World travel isn't just about what you get from the experience of other cultures; it's also about what you give as a global citizen.
Through her own travel and volunteer work, Shannon O'Donnell, founder of Grassroots Volunteering, has laid the groundwork for a growing network of "voluntourism," connecting travellers with the local communities through service relationships.
Shannon's impressive journey began as an escape from L.A.; she was an aspiring actress and marketing consultant when she decided to take a trip around the world for a year. That year-long adventure turned into a life commitment to service-based travel.
Shannon's impassioned work as a writer, public speaker, photographer, volunteer, and organizer earned her the honor of National Geographic's 2013 Traveler of the Year. And with all of these accomplishments, she is still A Little Adrift, the engaging voice behind her popular travel blog.
Make your next destination what you do. Learn more about Shannon's mission in my interview with this generous globetrotter!
1. Hey Shannon, when you tell your story, you describe a sudden departure from your life in L.A.. Was there some experience, event, or epiphany that prompted this decision -- a sort of breaking point?
You could call it a moment of clarity perhaps, but muddy clarity. When I decided to spend a year on the road, I had no idea who I would be, or what I would gain throughout that year. I had heard long-term travelers talk about travel as life-changing and perspective shifting, but there were also intangible qualities floating between each story and experience.
I left Los Angeles because I wanted to know what was waiting on the other side of a yearlong trip around the world. I wanted to know what my world, my goals, and my dreams would look like after immersing in new viewpoints, cultures, and perspectives.
2. What were your expectations for this first one-year trip? When did you realize that the adventure was turning into a longer commitment?
I expected an adventure, and I expected to learn a lot about myself. Beyond that though, I was open to seeing what crossed my path. By the end of my year, I was so ready to come home. I missed my family, I was tired of constantly moving, and I wanted to just rest. That lasted about a month before I came back around to the idea of continuing my travels in 4-6 month chunks. Nearly six years later, and I am still on the road!
3. How have the means of funding your travels evolved over the course of your journey?
Just after college I decided to freelance in online marketing and SEO for small businesses, building those skills and specializations was instrumental in allowing me to travel. Over the years, I shifted into consulting and I am able to travel slowly and work with clients from most anywhere in the world with an internet connection (and that’s most places now!).
4. How has blogging and building an online community contributed to your personal and professional development?
Creating a community on A Little Adrift is more rewarding than I thought possible. There were few female voices in the travel blogging space in 2008 and I wanted to create that voice in the space and also develop a community where other travelers could find help, advice, and encouragement for their travel dreams. As the site grew, it’s these very same readers who shared the message more widely, supported new projects, and have allowed me to become a much stronger thought-leader in the travel and volunteering industries.
5. Has volunteer work always been part of your vision for world travel? In what ways does the service niche give you a unique perspective as a travel writer and resource?
Service is a part of vision for life, and thus as I began traveling I knew I had to incorporate service into world travel as well. Instead of classifying it all as volunteering, I like to say that I approach the world with a service-minded attitude, looking for the best ways to be of value to the communities I visit. Sometimes that means volunteering, and other times it means simply using tourism to support local businesses and organizations.
The lens through which I travel has allowed me to more deeply connect in each new place. With the open attitude of learning and understanding, people are often willing to share their stories, their struggles and their joys with me, ultimately taking me well below the surface level of travel and providing an avenue for connection and caring. Though this is possible through many interests, I use this lens as a way to contextualize and better share the experiences with readers and those interested in creating deeper connections on their next trip.
6. Your other special lens is photography. How has this passion shaped your journey?
My passion for photography grew throughout my first year on the road and was a direct result of taking a whole lot of mediocre photos of some of the prettiest spots in the world. I decided I wanted to learn how to see the world through a different lens, how to frame scenes, light, and work with each new environment to use photography to help me tell the story of each new place I visited. Photography has become a core part of how I share and tell stories on A Little Adrift, an integral part of providing a window into each new place.
7. What have you learned from the impact of your work, and how do you turn these responses into more value?
I am continually humbled by the small role I can play in helping people think critically about their choices when they travel abroad. It’s the quick emails from students, inspired to save for their first trip overseas, or a traveler living in Peru who found a great organization in Grassroots Volunteering—I use their success stories and their thoughtful feedback to continually shape the growth of each project, and the ways I can best communicate and help other travelers connect deeply on the road.
8. How have you adapted your lifestyle to support so many different projects -- writing, speaking, organizing Grassroots Volunteering, and still exploring?
I am so fortunate to have the ability to work each day toward my own goals, to create and share travel with others and that through my websites others have connected and resonated with the messages I share. I travel slowly and stay in each region for months at a time so I can not only sink deeper into each new culture, but also balance the other work aspects of life.
9. Which of your own volunteer experiences directly inspired the mission of Grassroots Volunteering?
My time volunteering at a monastery in Nepal created the seed of the idea for GV. I used a placement company and by the end, I was not convinced they had the best interests of the organizations at heart. But they were the gatekeepers of the information. Because voluntours and placement companies commodified the industry, GV seeks to provide low-cost, independent alternatives to the mainstream volunteering industry.
10. Has the growth of Grassroots Volunteering as a global community changed your perspective on your own travel experiences? Where is this work taking you next?
The site’s rapid growth and the rise of an independent community on GV has shifted a lot of my travel focus to expanding the site’s database and the number of social enterprises and organizations that are hand-vetted and added tot he site. I am hoping to spend some time in South America next; I have no firm dates but I’d love to hike to Machu Picchu and then map that region of the world in the GV database.