Will Voluntourism Find It's Way Home?

The city was leveled. Houses were piles of splintered wood, foundations lay bald, scoured and covered in sand, and the carcasses of flooded cars stretched as far as the eye could see. The imagery was nearly identical to that in Long Beach, Staten Island or the Jersey shore post Hurricane Sandy. But this was a scene I witnessed in Aceh Province, Indonesia almost eight years ago.

I traveled to Southeast Asia for the adventure, and I ended up staying to help. I worked with a number of different disaster relief organizations between Burma, Thailand and Indonesia over the next year. I cleared rubble, built new homes, taught English to high school students, and ultimately ended up starting my own microfinance institution. I found both adventure and a profound sense of purpose that had been lacking in my life up to that point.

Fast forward nearly a decade, and I am now married running my own startup, Plated.com, here in New York. Our home and office lost power until yesterday, and our warehouse in Brooklyn experienced some flooding. But none of our employees or customers were seriously injured, and we count ourselves to be incredibly lucky.

After working and living in Asian disaster zones for the better part of a year, it is odd now to find how the tables have turned. In Thailand in particular, I was amazed at how many people, like me, had traveled half way around the world to volunteer. There was plenty of work to be done, and there was just as much fun to be had. It was oftentimes unclear which was the bigger draw.

Now that Sandy has ravaged so much of New York, I wonder when and if the voluntourists will begin arriving here?



Nick is the cofounder of Plated.com. Prior to cofounding Plated.com, Nick founded a microfinance institution in Java, Indonesia and was an infantry officer in the US Marine Corps. He received his BA from Dartmouth College, an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School, and his MBA from Harvard Business School.