Global Volunteers Shares Lessons Learned & Celebrates 25th Anniversary


Michele Gran was nice enough to write down some thoughts on Global Volunteers‘ 25 year history, lessons they’ve learned and the path they have chosen for the organization. Congrats on 25 years! If you’d like to share in the discussion use the comments section, first click the post’s title and you’ll see where it is. If you’ve got thoughts on this share it with everyone.


Pathway of Peace; The Journey of the Heart


It’s been said that peace is a journey.  At Global Volunteers, we believe that’s true… literally.  Every Global Volunteers service program enables team members to wage peace personally.


As an international development assistance organization, Global Volunteers engages short-term volunteers to help local people realize their vision of self-determination and a vastly improved quality of life.  Many other catchy monikers have been attached to us, but our mission is international community service.  One person matched with one other, working hand-in-hand on life-affirming projects…learning about each other as they go along…leading to sustained change. Change occurs in the host community and in the lives of the volunteers. It sounds simple, but the execution is critical – and the difference between helping others, and harming them. 


The idea of combining service with international travel was largely a curiosity when Global Volunteers was founded in January, 1984.  Organizations such as Earthwatch and Habitat for Humanity mobilized citizen activists to assist with specific service agendas.  But for Habitat’s fortunate promotion by President Carter, their work was known only to the people they served. Information wasn’t shared globally then as it is today.  (Remember, this was before the World Wide Web…and even the office fax machine!) 

In a very real way, Global Volunteers pioneered a new trail for “average” Americans to reach out beyond our borders as “citizen ambassadors” for one, two or three weeks.

It was not without precedence. French pacifist Pierre Ceresole organized Service Civil International with young people from France and Germany to rebuild towns wrecked by the war. Although volunteer work camps later appeared across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and some travelers set off on kibbutz or missionary trips, international volunteering didn’t really hit the mainstream in the United States until Operation Crossroads Africa sent its first wave of workers on a six-week trip to Ghana in 1958; three years later, President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps. Still, these programs were largely for idealistic kids, not affluent adults.

Earthwatch’s rise was instructive. Out of necessity in the 1970s, the organization experimented with volunteer “science assistants” to help out at their foreign research stations (for which federal funding had nearly disappeared).  It turned out that adventurous tourists would actually PAY to trail behind researchers through muddy streams or dusty deserts!  (Who knew?)  The gamble paid off…. Earthwatch volunteers brought value both with their dollars and labor.

A decade later, Global Volunteers was born.  The term “volunteer vacations” was coined later by travel guide author Bill McMillan, in “Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others” listing Global Volunteers and some 100 other non-profit organizations (1993).

Over the years, we’ve engaged more than 24,000 humanitarians on work projects in more than 100 host communities on six continents.  Foremost is a focus on sustainable development – enabled through ongoing international partnerships, and knowledgeable volunteer preparation and management. 


Today, more than 2,000 NGOs as well as for-profit companies share the broad category of “volunteer vacations.” But not all offer genuine human and economic development assistance to the people they claim to serve.  Most well-intentioned volunteers may not realize that hastily contrived projects riding the emergent “voluntourism” trend can in fact, leave grossly unfavorable impressions in host countries –  and risk the wholesale reputation (and tax deductibility) of American volunteer efforts abroad.    We advise serious “voluntourists” to seek out full-time volunteer programs conducted by long-established NGOs who prepare their team members to serve ethically and sensitively in the host country.  Look for those that are grounded in a long-term community development commitment, and contribute not just volunteer labor, but funds to support the volunteer work projects.  In this way, you avoid exploiting local people for your own volunteer desires, and truly make a difference.


Now in our 25th year of international service worldwide, Global Volunteers remains committed and faithful to our founding philosophy of working at the invitation and under the direction of local leaders through ongoing development partnerships.  Engaging short-term volunteers on long-term work projects, this very personal “journey of the heart” becomes – one person at a time – a foot-worn pathway of peace.