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Elaine Balestra and Landon Berger with unidentified Kenyan child. Global Village Photos. Photo by Rick TaitRick Tait

The question

Is there a way to ethically take a trip that helps others?

The answer

The dream of altruistic travel – helping others on a life-enhancing adventure – has been clouded in recent years. Unscrupulous operators exploiting the good intentions of volunteers have emerged, while the notion of Westerners parachuting in to "solve problems" in poorer nations has been roundly criticized.

But that doesn't mean that volunteer trips are inherently wrong. It just means you have to work harder on due diligence, according to Shannon O'Donnell, an expert on "travel with a service mindset" whose tip-packed The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook was published in 2012.

The first step, O'Donnell says, is deciding what you can offer.

"Look to your interests. Do you have a specialized, professional skill that might be in demand somewhere else? And is there a cause that holds a special meaning for you?" she says. "Then, ask yourself if you have enough time to give in a meaningful way."

Once you've laid the groundwork, you need to dive headfirst into the ethical debate. "Study the arguments against volunteering – there are no easy answers when we're talking about development work," O'Donnell says. "There's little agreement on what are ideal solutions to big problems like hunger, poverty and conservation. But it's vital to understand your own stance on the subject."

If you come to the conclusion that you still want to help, it's time to find the right project. O'Donnell advises scrutinizing potential organizations closely, examining how they operate in their communities and spend their budgets (many break this down on their websites). The best operations use volunteers to supplement existing programs, she adds.

And while the idea of paying fees to volunteer may seem like a red flag, that is not always the case. "Some organizations charge astronomical fees for ethically ambiguous projects," O'Donnell says. "But others charge high fees to cover the nature of your trip. Medical volunteers pay fees that often cover their training, for example."

O'Donnell recommends several organizations operating to her high standards – although she cautions that you still need to check into each individual project. Established operators include Responsible Travel for its family and niche interest trips; Go Overseas for its huge database of projects; and Pro-World Volunteers with its strong community focus and study-abroad programs.

In addition, she suggests checking out professional skills associations. "If you have a highly honed skill like engineering, law or accounting, there may be a very specific organization that can put your skills to use. Just a bit of online research will help you locate them."

And if you're still drawing a blank on a good match, O'Donnell has set up her own small organization called Grassroots Volunteering. It helps potential volunteers – especially those able to arrange their own travel – to zero in on the right experiences for them. "It's filled with independent projects that are either free or low-cost for participants," she says.

Once you've found your dream project, the trip itself will bring another set of challenges. "Strip yourself of expectations and you'll find the most success," O'Donnell advises. "Flexibility is crucial: If your expectations for how you will be of service differ from what is actually needed when you arrive, be prepared to shift your expectations."

Also be prepared to return home with a vastly shifted perspective. "Volunteering is a cultural exchange more than anything," O'Donnell says. Which means that while these experiences look great on résumés, they also foster a new-found sense of respect for others.

It's a response that shouldn't end when you unpack.

"Bring the experience home with you," O'Donnell says. "Consider fundraising for the cause, ask if you can keep helping by offering your services through the Internet, and make sure you share your story with others. A service mindset should be more than just a one-off trip abroad."