Shannon O’Donnell discovered her life mission during a 2008 around-the-world trip: to travel responsibly and promote volunteering overseas.

She was onto something. Young Americans like O’Donnell are more likely than their parents’ generation to travel with purpose, according to a 2015 study.

“They shun resorts and cruises, looking for a true cultural experience and an opportunity to get their hands dirty,” says Mitch Gordon, co-founder of Go Overseas, a volunteer travel advice and planning site.

“Voluntourism” — travel combined with volunteer activities — is driven by young people’s desire to make their lives more consequential. Gordon expects that in 20 years voluntourism will be as mainstream as cruises and timeshare hotels are today.

The Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity and other groups have been sending U.S. volunteers to do good overseas for years. More recently, dozens of commercial and social ventures have emerged to organize volunteer travel. Projects lasting up to a year range from planting fruit trees to digging water wells to building schools. Medical, teaching and wildlife projects are among the most popular, according to Go Overseas.

Map of top 10 voluntourism destinations (State Dept./J. Maruszewski)
(State Dept./J. Maruszewski)

O’Donnell, a graduate of the University of Central Florida, ended up volunteering and sightseeing in 16 countries during her 2008 trip. She wrote the Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook to help others find opportunities that match their interests and skills and produce real benefits for local communities. Some such projects can be found on her Grassroots Volunteering website.

She continues to travel, volunteer and blog about her encounters and observations. ”My mind hums with frenetic energy when I ponder the places I still want to experience,” she writes in her blog.

Returning volunteers often describe their experience as life-changing or eye-opening.

Images of participants in voluntourism programs (Courtesy of Beck/Cooper/Schiller/Go Overseas)
Clockwise from left: Teaching English in Bali; at an Operation Smile clinic in Madagascar; beautifying places in Peru (Courtesy of Beck/Cooper/Schiller/Go Overseas)

Fueled by enthusiasm, some voluntourists start enterprises with local partners, since they benefit from knowing local needs and cultures and have contacts with community leaders. These are some of those ventures:

  • Gardens for Health International, which helps fight child malnutrition in Rwanda.
  • Last Mile Health, which provides health care to far-off communities in Liberia.
  • Medic Mobile, which offers mobile-based support systems for community health workers around the world.
  • d.light, which delivers solar lanterns and home lighting systems to off-grid customers in many countries.

Some former volunteers started travel services, such as Cross-Cultural Solutions or International Volunteer HQ, to help young people find projects that are right for them.

Most voluntourists don’t start new ventures. Yet, “travel has the power to transform their lives,” O’Donnell says. “With some planning, it can also transform the places they visit.”

Voluntourists working on construction projects (Courtesy of Gabi Schiller/Go Overseas)
Voluntourists work on a village’s infrastructure in Peru. (Courtesy of Gabi Schiller/Go Overseas)