There are currently an overwhelming amount of organizations in existence offering volunteer abroad programs. Digging through them to find the reputable organizations is not always easy, but it is worth the effort to know you will be making a real impact. Luckily for you, I’m sharing one of those organizations with you today!
In this #littleBIGthings interview, Kathryn Pisco, Co-Founder of Unearth the World, shares her insight on how to volunteer ethically and engage in cross-cultural learning. They are one of the most transparent organizations I know of in the volunteer travel space, and they offer a comprehensive set of pre- and post-trip education to help with preparation and getting the most out of the experience.
Unearth the World is a social enterprise that plans personalized and meaningful international exchange opportunities for students, professionals, groups, and families. Our unique model improves the volunteer travel industry by promoting cross-cultural learning, fostering reciprocal partnerships, and elevating social consciousness through these responsible volunteer exchange programs. Unearth the World pairs travelers with our vetted international nonprofit partners to solve real issues in global communities. Our focus on pre- and post-trip training, financial transparency and social impact sets us apart. Since 2015, more than 200 global citizens have donated over 3,500 hours of their time. Unearth the World alums have started their own nonprofits, continued to volunteer in their own communities and become more civically engaged to multiply their tremendous impact!
1. For those seeking a volunteer program abroad, what qualities should they look for in an organization to determine if they will actually be making a difference?
There are so many things to consider when choosing how and where to volunteer abroad. In my opinion, volunteers should look for organizations that are transparent, community driven and have some sort of pre/post-trip training and support. I also recommend asking plenty of questions about safety, impact measurement, and travel logistics.
2. In what ways can volunteers get more involved with their host communities?
Engaging in a meaningful way with host communities is one of the most valuable aspects of volunteering abroad. To really maximize community engagement, I recommend staying with a family in a homestay. Living with local people is an amazing way to build relationships and truly get to know the local way of life! I also think it is super important to educate yourself about your host community’s history, language and culture ahead of time. This will set you off on the right foot to dig deeper upon your arrival. Finally – be open to meeting and talking to as many people as possible. Enter the community with humility, ask questions, spend time sitting at a local café or restaurant and share openly about your own life/culture.
3. What inspired you to start Unearth the World?
In 2013, my husband and I decided to quit our jobs for a year of travel. We visited 20 countries in 250 days. We also volunteered in 5 communities along the way because we wanted to engage with local people in a meaningful way. We were absolutely BLOWN AWAY by this tremendous experience! We found that volunteering abroad – when done well – allowed us to build lasting relationships and contribute to mission driven organizations. But our five volunteer projects varied greatly in intentionality and impact and illustrated the pros and cons of volunteering abroad. We learned that there are many problems in the current multi-billion dollar volunteer travel space: a lack of financial transparency, an absence of meaningful volunteer training, and a shortage of community driven projects. So, we returned from our trip inspired to create our own social venture – Unearth the World (UTW) – to improve the volunteer travel industry by promoting cross-cultural learning, fostering reciprocal partnerships and elevating social consciousness through responsible volunteer exchange programs. We founded Unearth the World to make volunteer travel more transparent, accessible and positively impactful.
4. How can travelers ensure the money they pay to volunteer abroad goes toward making an impact?
It is so important to ask where your money is going prior to volunteering abroad. I recommend asking any volunteer abroad organization to articulate where their volunteer fees go.
For UTW volunteers, we actually itemize each dollar spent for our volunteers so they can see exactly where their money is going.
In fact, at UTW we even give our volunteers the option to pay us or the international nonprofit directly so they feel confident that their fees are going into the local communities and not padding the pockets of a US company.
5. Compared to other volunteer organizations, what makes Unearth the World different?
Unearth the World’s (UTW) innovative model addresses the current volunteer travel industry’s lack of financial transparency, lack of reciprocal international partnerships and lack of appropriate volunteer training and support.
- Financial Transparency: We are one of the only volunteer travel provider to itemize fees to the traveler and publish them on our website. This improves the volunteer travel industry by adding a layer of accountability. Our travelers know exactly where every dollar they spend goes.
- Reciprocity in International Partnerships: UTW has established a strategic and in-depth partnership process that ensures that travelers engage in meaningful service and the local communities truly benefit from volunteer presence. We visit, vet and volunteer with each organization before forming partnerships and ensure that our volunteers possess the proper skills to contribute to each organization. And, we always take the community’s lead on structuring the program and setting costs. This allows for a “win-win” situation when both the volunteers and international organizations benefit.
- Holistic Preparation: UTW is a leader in cross-cultural training and support. We have created a robust and unique pre-trip training curriculum focusing on 5 key themes (Reflection, Global Citizenship, Cultural Competency, Culture Shock and Power and Privilege) in order to effectively train and prepare travelers for their service work and global immersion. We are also one of the only volunteer travel providers to engage travelers in a post-trip re-entry program that encourages volunteers to bridge their international experience into their normal lives. This has supported UTW alums in becoming more civically engaged upon their return!
6. What advice would you give someone who wants to make a difference by volunteering abroad but doesn’t know where to start?
This is a hard question, but a good one. It is important to first have an understanding of the type of work you are suited to do abroad. I always challenge people to question themselves first. What are you passionate about? What problems do you want to tackle? What makes you want to volunteer abroad? What kinds of skills do you have? Is there a certain region you would like to visit or population you would like to work with? And, what kind of experience are you looking for?
Once you have examined your own intentions, I think it is important to get recommendations from friends and family on trusted organizations around the world. Reach out to your network to learn from people you can rely on. Finally, once you have a few potential options of volunteer programs, do as much research as you can! Ask detailed questions, speak to previous volunteers and local community members.
7. How do you think travel can be used for good?
I think that one of the most amazing things about travel is that it promotes learning. Learning about yourself, other regions of the country/world, and other cultures. Travel can break down stereotypes and lessen fear of “the other”. I believe that if more people engaged in authentic travel, it could lead to a more equitable and peaceful world.
Kathryn Pisco, Co-Founder, Unearth the World
Kathryn Pisco is a social entrepreneur from Chicago with a passion for travel and giving back. She grew up in Columbus, Ohio and attended Cornell University where she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Communications and Business. After years of working in sales for large corporations, she founded Unearth the World (UTW) with her husband after a 250 day, 20-country journey of personal travel and volunteering. UTW is a social enterprise devoted to planning meaningful and transformative international exchange opportunities for students, professionals, groups and families. In her time away from Unearth the World, Kathryn is a budding foodie, wannabe yogi and new mom of beautiful twin girls – Lucia and Olivia.