Ethical Travel and Grassroots Volunteering with Shannon O’Donnell

This blog is part of Operation Groundswell’s feature series on globe-trotters who are living life a little differently. Our Communications & Marketing Director, Justine, is connecting and chatting with these seasoned explorers who are living the values of our Backpacktivist Manifesto. From full life livin’ to respect and humility, these nomads have exceptional stories to tell and even more lessons from the road than their numerous passport stamps could convey.

Shannon O’Donnell is a travel writer and life-long volunteer who has just been named National Geographic’s Traveler of the Year. Infusing passion and purpose in her travels, Shannon launched Grassroots Volunteering, a database of free and low-cost volunteering opportunities and social enterprises. She’s also recently written the Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook combining storytelling and research for travellers to understand the effects of international volunteering. You can guess why we were eager to chat with her!

Shannon O'Donnell in Petra, Jordan

Where in the world are you today?

Back home in Florida right now!

What was your first travel experience?

The first time I left the country was in college where I did a semester abroad in Northern Italy. After studying, I then backpacked through Europe with some of my new friends and it was just the quintessential backpacker experience. The best part was that I knew some Italian, having studied the language for two years.  I could actually sit down and talk to locals. That’s when I said, “Wow! This is it!”. And that was what got me hooked on travel. The idea that there was this person that I couldn’t talk to before and now, by going out there, I learned enough to bridge that cultural barrier.

You address the issue of ethical travel on your blog and in your book The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. What exactly does that mean to you?

It means stepping outside of your beliefs and challenging your assumptions. You have to switch the situation and constantly ask yourself of the effect that you’re having on the person whose country and culture and community you’re visiting.  Sometimes it can be very frustrating when you can’t communicate;  I’m sure you’re well aware of this.  But you have to constantly assess and ask yourself, “am I maintaining the dignity of the person who I’m with?” When you do this, it changes the way you interact and communicate. It’s one of the best ways to easily maintain that ethical boundary when you’re traveling. Ethical travel at its basest form, for me, means coming from a place of respect.

You’ve obviously done your own volunteering abroad. What gaps have you seen in volunteer travel? 

There’s a huge gap in the understanding of volunteers’ effect on projects and in turn, the effect projects have on communities as a whole. In the early days, it didn’t occur to me to question the motives behind a volunteer program so I did volunteer with an orphanage in Cambodia. And it’s fraught with so many big issues. There is real harm being done because people don’t know how to ask the real questions. And so in my book, I address a lot of this. For example, in the case of building houses or schools overseas, there’s the question of  is this good or bad? I don’t take a stance on any of it in the book, but I put out the questions that volunteer travellers should be asking when signing up for a volunteer project.

That’s a critical part of OG’s educational curriculum: to constantly challenge long-held assumptions and question our role in a given community or project. We always tell our backpacktivists that they’ll probably come out of an OG program with more questions than answers.

The fact is that there is no one who has the answer. The fact is that there are all these layers; so many layers to these cross-cultural connections. It’s crucial to have these conversations around the issues of volunteer travel as a step to minimizing them.

Shannon O'Donnell weaving in Laos

You started a new initiative called Grassroots Volunteering. Can you tell me what that is and how it works? 

It’s a free online database aimed at connecting travellers with causes and communities around the world. The original idea was exclusively to provide data on volunteer opportunities around the world, but it’s grown now to connect travellers with social enterprises that they can support financially as well. There are many travellers who have the desire to help, but don’t necessarily have the time to dedicate to a project.

For example, you’re traveling through a small town in Kenya. You’d go on Grassroots Volunteering and find that there is a shop there that employs single mothers so that they can expand their vocational skills while supplementing their income. That’s something you want to support, but don’t have the time to stay in that town nor is it appropriate for you to volunteer there. You can still support the organization financially. The data on Grassroots Volunteering is meant to connect every level of  traveler to a network of organizations and social businesses.

As a seasoned traveler yourself, what are some of your travel tips?

For first-time travellers: don’t sweat the details. Things don’t ever make complete sense when it’s your first time out of your home country. And definitely don’t judge a place by the standards of North America. For example, on my first trip to Italy, I discovered that shops close at 6 p.m. and we would have to run after class to get whatever we needed. We’d always be so frustrated saying that this would never happen in America! But that’s what’s so beautiful about it…coming to appreciate the distinct culture of a certain place.

And for more experienced travellers: never lose your sense of wonder. I’ve been on the road for five years now traveling around the world. But two years ago, I was traveling with my 12-year old niece. When we first landed in Chiang Mai, Thailand, there were tuk tuks and motorcycles zooming out from everywhere and all kinds of food on the side of the road. I was used to all this, but now I was seeing it all again through the eyes of a 12-year old. Everything was wondrous and amazing. You don’t have to travel with a child to experience that new wonder. Just remember to look at everything with new eyes!

Read Shannon’s blog, A Little Adrift, or connect @ShannonRTW.