maybe 7 months…. with that in mind, where do you think a volunteer immersion might be a first good two-three week trial? Maybe 1-3 locations in closer proximity to each other? I would love to get your experienced insight!

    • Hi Tammy! Sounds like you are ready for some adventurous changes. I planned my RTW trip in just 5 months; my lease was up in 4 months and I didn’t have a ton of “stuff” so I knew I could sell it, pack, and plan. In fact, I knew that I would expand the planning to fit whatever timeframe I actually gave myself—it was mostly just planning the life details that suck time (mail, taxes, etc) and the route and flights. Beyond that, if you plan to leave for a few months you can plan that in a relatively short time. I did not do any minitrips, I had been out of the country once before, for a study abroad in Italy, so I was winging it when I left!

      For volunteer travels, Thailand is an easy place for solo women and Southeast Asia is generally where I recommend any new traveler start their trips. It’s a forgiving part of the world where the culture and food are wonderful, and it’s also quite safe and there is a generally well developed tourism infrastructure. So, anywhere in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are likewise easy. For something closer to home, consider Central America—Guatemala has some great experiences and there are a number of great indie ones (my sister-site has some vetted Guatemala volunteer options listed here). Guatemala was among my favorite places in the world. Good luck! Hope that helps you get started! :)

  3. Hi, I’m hoping to travel the world with my two young children before the end of this year and was wondering if you know of volunteering opportunities for families (7 and 10 years old). It’s something I would love to do and involve my children in sooner than later. I will also spread the word about GV as I think it’s great!

  4. Hey Shannon I was looking into reviews for GV and ended up here. I had NO idea you were involved with it, what a nice surprise. I’m definitely doing it now! I’ve been reading your site religiously while I plan my RTW trip and it’s been so helpful. I just wanted to say a big thanks not just for the info on your site but helping found something as AMAZING as GV!! :) Victoria

    • Aw thank you Victoria, I am so glad that you have found the sites useful in planning your travels — that makes me happier than you know! GV is definitely my passion project and I hope you are able to find some wonderful organizations to support while you’re on the road. When do you head out on your RTW? And don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help in any way. :)

      • Aw I look forward to taking part, I’ve already put a couple of feelers out and will be documenting everything. Look forward to helping share the experience when it happens. I’m off in Jan and will do :)

  5. It’s so important that this kind of information is circulated, unfortunately many people set out with good intentions and end up doing more harm than good. I’m currently in the process of looking for a volunteer opportunity with the help of GV, hope it goes well! :)

    • So glad you found the site and it may be useful in planning your volunteering. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help. :)

  6. Just found your blog, just started reading about GV! so cool! My husband and I sold everything and have been travelling/volunteering since Nov 2013.(and blogging too) Def going to look into GV. Might be able to do some ambassadoring for you too….

    • Glad you found the site Danila and I would love to have you as a GV Ambassador if you’re keen, it really helps to have eyes on the ground and visiting places. Just shoot me an email if you’d like more info, or, you can also submit via form a couple of past projects if you found some great ones. :)

  7. Nice to read something like this! I’d definitely like to be some value to this project. As a reader and travel blogger myself, I can spread the word about it. I also look forward to volunteering for a project like that where we can help and uplift local communities. In fact, I wanted to volunteer on my Sikkim trip in India, but it didn’t work out for me. If a volunteering opportunity like this comes my way in the future, I will jump at it! Thanks so much for sharing this information, Shannon!

  8. Hello. Its a good one Shannon. Love it when people like you (Travel Enthusiast) are willing to go one step ahead. I’m from India and my father used to do these kind of things despite of the work he does. I got the feeling to travel reading your blog and will definitely do it when i get to that right time. Thanks for this blog and that wonderful heart you have.

  9. This sounds wonderful Shannon! :) I’ve volunteered with some of the big “middle-men” you mention and have had similar thoughts…I questioned the lasting impact we were having on the communities and the dependency we were creating for them. I’m completing my Masters at the moment but as soon as I finish and can save enough money, I would love to do an around-the-world trip and will definitely be consulting your website for ideas of how I can travel more responsibly and contribute in a meaningful and lasting way to the local communities I visit. Thanks for all your hard work in creating this global community of conscious travellers! Love your site :)

    • Thanks for weighing in with your own experience Bianca. It can be so hard to suss out which organizations are best when you’re ready to give time. Good luck with your Masters and don’t hesitate to shoot me an email if I can ever help you plan your RTW! :)

  10. What a fantastic initiative. I was teaching English in post-war Jaffna last year and met someone who thought exactly along these lines. Great to see that these ideas are being put into practice.

    • Thanks! What a fascinating experience it must have been to been immersed in the culture during that time and shift. So glad to see that others in the field see the validity in it, it’s been slow going building the movement, but it’s one I am passionate about. :)

  11. What a brilliant idea! I haven’t heard of the GV site before, but think it’s a great idea! I have had a few volunteering experiences during my travels and would love to do more in the coming years. Will keep and eye out for updates and maybe one day I can help contribute to your database as well!

    • Thank you for the support Oksana! If you ever find a project that fits, or need help finding something in the future, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email. Safe travels.

  12. Hi Shannon, I’ll be in India for six months … perhaps I could become an Ambassador for India and contribute. Let me know if you’re interested.

  13. Hi Shannon, I’d love to help! This is something I’m really passionate about. I’ve done a lot of volunteering and spent time working for a charity in Africa (spent some time at the Lubasi Home too) and also worked at UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs in the UK! I’m back to Africa in a few weeks, so I’ll email you!


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