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To Help Or Not To Help? | The Expeditioner Travel Site

To Help Or Not To Help?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Note: Author and  managing editor Luke Armstrong recently “sold out” and launched a personal blog, Travel. Write. Sing. 

Last Sunday the New York Times ran an article that asked a question in the headline, “Can travel make the child?” The author explored whether philanthropic travel can be positive and formative for your kids on early on.

Not surprisingly, the article concluded that, yes, sending your young-ins off on charity work can can have a very moving and positive impact when done at an early age. Realistically, this was the inevitable conclusion; the article hardly would have been inspiring had it concluded, no, your kids shouldn’t travel around to help people, you’d be better off sticking them on a cruise ship.

Besides just answering the title question, the piece also explored practical questions about how to prepare, how young is too young, how much is too much, whether trips should be mixed with service and pleasure and how that experience can translate when they return home.

All very important questions the author did a good job of answering by providing real-life instances of philanthropic traveling paying inspiring dividends.

In my own life, a charity trip I took to Guatemala to build houses when I was 13 was very formative. (I returned a decade later and spent the next four years working professionally for the same charity.)

My last journal entries from the time highlight how important this experience was for me in my life.


Well, tomorrow I will be going home. This trip has touched me in so many ways. It has opened my heart to love. Words could never explain how it has touched me. Only those inner emotions that guide me can make me remember, tomorrow I leave, but I shall return, let me always carry with me what I found here so it an never be forgotten.

For me that trip early on — seeing the poor as they were, doing something to make their lives better, building them a house — became a staging ground for determining what are worthwhile pursuits in this life.

I don’t think there will be many dissenters at this point. You rarely come across someone who is against giving a young person the opportunity to use his or herself as a means for improving other’s lives.

Assuming we all agree, it leads to another, very important question, “How do you find a good organization to volunteer with?”

Answering this question is the difference between making a real difference and wasting your time and money.

The founder of the charity I worked for, Patrick Atkinson, used to dub certain organizations as “Charities for Fun and Profit.” Meaning, they seem pretty good, but they aren’t really doing anything. One of the things he instilled in me was an aversion to charities charging an unrealistic service fee. He believed, as I do, that people stretching their budgets to volunteer abroad shouldn’t be taken advantage of.

There are some organizations that will literally charge you $100 a day to put a broom in your hand to and sweep floors. Who sweeps the floors when there aren’t volunteers paying to do? The paid janitor. When working with these organizations, the question, “Did I really make a difference?” might not have a positive answer.

Critics might argue that organizations need to charge high administrative fees in order to stay in business. To that I would counter that any charity that can’t find a funding model outside of extorting its volunteers likely has equally uninspiring solutions to issues like poverty.

Many of the volunteers I’ve met abroad often save for years to be able to do so, pinching every penny to fulfill their philanthropic dreams. Thousands of dollars in administrative fees need not be part of that dream.

So what can you do? Online, any place can seem as if they are doing amazing work. How can you tell which ones are exploitative?

First, do more than a Google search. When you find a charity that seems to have what you are looking for, email them, call them and ask the right questions. What exactly are the fees and are they reasonable? Ask for all costs to be itemized.

If they are charging you $100 to house you and it turns out that the place housing you is only receiving $25 dollars, that’s a problem. Ask them to put you in touch with volunteers who have worked with them and contact them. Find out what they did, how things were went. Was it efficient? Do they feel they made a real difference?

Second, keep in mind that former volunteers are one of your best lines of defenses before you sign on. They’ve been there, and usually once you’re on the ground, it becomes clear whether the organization has a worthwhile solution to the problems it is posing to remedy.

Volunteering abroad isn’t cheap, but it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. Most importantly, you’re given the chance to change the life of someone in need. One bad service trip not only wastes your time and money, it can make you cynical of the “good guys,” the worthwhile charities with the good intentions and compelling solutions.  Take the time to find the right ones long before you or your offspring board the plane.

By Luke Maguire Armstrong


About the Author

LukeArmstrongAfter setting out to hitchhike from Chile to Alaska, Luke Maguire Armstrong stopped in Guatemala where he spent four years directing the social service programs of the charity Nuestros Ahijados. He is the curator of the high energy humor site Rabble Rouse The World and his book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” Look for his next poetry book, “How We Are Human,” this fall, and his novel “How One Guitar To Save To World” whenever he finally finds an agent. 

(Follow Luke on Twitter: @lukespartacus). 

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