A Little Announcement…Meet My Book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook

Last updated on February 27, 2018

Volunteer Traveler's Handbook image
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Writing this book over the past nine months functioned as a perfect mirror for my own personal fears and vulnerabilities—my book about volunteering ended up with so much of me exposed in the process that the thought of publicly launching was overwhelming.

When I left the United States in 2008 on what became my open-ended journey around the world, I had no idea where my travels would take me. I did however, have hopes that traveling would act as a reset button on my life—that I would find a new focus beyond the acting industry I left behind in Los Angeles and the advertising background I studied in college. I had no idea that four years later I would write a book about volunteer travel, but my path has led me here, to announcing my new (and as yet only) book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.

Why did I think this book needed writing?

After years of volunteering and supporting local communities in each place I visited, I wanted to work on a project that would help others create positive change as they travel. The more I traveled, I affirmed my belief that there is good that can come when we all focus more on socially conscious travel—acknowledging that everyone cannot give, serve, and volunteer in the same way. Over the years, as A Little Adrift found more growth and success, other travelers emailed me with questions about how they could find ways to connect their travel experiences with small, grassroots organizations and local social enterprises all over the world.

And it felt good. And there was a need for this information in the community.

With those needs, and the countless emails I have received over the years as an impetus, I wrote The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. The book addresses the complicated facets of the international volunteer industry, and delves into the ethical issues related to working in developing communities. Through personal stories, and stories from other travelers and organizations, the book paints a clear picture of the ways people can pair travel and service. Sometimes this means through volunteering, but the book also offers ideas for short-term travelers who are perhaps not able to commit to a full volunteer project. On the whole, I wrote the book to address these core elements:

  • Foundational ideas about volunteering in developing countries
  • The interplay of ethics and development work
  • Identifying your motivations for volunteering
  • Picking either a volunteer tour, middleman placement company, or an independent organization
  • How to research and vet organizations to ultimately decide which jive with your personal ethical code
  • Managing your expectations
  • Pre-trip cultural research
  • How to navigate the experience once you’re there
  • All the nuts and bolts of travel like packing, safety, insurance, and visas

The book is a tapestry of ideas on the voluntourism industry. It weaves stories throughout the text to illustrate practical ways to apply the advice, as well as photos, resources, and ideas.

Why me?

In essence, I wrote the volunteer guide I wish I had before I left to travel. I made mistakes on my volunteer journey, I supported companies that were not working to better their community, but were instead purely profit driven. And in that same breath, I found wonderful grassroots businesses not listed in any guidebook that needed a hand in a way only I could lend. And I found friends and guidance along the way that shaped my views on development and aid work, the potentially harmful impact of naïve do-goodery, and the simple ways we can affect change.

I have traveled within and throughout communities all over the world, always looking for the simple ways I could lend a hand. My first international volunteer experience took place in Nepal, and since then I taught in Nepal, tutored children in Guatemala, built stoves, supported local causes, and found ways to integrate service into my travels through Southeast Asia with my niece last year. I don’t know everything, far from it, but I learning and understanding have underpinned each moment of my travels over the past four years. And with my meticulous nature, coupled with a lot of research, interviews, and questions, I gathered the information and perspectives I think each travelers need before they head out into developing communities.

Volunteer travel collage
Photos, each with its own memories and stories from my volunteer and travel experiences around the world.

This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I put a very real piece of myself into this book. Across several continents, countless countries, and many months (and while caring for my niece) I spent long hours thinking about the best way, the right way to encourage other people to ethically volunteer. I had a lot of fears about the project—surely there were more books I should have read before writing, or if not that, I was no doubt going to grossly overlook fundamental ideas and challenges in the aid and volunteer industries. The fear monster was on full attack, usually in the dawn hours when no one else was awake; it was just me and the book staring each other down.

Volunteering is the easy word for this book, but really the subject touches on development and international aid policies, the ethics of “developing” these countries in the model of the west, and the tangible value and harm volunteers can bring to international projects. I care so much about doing the subject justice, with all of its nuances and hotly debated opinions, and for a time, this made it a struggle for me to overcome my fears.

That struggle, though, made it better. The concern made me ask more questions, interview more people, and ask for guidance from a diverse range of opinions within the realms of sustainable tourism, international development, and, ultimately, volunteering.

Actually, as Neil Gaiman noted in his keynote speech (that my friend Mike so graciously pointed me to in my moments of angst) the launch of my book is like standing naked in front of my entire community and baring a part of my heart and my soul because there is risk, there is potential failure and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit that failure is a scary prospect.

But as I noted above, I felt the book needed to be written. And that overrode the fears.

volunteer travel

I think the sum total of this book can create positive change. I believe this is the truth. And I believe this is an immediate core focus for my life and my personal journey, to spread this positive message. I also think any new traveler, veteran traveler, and even arm-chair-occasional-two-week travelers will find value in the message—will find a way to use this information to travel with a more grassroots mentality of supporting local communities.

It took many months and many people (editors, designers, my partners in the book collective, family, and friends) to complete the project and hone the message down to its core components. But it says everything I want it to say. And now I’ve said nearly everything I want to say; I am happy with the results and there were are no words to do justice to the feeling of looking down at the cover and seeing my name in print for the first time.

Thank you! (And now I need your help)

I believe in the change we can create with the right information and the right focus, and I am so happy/excited/terrified to launch my new book into the world. The book is for sale at all major online outlets, and if you or someone you know is interested in this prism through which they can see the world—through local level service and volunteering, I would love for you to pass on the book, share it on Facebook or Twitter (the volunteer book’s permanent landing page is here).

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And if you buy it (thanks!), let me know what you think. There are likely things I overlooked, or ideas that will morph and change over the coming months and years and I am eager and open to feedback. Further, I would love to hear your story if you have your own experience volunteering or serving communities anywhere in the world; share it with the community in the comments, or send me an email.

Since I launched this site in 2008, I have grown to deeply value and appreciate the community of travelers who find their way here. I could not have made it to this point in my journey without the support of fellow travelers, readers, and friends. To all of those I have met along the way, for you feedback, guidance, shared stories, and encouragement, simply, thank you.


28 thoughts on “A Little Announcement…Meet My Book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook”

  1. Congrats Shannon! What an achievement. I agree in this day were some volunteer company’s are more profit driven than bettering people’s lives a book like this needed to be written.

  2. Big congratulations, Shannon – I imagine you are on cloud nine right now. Living in Rio, I meet a good amount of volunteers who come to lend a hand in the impoverished parts of Brazil – their tales of adventure and positivity always strike a chord. Wishing you all the success you deserve.

    • Thank you Addison! It’s been a big lead up to the launch, so yes, it feels wonderful and scary to have it out there now. I appreciate the support and wish you so much goodness as well! :)

  3. Congrats, Shannon! Kudos to you for having the courage to put yourself out there, and the determination to complete such a challenging task. Well done! I love your message of positive change through actions, and I hope your book is a success!

    • Thank you Bridgid! I know you and Brian feel similarly about lending a hand and giving back, and I appreciate your support :)

  4. Hi Shannon, we’re leaving for our trip in March and are really keen to spend time volunteering. However, we want to do it in the most productive and ethical way possible, so we’re excited to read your book! Will be ordering the e-book to read on the new Kindles we’re getting for our travels!

    • You’re making a great choice on the Kindle! I bought one before trip to SEA last fall and it was sooo handy to have, not just for reading books, but I put all of our travel notes in a document and had it on there too. I appreciate the support on the book, and let me know if you have any questions or need some help in some way :)

  5. Sounds Fantastic, I am very interested in doing some more travel volunteering. I did some many years ago in America at the Omega Institute and Kripalu. Just wondered if there is any way to buy it as a pdf download? I don’t have a kindle or a nook and standard delivery is 18-32 days to deliver to Australia.

    • Hi! Thanks so much for the support, I haven’t heard of the two places you volunteered, but they look like peaceful places to spend time giving back! As for the book, it’s not widely available in PDF, but I do have one so if you send me an email we can chat: Shannonrodonnell gmail.com :)

  6. Congrats on the release (and really glad I got to see you for the launch party). The fact that you care so much about this topic — is exactly the reason I’m sure it’s so good. I already bought the book, and am going to do my best to start it tomorrow on my flight across the US to San Francisco (it’s a 5:45 am flight, so hope I’m not too tired to read).

    Will send you feedback once I finish :)

  7. So glad to read that your experience has now made it’s way to print. I look forward to purchasing a copy and reading it in the coming weeks before I depart. Volunteering has been a gray area in my planning. I expect as I settle in I will be able to make volunteering choices that fit accordingly. My ambition to volunteer is big, but my foresight says I’d best make a choice when I arrive and adjust to my new situation. :)

    In other news, your name came up at this year’s Meet, Plan, Go Event in South Florida and your blog, adventures, and experience are admired.

    • Thank you Frank! I wish I could have made it down south for the event, but it was just a bit too far to drive there and back in one day. But by all accounts I have heard it was great! And it’s true that as you settle somewhere and sink into a place, it becomes easier to see how you can add in some sort of service–a lot of people think volunteering is about a one- or two-week intense commitment, but you could make a very real difference committing a handful of hours regularly. I hope our paths cross again soon, and let me know if there is ever something I can help you with :)

  8. “The fear monster was on full attack, usually in the dawn hours when no one else was awake; it was just me and the book staring each other down.” – I can relate. I know that monster well! It’s not easy to do what you’ve done, so a huge congrats to you, Shannon. I look forward to checking out your book.

    • Thank you so much Torre. From all accounts, it’s a good thing you overcame the fear monster as well, I still kick myself that I didn’t snatch yours up before it was taken offline, but I have plans to buy next year! :)

  9. Congratulations Shannon! Having now read it I can say you have something to be proud of with this book. It answers every question I’ve ever had about volunteering all well as all the things I had never considered. Best of all is backed with your personal experience of volunteering and I would recommend this to anyone who was looking to volunteer :)


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