Volunteer Vacations: Giving Back While Getting Away
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A volunteer feeding a lion cub

Combining travel and philanthropy can make your time off more fulfilling. But it also requires extra planning. Here's how to prepare.

Retired Americans are proving to be extremely generous, and their generosity extends far beyond money. They're giving their time and experience in a very hands-on way to the causes they care most about. In fact, they had the highest volunteer rate of any age group — and any generation before them, according to Keeping Baby Boomers Volunteering, a 2007 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Their desire to make a difference has also had a big impact on how they vacation. A safari, for instance, may include a week's stay at a sanctuary to bottle-feed orphaned lion cubs. A trip to legendary Machu Picchu could extend to several months' work helping to build schools in the Andes Mountains. Retirees who take on such projects are finding a warm reception for their efforts, particularly in such countries as Japan and India, which traditionally treat experience and age with reverence. "Volunteers over 50 often have an easier time integrating into the communities they're assisting," says Doug Cutchins, one of the authors of Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others (2012).
For some, a volunteer vacation may consist of nothing more than a week or two in an exotic locale, donating time to a favorite cause. For others, it can take the form of a longer sabbatical and a gateway into life's second act. Either way, having a plan can make the experience more enjoyable. Here are some things to consider.

Decide what you want to get out of your experience

Many volunteer vacations sound alluring on paper, but midway through a backbreaking archeological dig you may have second thoughts. "Be very thoughtful about your goals and what success means to you," Cutchins says. Do you want to donate your skills, or are you looking for a completely unique experience? Older vacation volunteers are in especially high demand because of their experience, "which is incredibly valuable to nonprofit organizations," Cutchins points out. Some economic-development organizations will even pay your travel and living expenses if you have the skills they need. But if your goal is to stretch your horizons and try a new line of work, then select a vacation that doesn't depend on sharing what you already know.
As you research volunteer vacation opportunities, consider how many hours a day you want to work, the length of time you want to volunteer, the amount of physical labor you're willing to perform, and the age range of the people you'll be volunteering with, so you can find the best fit for yourself. Talking with others who have gone through the experience can help you get a better sense of each opportunity. Organizations should be eager to give you the names of past participants for reference, says Cutchins.
Matching your interests to a cause
If the idea of a volunteer vacation appeals to you, here are some resources to help you get started.
Earthwatch Institute,
As an Earthwatch volunteer, you'll work alongside world-renowned scientists conducting important field research.
Xperitas (formerly Global Citizens Network),
Find opportunities to serve rural communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the U.S. and Canada.
GreenFORCE has provided volunteer opportunities on vital scientific expeditions in both marine and terrestrial conservation since 1997.
Use this resource to find service projects by cause and by the amount of time you wish to commit.

Manage your expenses

If you're traveling abroad and you plan to stay in one place for several weeks, you may want to set up a local bank account. That way you can have the funds you'll need to cover your living expenses. "Since currencies fluctuate in value, it's a good idea to arrange for periodic transfers of money rather than a lump sum," says Bill Hunter, director of Personal Retirement Solutions for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Also, if you're going to be away for a month or more, you'll need to make financial arrangements to cover expenses at home and abroad. "You'll have to continue to maintain your home and to pay property taxes and homeowner's insurance as well as your utility bills while you're gone." Renting out your home could help to defray some of those costs, Hunter points out, but you may incur others, such as buying an umbrella insurance policy to provide liability coverage for your tenants. He suggests asking your tax advisor whether some or all of your volunteer vacation costs could be tax deductible, as another possible means of defraying costs.
Depending on where you're traveling and what activities you'll be engaged in, you may also want to set aside extra money to cover emergency medical evacuation insurance. Buying travel insurance with an evacuation provision is usually a good idea, adds Cutchins.

Don't lose sight of your bigger retirement picture

If your volunteer vacation takes the form of a sabbatical, keep in mind that you won't be able to contribute to your 401(k) while you're away. You will, however, be able to take advantage of catch-up provisions when you return to make up some of the shortfall, as long as you're 50 or older. If you've had any earned income during a volunteer year, you can also contribute to an IRA, says Hunter.
For those already retired, the timing of when you take extended travel can be critical. "The market conditions under which you make withdrawals from your retirement accounts in early retirement can make a huge difference," Hunter says. "If the market is having a bad year, you'll want to try to withdraw less" or at least slow your withdrawals in subsequent years so that your assets have a chance to recover. And make sure the cost of a volunteer vacation is in line with your long-term spending strategy, he says. "It's natural to spend more in your early retirement years, but you also have to look down the road and anticipate higher spending later in life due to increasing health care costs.

Next Steps

Before planning a volunteer vacation, you may want to consider the following questions:
  • How can I manage my currency needs while I'm abroad?
  • What impact could a sabbatical have on my retirement strategy?
  • Can my long-term spending strategy accommodate the cost of a volunteer vacation?
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