How to Explore the World as a Service-minded Traveler: with National Geographic Traveler of the Year, Shannon O’Donnell

Shannon O’Donnell is an ordinary woman who is achieving extraordinary things. Spanning the globe while touching lives in an organic and selfless way, she is a prime example of how an average person with a giving spirit and a little resourcefulness can foster great change in the world.

Like all global travelers, she will certainly attest to the fact that her travels have helped shape her into the woman she is still becoming today. But, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Shannon’s inner strength has not been the cause for all she has accomplished since she first embarked on her journey.

She has been selected as a 2013 National Geographic Traveler of the Year; written a book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook; launched Grassroots Volunteering; and has become a sought after speaker and evangelist for service-centered, international travel. She has been featured by BBC, CNN, ABC, NPR and Frommer’s to name a few.

Let’s catch up with Shannon who has loads of advice especially for The Global Commute Community:

You talk a lot about being a service-minded traveler on your blog a little adrift. Tell us more about what this truly means for you as a global traveler and volunteer, and how you put this into practice even when it’s uncomfortable?

There is a big focus in the international community on volunteer work as the key way for people to help make a difference overseas. For me, however, using the term “service-minded” drills down into the root desire for many volunteers: simply to be of service to the people and places they visit.

That slight wording difference causes a mental shift that is desperately needed in the volunteer world, because it opens the door for a conversation about the times when being of service specifically can mean not volunteering. Sometimes, being of service means using your tourism dollars to support the local economy. Or, it may mean listening to someone’s story and empowering them to find the solution on their own.

I started on my travels in 2008 with a goal to volunteer along the way. Once I went on the road, I realized that my volunteer work back home didn’t necessarily qualify me for all the volunteer jobs that became available to me overseas — just because a place was willing to take my money, didn’t mean that I should be there. And, just because they had set up shop with a business didn’t mean they were operating an organization that was in line with the local community’s goals. I switched my goal to “being of service” because it reminds me to resist the assumption that I should and ought to be volunteering everywhere I travel. Instead, it reminds me to look for opportunities to be helpful, to benefit each place, no matter what the activity looks like in actuality. It’s a shift and re-framing that I strongly encourage others to consider when looking at volunteering.


What is your advice for the first timer who wants to make a difference through service-minded travel, but is having a hard time finding the courage to leave their comfort zone to reach out internationally?

It really depends on timing and where you dream of traveling and serving. Some placements are pretty intense and could lead to extreme culture shock for a new traveler; whereas, a seasoned traveler could perhaps have a better idea of what it might be like to serve for six months in rural Africa. So, my key advice is to really look at your individual situation and start from there. If you’re new to travel, perhaps that is a good first step. You can explore the region where you hope to be of service, find projects, learn a lot, and ask questions.

Research is also my number one recommendation, read-up on the type of volunteering you’re looking to do, find out where that skill set might be best needed and understand the situation of the community. Only then, once you’ve found a place and project that really resonates and fits your situation, can you know that it’s right.

…And book the ticket. Find out when they could use you, and without another thought just book it! Everything else travel-plans wise will fall into place. You likely need far less time than you imagine to actually plan for a trip. So when you’ve done your research and you’re ready to pick a time, just make the leap.


In your article A Little Immersion… Humanizing the Travel Experience, you share how as a budget traveler, it’s often hard to find and visit grassroots development projects that are actually making a difference. What is your advice for how volunteers can best select projects that are doing things the right way for their communities? Is there a mental “checklist” that you have for what their ideals should be, or not be, before getting involved?

I try really hard to steer clear of outlining the specific ethical guidelines everyone should follow, and instead talk about research as the basis of all volunteer trips. Before you can understand the types of questions you need to ask, you need to understand the volunteering and development landscape, and you also need to specifically understand the issues surrounding your chosen volunteer area. Questions to ask for a volunteer working on a conservation project are different from those for a teaching project, and also different from a medical placement. The landscape is varied, so understanding the baseline issues will help you find your own ethical and moral lines within the debates on how to best work within developing communities.

This page is a primer guide to indie volunteering; it shares book recommendations, questions, and the process you can go through to find good-fit placements.


The Global Commute is all about sustainable, immersive travel. What has been the most profound cultural connection you have had in a community while traveling thus far? (If you can pick just one!) What made this particular interaction special, and how did it change your understanding or even your outlook on life?

It is definitely hard to pick just one! These past years I have loved using community-based tourism initiatives as a window into the local culture, customs and politics. One that I loved was a social enterprise in rural Panama called Urari, which farms cacao on the indigenous lands, and uses tourism as a way to boost income for local farmers to build local schools and infrastructures. The community was just launching tourism-facing operations when I was there, so a lot of it was pretty rough. But, the people and the heart behind the initiative left a lasting impression.

I traveled to Silico Creek, the village where Urari is based, with my dad and my niece, and we spent three nights learning about the indigenous customs, as well as the issues they are facing now that the Panamanian government gave them autonomy. While autonomy was wanted, it also left the local populations with a need to quickly replace that support by building their own schooling systems and infrastructures. Silico Creek uses Urari as a way to teach tourists and school groups about sustainable cocoa farming, while also raising needed funds to support the community’s growth. I loved visiting them, and I often think about when I will have the chance to revisit that community and to see once more how their social enterprise has been able to grow and change.


Your new online initiative Grassroots Volunteering has obviously grown from your experiences with serving alongside locals, and the lessons you have learned about a traveler’s impact on the communities they visit. You recently shared an astonishing statistic on your site from the United Nations Environmental Programme that “Of each $100 spent on a vacation by a tourist from a developed country, only around $5 actually stays in a developing-country destination’s economy.”

Tell us how Grassroots Volunteering provides travelers with the tools to keep dollars inside the communities they visit.

That statistic shocked me as well! And though the $5 figure is at the extreme end of the scale — some countries are in $20 range — the bulk of tourism dollars are just not staying in these places that are hosting travelers. The largest opportunity for the redistribution of wealth from developed economies to developing economies is through tourism. These trips are already happening. The goal with GV has always been to empower travelers with choices.

I know in the U.S., we all sort of acknowledge that recycling is important, but few people will make the effort to separate out their trash unless they have curbside recycling pickup. GV is that curbside pickup for more responsible, local-level travel. The site maps the world of social enterprises and local businesses so that travelers of any style (from budget to luxury) can find more meaningful, connected travel experiences that also create a stronger financial impact on the local economy.


What are some exciting things coming down the pipeline for you this year? I know you are currently lining up several speaking engagements! Can you give us a sneak peek of what your focus will be as you share your perspective with these groups?

I am psyched for this coming year, it’s already spring and the GV team has grown a lot — one of my big goals for 2015 is to continue growing the site and really making the database large enough so that travelers can find at least one local opportunity in every major city in the world by 2016.

For speaking, I can’t pin down any dates yet. I do, however, have a new speech topic I love, and it really takes a closer look at the role connections and radical acceptance play not only in our lives, but in our experiences of the places we visit when we travel. My plan is to work with a handful of U.S. universities this fall to talk with college students about how they can plan and take more meaningful trips.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShannon O’Donnell is a speaker and evangelist who encourages students and youth to travel young, while engaging in international service. She has spoken about the value of international travel everywhere from college campuses to industry conferences, and her writing and expertise are featured in a range of international publications. Her book The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, is available in paperback and electronically. Her newest online initiative can be found at

Shannon also writes regularly on her blog a little adriftwhere she shares her experiences, insights and advice for traveling in a service-minded way.

Feature Photo: Walking on Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa – photo by Gary Arndt. All photos credit to Shannon O’Donnell unless otherwise stated. 



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