When Oscar Wilde said “the smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention," he summed up the essence of volunteering. For many, that act of kindness begins at home, with time being donated to local charities. But recently, a growing number of people are combining their passion for travel with their desire to help others. These volunteer vacationers have touched countless lives, all while doing what they love to do. If you've been considering a volunteer vacation, here are several well-respected organizations that offer placement services for prospective travelers, along with some tips to help you choose the right one.

Habitat for Humanity International

Founded in 1976, this non-government organization is the largest non-profit home builder in the world. Habitat for Humanity International offers an excellent introduction to volunteerism by providing many different ways to help, including volunteering locally or joining trips to more than 40 different nations. Volunteers can work individually or as part of a larger group, and long-term opportunities are available for those who find the experience rewarding. If this sounds like something you might be interested in, visit one of their neighborhood beautification events and sign up to work for a day.

Global Vision International

For more than 15 years, this award-winning volunteer program has created safe and trustworthy opportunities for thousands of people to give back to the world in meaningful ways. In partnership with local communities and government organizations, Global Vision International provides aid in regions like Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. With more than 150 projects in 25 countries to choose from, volunteers work directly alongside the people they're helping. From construction to healthcare, women's empowerment to marine conservation, Global Vision International offers something for everyone. Even younger volunteers, between the ages of 15 and 17, can spend a summer abroad in one of Global Vision International's specially designed youth volunteering programs.

Earthwatch

Volunteers who are interested in nature and wildlife conservation will find themselves right at home with Earthwatch, a research and educational program that relies on volunteer scientists. Established in 1971, Earthwatch places volunteers on expeditions around the world, researching climate change, ocean health and cultural archeology. Depending on the nature of the work, expeditions can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. If you've ever wanted to investigate an active volcano in Nicaragua, help scientists study the effects of global warming on grizzly bears in Montana, or preserve the endangered coral reefs of the Cayman Islands, Earthwatch is waiting for you. The program offers opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (or WWOOF, as it's commonly known) is a loose network of national organizations that help volunteers who are interested in sustainable farming and organic agriculture. More than 100 countries around the world have WWOOF programs, making it one of the most popular volunteer vacation programs of its kind. Volunteers live on host farms and work directly with growers on daily chores, such as feeding, watering and milking livestock; planting, weeding and harvesting crops; and farm-related maintenance. Emphasizing international travel and global cooperation, WWOOF is as much a cultural exchange program as it is a volunteer initiative.

Discover Corps

Offering “travel with a purpose," Discover Corps is dedicated to helping volunteers immerse themselves in amazing cultures, while simultaneously giving back to those less fortunate. Working in partnership with the National Peace Corps Association, Discover Corps hosts volunteer vacations in countries like Costa Rica, Belize, Thailand and Cuba. All meals, lodging, transportation and fees are provided in-country by Discover Corps, leaving volunteers free to explore the road less traveled.

Volunteering tips:

Regardless of which program you choose, be sure to seek out direct testimonials from volunteers who've experienced it firsthand. You can find their reviews on the social media pages of each placement's organization, or by visiting the website Go Overseas, which collects honest feedback from hundreds of travelers who've previously volunteered.

Finally, here are a few common questions to ask that will help you select the volunteer vacation that's right for you:

  • What kind of projects will I be working on?
  • Will tools and work clothes be provided?
  • Is there laundry service at the location?
  • Is there electricity at the lodging?
  • Are there days off from work?
  • How hot or cold does it get?
  • What is the difficulty level?
  • What's the food like?