How to Be a Mindful Volunteer with Shannon O’Donnell

Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it.

– David Star Jordan

With all the talk about giving our time and money to positive-minded charities and NGOs, it bodes well to delve deeper into how to successfully choose places with which to share our energy. My friend — and National Geographic Traveler of the Year! – Shannon O’Donnell has plenty of real-world experience when it comes to mindfully choosing volunteer positions. One of the nicest people I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and certainly one of the hardest-working, Shannon recently wrote a book on this very subject: The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook outlines what to look for when searching for volunteer opportunities, equipping us with tools to make choices that will benefit both ourselves, and those to whom we’re in service.

While the book is aimed at travelers, her tips and suggestions are equally useful to those of us who are volunteering in our hometowns, or simply curious about dipping our toes into the world of volunteering. Between her busy schedule planning her next volunteer gig, doing interviews with NPR, and filming segments on television, Shannon shared with us some bits of wisdom for us to consider when mindfully choosing to give our time, skills, or money to a worthwhile cause.

When I was planning my first trip to India, Shannon sat down with me to go over what I needed to bring, and listened to my various concerns — India can be daunting as a solo female! Her years of experience in mindfully connecting with people helped me to feel confident in making the journey.

Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.

K: Based on your personal experiences with travel and volunteering, you wrote a book called The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. If you were to try to encourage someone who’d never before volunteered to give it a try, what would you say?

SO: Find a project that matches your skill-sets and interest areas, a community or organization that needs some of the unique skills you have to offer, and take a sabbatical so you can spend a good amount of time with your organization. Volunteering has the most impact on the volunteers and the communities they visit when volunteers are able to spend weeks and months leaving behind their specialized skill-sets.

K: In what ways does volunteering while traveling differ from volunteering at home?

SO: Voluntourism involves a heavy component of cultural exchange. This is true even volunteering in your hometown to an extent, but experiencing new languages, customs, and cultures adds a different layer to the volunteer experience. This cultural exchange is a very important component to the process, and some argue it’s the most transformative part of volunteering overseas, even beyond the projects volunteers are working on — this is particularly the case with short-term projects. There is a hope that short-term volunteers take away a great understanding of the culture and cause when they return home.

Whether we’re volunteering at home or abroad, there is often some form of cultural exchange happening when we give our services to others. Being sensitive to differences (socio-economic, and otherwise) can help us to mindfully connect with our organization.

Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.

K: What are some of the usual problematic issues that arise when people are choosing a charity to donate to, or an organization to volunteer with? Another way to word this might be: what are some of the warning signs that we should look for when choosing a charity to donate to, or an organization to volunteer with?

SO: Charity vetting is a whole other ballgame from volunteering because you may never even see a representative from that organization and the entire process can be very anonymous. I recommend Charity Navigator as a starting point for vetting an organization you are thinking of donating to.

For volunteering, there are few companies currently vetting volunteer projects because there are so many. Review sites exist, and before embarking on a project they are a good starting point to see what past volunteers have to say. But, that is only the beginning. I recommend any serious volunteer consider the work they want to do as part of the development and aid industries to an extent. Learn the core issues in development (here’s a starter-guide), then ask a lot of questions about the funding model, how long the organization has worked within the community, and think about the long-term impact of your volunteer project — does it build a future dependent on more volunteering/aid, or is it working to lift local communities. Here are some questions to find out about any organization you are thinking of using on your next trip.

Conducting thorough research about charities in which we are interested can help avoid some uncomfortable issues in the future. No matter where we’re located, this is a fundamental step in the process of mindful volunteering.

Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.

K: With the help of some of your own fantastic volunteers, you’ve already created a website (Grassroots Volunteering) that helps connect travelers with positive volunteering opportunities, and local ethical businesses. As this site grows, it will become much easier for people to make mindful choices and support sustainable businesses while away from home. Where does your enthusiasm and passion for ethical business come from? What inspired you to develop this?

SO: Grassroots Volunteering grew from a desire to decommodify the volunteering industry. As I read more about what was needed within the volunteering space, I discovered the business model for social enterprises. I had long supported these types of businesses back home and on the road, but in reading about positive ways to help support developing communities, I honed in on marrying social enterprises with tourism as a sustainable way to help fund these small businesses and projects.

It’s this twin goal that led me to divide GV into two core databases: one holds independent volunteering opportunities for those with a chunk of time to give, and the second holds a list of geo-located social enterprises any traveler can support on their next trip.

Shannon traveled for a while with her niece (both pictured here), providing her younger relative with an education in cultural exchange, mindful connection, and sustainable practices — in addition to keeping up with the regular school subjects through homeschooling!

Photo courtesy of Shannon O’Donnell.

Thank you so much to Shannon for her time! To me, Shannon shows us what is possible when we see a gateway through which to connect our personal skill-set and a need that the rest of the world has. This goes for both volunteering and career choices: matching our natural talents and passions with a real-world need is a recipe for living up to our potential while helping others. Sharing our innate strengths with others will intuitively lead us on a journey of mindful connection — and serving our universe, as only we can.


I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.

– Albert Schweitzer