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How to Volunteer Abroad Ethically (and Avoid Scams)

By Sarah Vandenberg
Director of Partnerships
Long term volunteer opportunities

1: “The problem with little white girls, boys and voluntourism”

In 2014, an article by Pippa Biddle took the Internet by storm, highlighting common yet largely ignored issues in volunteer travel. In The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism, Pippa discusses two volunteer trips she took in high school, and how at best, her efforts made no impact on the host communities in the Dominican Republic and Tanzania.

“It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.

I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.”

She doesn’t argue that the very concept of volunteering abroad is a negative one. She still works with underserved communities in the Dominican Republic through Camp Hope and Joy, but with a completely different approach: rather than inviting unskilled voluntourists on short-term assignments, her Dominican-led team engages Peace Corps Volunteers and other highly-skilled volunteers from the United States to accomplish projects set out by and for the community.

Comments on Pippa’s article are overwhelmingly supportive from volunteers, to community members who’ve welcomed volunteers, to volunteer organizations working on the ground. The few negative comments take issue with her bringing race into the discussion–it’s not just white people who take on unsustainable volunteer projects. A few of the constructive points of feedback:

Helping Others Help Themselves:

“Helping people is [commendable] but where possible, it’s better to help others help themselves.”

A Learning Experience:

“Nicely worded. Even if a volunteer’s first trip is just a learning experience, it still can change that volunteer’s life and goals for the better. Maybe that volunteer originally just wanted to take a fun trip with their friends and brag about it…but maybe what they got instead was a real look into another culture and the true meaning of life and love. Maybe it changed the way they do things forever. Maybe others will see their change, and want the same. Little by little, others will realize how important it is to not just volunteer, but donate or support in other ways. If no one volunteers anymore, (or if only the highly skilled volunteer), less will have a chance at a true change of heart.”

The Importance of Perspective:

“100% agree with what you’re saying here Pippa…I’m a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, West Africa ’02-’03… Those who [don’t] understand haven’t been there…”

There are lots of ways to be a great help abroad, but you must be smart about selecting the right opportunity. Granted, this has become a lot easier recently as large international volunteer organizations have made progress in making their programs more sustainable. Two big examples of this is the decision by Projects Abroad and International Volunteer HQ to phase out their orphanage volunteer programs.

2: How to select the right volunteer abroad program

Just over a decade ago, volunteer travel as we know it today with organizations like International Volunteer HQ was still a niche option available mostly to backpackers exchanging work for lodging, Peace Corps (or similar) volunteers living abroad for years at a time, or mission travelers. The few volunteer trip organizers that existed, such as Global Volunteers, boasted gold-standard relationships with esteemed entities such as the United Nations. Since then, volunteering abroad has evolved into a booming travel sector–one that’s much more accessible for solo travelers, couples, families, and groups. But along with such fast growth, there’s an increasing need to delineate which programs are doing more harm than good and which are the most sustainable, and to educate would-be volunteers about how to tell the difference.

Narrow Your Options

If you’re new to volunteering abroad, you might be overwhelmed at the huge number of projects available worldwide. Why do some organizations charge you $10 per day while others charge $3,000 per week? Why are some projects one week long while others last six months minimum? How does this rare bird rehabilitation program differ from the other one a mile away?

Knowing what to look for in the first place will help you narrow down the groups doing the best work in their communities–the ones whose volunteers add the greatest value to their projects. And one of the best ways to find this out is by starting with organizations that have won awards for their work, have otherwise have been publicly recognized, or have successfully hosted thousands of volunteers.

Global Volunteers  is a perfect example of this: the US-based organization has been granted special consultative status by the United Nations, was featured in Oprah’s Angel Network, and has hosted over 30,000 volunteers since 1984. To learn more about their commitment to ethical volunteering, check out their recent blog post on the topic.

Another great program to look at is Global Vision International, which has hosted over 25,000 program participants and operates its own projects. Read on to learn about some of the impressive accolades this organization has won in its quest operate responsible volunteer programs.

Here are some additional trusted organizations to consider.

Featured Program: International Volunteer HQ

International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) offers a variety of programs across 40+ destinations in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Since its start in 2007, IVHQ has built a solid reputation as a trusted, low-cost volunteer organization, with program fees starting at just $180. IVHQ partners with local NGOs and initiatives that allow volunteers gain meaningful experiences during their time abroad. To date, IVHQ has placed more than 80,000 volunteers around the world on programs that support education and childcare, conservation and wildlife, community building, medical care, and more. Upon registering, IVHQ volunteers receive a comprehensive information booklet and guidance in preparation for their trip. In-country support is available 24/7.

IVHQ’s Kerala Special Needs Care Project in India needs compassionate and patient volunteers to work with disabled children. If you’re interested in this heart-touching IVHQ program in India, you can help offset the negative social stigma families experience when their child has a physical or mental disability. Tasks vary, but you can expect to help with teaching basic English, assisting with physical movement exercises and basic sensory activities. No experience is required to work with the children, ages 2 through 18. Prior to departure, you’ll receive IVHQ intensive, online training, and once in-country, you’ll be guided by IVHQ local staff 24/7. Learn more and sign up here.

If you enjoy spending your time outdoors or are passionate about saving endangered wildlife, another of IVHQ’s sustainable programs takes you to Bali to a sea turtle conservation center. You’ll stay and work on the island of Nusa Penida, a world-class diving destination and a locale of natural, rugged beauty. Volunteer duties include feeding and cleaning turtles, participating in beach cleanups, assisting with waste management improvement of the surrounding areas, and educating the local community about sea turtles. Program fees start at $600 for a minimum of two weeks. Read more about this amazing project.

Interested in social issues? Consider an IVHQ volunteer program that takes you to Brussels to provide support to disadvantaged youth and young adults, including Syrian refugees seeking temporary asylum in Belgium. As a volunteer on the Educational Support project, with its emphasis on teaching basic English and math, you’ll provide valuable assistance to local teachers at community centers that are struggling with the rising homeless population. Program fees start at $495. Learn more about this invaluable project, and be sure to prepare for this program with IVHQ’s online TEFL certification course, offered in partnership with CCELT for only $399.

Learn about the unique Amazon eco-system at a jungle conservation camp in Peru. As an IVHQ volunteer, your tasks include reforestation, trail and home-base maintenance, basic research, and taking inventories of native animal species. There is activity throughout the year at three different locations, and volunteers are placed where the need is the greatest and field conditions permit it. Previous volunteers rave about their long hikes exploring the jungle, planting vegetables and fruits, bird watching, fishing, and more – and now it’s time for you to make your own memories! Accommodations in bungalows and dormitory-style rooms are comfortable but rustic. Program fees start at $295 for two weeks – read more and sign up here.

Featured Program: Plan My Gap Year

Founded in 2011, Plan My Gap Year offers affordable placements for travelers who would like to volunteer in childcare, teaching, wildlife conservation, community projects, and mental health projects in Africa and Asia. Plan My Gap Year prides itself on transparency and accountability, with all programs personally inspected and vetted by the Plan My Gap Year team to ensure project safety and to be certain that you will be matched with an initiative that complements your skills and interests. And with recognition such as the Shell LiveWire Grand Idea Award, Thailand Green Excellence Award, and Special Recognition from the United Nations in Sri Lanka, Plan My Gap Year is a wonderful organization to check out if you want to make sure you’re helping with sustainable, impactful projects.

Volunteers with Plan My Gap Year’s program in Sri Lanka work at a sea turtle conservation conservation center, protecting eggs and recent hatchlings. You’ll accomplish this by patrolling the beach to collect eggs and bringing them to a safe location. Once they hatch, you’ll release the baby turtles to the sea. Another important volunteer activity is the rehabilitation of turtles, disabled after entanglement in fishing nets, which causes loss of limbs. Injured turtles can’t survive long in the wild, so volunteers assist with cleaning and filling tanks, feeding, caring for nesting areas, cleaning turtle shells, collecting eggs, releasing hatchlings, beach cleanup, and community education. This program is priced at $300 for one week, with stays up to six months available.

Another program from Plan My Gap Year brings you to Ghana. Approximately 100,000 children in Ghana are disabled, and the majority of disabled children don’t attend school. The government attempts to support children with special needs, however, these facilities are understaffed, and families living in poverty often cannot provide their child the support they need. Left at home alone, these children are marginalized and suffer from a lack of educational opportunities. Plan My Gap Year partners with a Kumasi center to provide educational resources and support: as a volunteer, you’ll spend one-on-one time with disabled children, assisting in areas such as basic education and life skills classes. If you have experience, you can lead in physical and speech therapy sessions. The cost of this program is $375 for two weeks.

Another of Plan My Gap Year’s impactful programs brings you to Cambodia to teach English and help students prepare to enter careers in a new economy driven by industry and service. The country has one of the poorest literacy rates in Asia, especially among women. Based in Takeo, volunteers work at a community school that provides educational opportunities and English language development to children. Volunteers generally lead their own classes in English, computer studies, math, art, dance, and sports. Program fees start at $360 for two weeks. Make the most out of your experience by completing Plan My Gap Year’s accredited 60-hour Online TEFL Course for $150.

Volunteer at Rumah Sakit Umum Tabanan, a government-operated hospital that treats hundreds of patients each day in Bali. Your experience and willingness dictates your level of involvement in this medical volunteer program, which starts with a seminar that teaches about traditional Balinese religion and culture, and how medical professionals incorporate these beliefs in their medical treatment. You’ll be monitored by staff, and if permitted, you may get involved in hands-on procedures, such as administering IV injections and dressing wounds. Areas of interest you may explore include General Surgery, Intensive Care, Emergency, Maternity and Midwifery, Neonatal, Pediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Antenatal, Prenatal, Ultrasound, General Medicine, Outpatient and Public Health. Program fees start at $435 for two weeks, and volunteers may stay up to 16 weeks.

Featured Program: Agape Volunteers

Stretch your volunteer fee and stay as long as possible – from one week to a year – with Agape Volunteers. Founded in 2011, Agape Volunteers offers programs in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Ghana. This organization supports environmental conservation, humanitarian efforts, medical volunteering, HIV counseling, and more – and it keeps fees extremely affordable, including accommodation, airport transfers, food, orientation, registration, and even travel insurance and tours.

As a volunteer with amazing wild animals in South Africa, you can further your career in conservation and help to support endangered species, including the iconic Big Five and even big cats. This opportunity invites you to work at Marakele National Park, monitoring the behavior and movements of animals, and keeping an eye on anti-poaching activities. These tasks may include searching for suspicious tracks, reporting low-flying aircraft, heading out in the bush for the sleep-outs, and even flying on a microlight to check the reserve from overhead. Day-to-day activities include invasive plant removal, road restoration, trash removal, fire control, game capture, and bush clearing. Costs start at £1,530 for two weeks.

Another program through Agape Volunteers brings you to understaffed schools on a teaching initiative in Kenya, where you can share your love of learning with eager students. Work with local teachers and offer lessons in English, math, science, and more. Stay for a week or longer, and teach games and sports, and plan arts and crafts activities. The volunteer house includes a roof terrace with barbecue, a game room, and communal space for games and activities. Durations range from one week to one year, with fees starting at £590.

If you have medical training, take a look at the medical program in Ghana with Agape Volunteers, where you will work in a clinic. To apply, you’ll need to have completed at least one year of medical school, or be a qualified nurse or doctor. Volunteers shadow medical professionals on their rounds, checking on overnight patients, treating patients with supervision from doctors, and – if asked – assisting with more serious procedures. Program costs start at £510 for one week.

Featured Program: Abroadly

Choosing a suitable volunteer program abroad is hard enough work. On top of that, you have to be on the lookout for unethical programs and even outright scams. This is where an organization like Abroadly, Volunteer Forever’s new booking platform, can help. All programs on Abroadly have been carefully vetted to ensure they’re working within their communities to make the best and most sustainable impact.

Abroadly’s platform features hundreds of high-quality, reputable programs across a range of industries and areas, from environmental conservation to medical care to education. Simply search the platform for the type of program that interests you, and you’re on your way.

Volunteer abroad ethically by applying to one of Abroadly’s programs today. By applying, you’ll get free access to Volunteer Forever’s crowdfunding platform, as well as the chance to win a $500 scholarship. And your application fee is 100% refundable if you’re not accepted into the program of your choice. Not bad, right?

For example, you can join Maximo Nivel on the adventure of a lifetime to Peru. You can choose to work at a local dog shelter or at the Cusco University Zoo. At the dog shelter, you’ll help with grooming, exercise, medical treatments, and obedience training. At the zoo, you’ll handle animal care, including feeding, cage cleaning, and basic conservation (that includes connecting with native llamas!). You get to stay with a local family or at a dorm or private apartment. The program fee starts at $645 for one week, with stays up to 12 weeks available.

Or, join uVolunteer on a journey to Costa Rica, where you can help budget-strapped schools provide physical education classes and sports lessons to their students. Teach fun games, sports, activities, and more to promote physical health, teamwork, and self-confidence. You can also help arrange competitions for school event days. Intermediate Spanish language skills are required for the program. You’ll stay in a volunteer house, and will have free time to experience the cozy city of San Ramon. Fees begin at $935 for three weeks, with stays up to 12 weeks available.

And the English teaching program offered by TeachPTY takes you to Pedasi, Panama, an area known for its natural beauty and amazing coastline. There, you’ll teach underprivileged primary school students English through games, activities, and songs. Expect to have many fun conversations with the students (mostly third-graders). You’ll also play a big role in increasing cross-cultural awareness between locals and volunteers. You must be either a native English speaker or qualified English teacher. Fees begin at $1,501 for two weeks, with stays up to 12 weeks available.

Featured Program: Raleigh International

Founded in 1984, Raleigh International offers volunteer programs for youth and young adults in Nepal, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Tanzania. Projects focus on clean water and hygiene, natural resources and sustainability, and community building. To date, 400,000 volunteers have traveled with Raleigh International, plus another 800 are expected to sign on this year. With a commitment to youth leadership and engagement, Raleigh International helped design and currently holds the BS8848 Safety Standard for organizing and managing visits, fieldwork, expeditions, and adventurous activities outside of the UK. If you’re in high school or college, taking a gap year, or if you’ve recently graduated from college and are looking for a way to make an impact abroad, Raleigh International offers a great variety of volunteer projects with a real impact.

One expedition through Raleigh International brings you to Tanzania, where you will live alongside a rural community and help with local efforts to improve access to clean water, build sanitation facilities, teach about hygiene awareness, and assist with reforestation efforts. Along with volunteering, you will be able to go on a camping trip in the Southern Highlands, and view wildlife and learn about conservation at Ruaha National Park. Learn more here.

Featured Program: Globalteer

Globalteer is another great example of an organization that places volunteers with in-country partners and projects that are long-term, sustainable, and that improve the communities in which they work. Priority is placed upon keeping costs to a minimum, ensuring that volunteer fees directly benefit each project. A U.K.-based charity, Globalteer provides volunteer support, financial assistance, administration and guidance to overseas projects that focus on children and communities living in poverty, as well as projects supporting animal welfare and conservation. Since 2006, Globalteer has placed more than 4,000 volunteers on community-focused and wildlife conservation projects in Southeast Asia and South America, and in doing so, has invested more than $5 million in its charitable objectives.

Globalteer’s Sea Turtle Conservation Project protects and conserves endangered green and hawksbill turtles, which nest on the beaches of Borneo. These turtles are considered a delicacy by locals, despite their protected status. so they are prone to poaching. You’ll work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., patrolling beaches, conducting surveys, collecting eggs for incubation, and tagging sea turtles. You’ll also snorkel at various reefs to record species.

Another of Globalteer’s volunteer programs invites you to aid in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sloths, monkeys, birds, and other wild animals, part of the illegal and uncontrolled extraction of animals from the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. Volunteers stay at the animal sanctuary and work about five hours per day, six days per week. The sanctuary is 11 kilometers outside of Puerto Maldonado, surrounded by nature but also be close to the city where you can find internet cafes, restaurants and other stores. You’ll assist project staff in food preparation and feeding of rescued animals, helping to exercise the animals, and repair and cleaning of enclosures.

Immerse yourself in Khmer culture and volunteer with Globalteer’s Cambodia Clean Water Project – here, you’ll assist the local staff making Bio Sand Filters to prevent illness, and save lives by giving rural communities access to clean drinking water. This project takes you to the town of Siem Reap in Northern Cambodia, home to the UNESCO world heritage-listed Angkor Wat temple complex. You’ll spend a minimum of three days building the filters, then on the fourth day, you’ll help install the filters and instruct villagers on their use. The fifth day is spent in planning meetings and on general maintenance.

Featured Program: Global Vision International

Since 1997, Global Vision International has been committed to providing high-quality conservation and community development initiatives worldwide for travelers who’d like to make a difference. Every year, more than 2,000 volunteers participate in GVI’s award-winning projects in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and beyond. A few of GVI’s accolades include Responsible Travel’s World Responsible Tourism Award, a spot on National Geographic’s 50 Tours of a Lifetime, and WYSE Travel Confederation’s Outstanding Volunteer Project Award.

One of the many impactful projects you can sign up for with GVI invites you to Luang Prabang, Laos, where you can volunteer to teach English to Buddhist novice monks. Your volunteer work is incredibly important to these students, who will be able to pursue more employment opportunities and better their economic situation over the long-term by learning English. Through this placement, you’ll work alongside local teachers in various classroom settings – and as a native speaker, you’ll be able to help your students improve their conversational and listening skills. This program starts from two weeks, but you’re invited to stay up to six months to make the greatest impact and gain the most from your experience in Laos. Learn more and apply here.

Another of GVI’s volunteer programs brings you to Fiji, where you will be able to work in sustainable community development initiatives. The five core focuses of this expedition include WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), health and nutrition, income generation, education enrichment and empowerment, and environmental management and protection. This is a wonderful way to get a brief glimpse of how sustainable community programs operate.

If you’d like to travel to South Africa, GVI offers an excellent opportunity to work with a local wildlife research team to track animals, study their behavior, and learn more about South African wildlife. You’ll start with a training session to learn about the program and the types of animals you’ll study, and from there you will volunteer each day tracking wildlife, conducting research, assisting with data entry, and even participating in community education about conservation.

And finally, through GVI’s marine conservation initiative in the Seychelles, you can earn your PADI Advanced and PADI Coral Reef Research Diver qualification while volunteering with marine researchers to conduct underwater surveys. You can also expect to participate in training sessions, marine debris surveys, environmental education sessions, and more.

Featured Program: GoEco

GoEco has more than 150 reputable and affordable projects throughout the world, from medical internships in Costa Rica to wildlife rehabilitation in Zimbabwe. GoEco is run by experienced volunteers who’ve taken the time to ensure each program adheres to high standards for quality, safety, and ethics. Founded in 2006, GoEco was recognized as the Top Volunteer Abroad Organization by GoAbroad in 2015 and has been recommended by the Today Show, Boston Globe, and USA Today. So, you can rest assured you’ll be making a positive impact wherever you go.

For example, you could join the Private Island Marine Experience program in Belize, which is the leader in the removal of invasive species in all of Belize. Volunteers on this program have dissected nearly 2,000 lionfish for research purposes, identified and added whale sharks to a global database, located new breeding grounds for conches and so much more!

Or, make your way to Cape Town to work with children from the low-income settlements. The Teach, Surf and Skate program in particular has been extremely successful, with over 300 children learning to swim and almost 100 learning to surf or skate! Some of these children are now sponsored by major surf brands, and all of the children who have learned to swim now have a new life skill and after school hobby.

Featured Program: Via Volunteers

Founded in 2013 in Cape Town, Via Volunteers has a firm focus on ethical volunteering. They only support projects with genuine community and conservation needs. If you want to join a meaningful project in South Africa, they’re a top choice. Via Volunteers has hosted thousands of volunteers from more than 60 countries, and consistently receives great ratings from past volunteers (including 99 5-star reviews on Volunteer Forever).

Via Volunteers offers a choice among a variety of impactful childcare, community, wildlife, and conservation projects. You can certainly find a rewarding, suitable project.

For instance, you could volunteer at the Fikelela Child and Youth Care Centre near Cape Town. As a childcare volunteer, you’ll:

  • feed and care for babies and younger children
  • hold reading sessions
  • assist with daily lessons for children not attending school
  • take part in weekly workshops designed to improve fine and gross motor skills

Consistent great reviews from past volunteers at Fikelela prove the positive impact of this program. As Brianna, a volunteer from Canada, attests, “Fikelela Child and Youth Care Centre is a buzzing hub of enrichment. The children are incredibly welcoming, clever, and caring. The days fly by, and bring about new developments and special moments that make working on the project incredibly fulfilling.”

At the Fikelela Child and Youth Care Centre, you’ll work directly with Heather, the co-founder of Via Volunteers. She’s an experienced teacher and will see that you have an amazing experience and make a big difference in the lives of the children. If you’re interested in volunteering with children in South Africa, sign up for this very successful program (click here). Costs start from $328 per week.

If you’d like to serve as a conservation volunteer in South Africa, then consider the Lion Sanctuary project near Cape Town. You’ll contribute to daily operations at an ethical big cat sanctuary (Drakenstein Lion Park). The internationally-acclaimed sanctuary, which is home to captive-born lions that can’t be reintroduced to the wild, has been featured in the award-winning Blood Lions documentary. At Drakenstein Lion Park, you’ll provide displaced lions with a home where they’re treated with dignity and respect, and absolutely not subject to commercial trading or breeding.

Volunteering with wildlife requires a strong commitment to serving only the animals–not tourists. And Drakenstein does just that. As Laura, a volunteer from the UK, states, “I am so glad I chose Via Volunteers because the work they do at the lion park is entirely ethical, unlike so many places. It has really opened my eyes to wildlife conservation and made me determined to complete another project–and I will ensure that it’s ethical.

So, if you want to volunteer for lions in South Africa, join the admirable and ethical Lion Sanctuary project (sign up here)! Costs, which start from $455 per week, go towards helping the sanctuary run and care for the lions.

Finally, with ethical volunteerism a core part of their mission, Via Volunteers has gone the extra mile by creating the first ethical volunteering app. The Via Volunteers app details all you need to know about researching and applying for ethical volunteer abroad experiences in South Africa. Check it out. The app even has awesome travel advice, including a Cape Town bucket list feature.

As you can see, if you want to volunteer abroad ethically in South Africa, start looking for programs with Via Volunteers!

Ask Questions Before Volunteering Abroad

As you narrow down potential volunteer projects, start thinking through questions you want to ask before signing up. We outlined 10 basic questions you should ask any volunteer organization you’re seriously considering–you can view the whole post here, but as a quick rundown:

  1. What is a typical day like for your volunteers?
  2. Are there past or current volunteers that I can talk to about the project?
  3. What are the biggest frustrations for volunteers on your project?
  4. Will I work in a team or alone, and will I be supervised?
  5. What does my placement or program fee go towards?
  6. What aspects of my volunteer experience will I need to organize myself?
  7. What language skills do I need to volunteer with the project?
  8. What should I wear during work? During leisure hours?
  9. What are the safety concerns of living and working in the area?
  10. What do you, the organization, expect from a great volunteer?

These questions will help you learn more about the organization and your responsibilities–the next step will be to actively manage your own expectations.

Manage Expectations and Avoid Common Pitfalls in Volunteering Abroad

While choosing my first volunteer trip in college, I had no idea how to compare potential projects–after Googling “Volunteer Vacation,” thousands of opportunities popped up, all of which seemed alright to someone new to the topic.

I picked the least expensive option: an $8 per day sea turtle conservation project in Costa Rica. I ran into trouble the very first week–who knew you have to wear all black while looking for nesting turtles? The packing list didn’t mention it, and as a result all I brought were bright t-shirts and khaki shorts. And why did none of the project staff seem to know about my arrival, or that of another volunteer who started the same day? Had I known what to ask and what to look for in a good project, I probably would have chosen a different one–or at least would have been better prepared. This example highlights why you shouldn’t necessarily pick the cheapest volunteer program that you come across. For example, Global Vision International, which we mentioned earlier, tends to be a bit more expensive than other volunteer programs, but this is because they are on-the-ground operators who use well-trained staff to source and manage projects with respected local organizations.

Sallie Grayson highlights mistakes like these in her article on common pitfalls volunteers experience before, during, and after service. While volunteer organizations usually outline questions you should ask, and often provide handbooks and pre-departure checklists, you can’t assume that’s the beginning and end of what you need to know before embarking on your trip.

When I went on to create a volunteer placement agency years later, I ran into this issue firsthand: there was too much information to include on our website and in our handbooks, and it was constantly changing depending on what our partners needed. While we didn’t whitewash anything and were transparent about funding and other common questions, we found that we had to prioritize what would be posted online and what we had to discuss directly with potential volunteers. Speaking with our volunteers, learning more about what they wanted from their experience, and managing our respective expectations made all the difference between a so-so trip and a really great one.

Here’s a quick overview of Sallie’s recommendations, but be sure to read the full article to get further explanation on each point:

  1. Remember to ask questions
  2. Don’t assume the volunteer organization is being totally transparent, even if they provide FAQs and budget overviews
  3. Don’t pack more than you really need
  4. Be realistic about what you can contribute to the project based on your skillset and the time allotted to your work
  5. Don’t try to do too much too soon
  6. Don’t try to take on too much work or responsibility overall
  7. Only make promises that you know you can keep
  8. Alert the project staff as soon as a problem arises
  9. Elevate your support system after the project is complete
  10. If you want to continue giving after you’ve returned home, work with your host organization to find the best way to do it
  11. Report negative experiences so potential volunteers know what to look out for

Sallie’s point on being realistic about your contribution brings us back to Pippa Biddle’s article: many of us think we’ll have a much greater impact on our host community than we actually will.

We enter these programs with good intentions, but most volunteer travelers aren’t well-versed in the nuances of international development and aid, and unfortunately, neither are many volunteer travel organizations. Daniela Papi highlights this disconnect in her 2012 TEDxOxbridge talk:

“I think that a lot of volunteer travel right now is offering really short-term solutions for complex problems. And yet we’re really disappointed when we’re not getting long-term development results…We’re not only failing the youth that we’re sending abroad and the communities they aim to be serving, but we’re also harming our collective futures. Because if the next generation doesn’t have the tools that we need for sustainable development in the future, we’re in trouble.”

If you only have time for a short-term volunteer trip, that’s all right! But make sure you know what you’re getting into before signing up: don’t assume you’ll make much impact on your host community. Chances are they won’t remember you long after you’ve gone. If being recognized and remembered is something you value in a volunteer program, you’ll have to reevaluate your reasons for signing up, and your expectations as a short-term volunteer trying to meet long-term development goals.

Read Reviews

With the incredible popularity and growth of volunteer travel in the past decade, it seems that for every sustainable program that’s set up, so many others that do more harm than good seem to come out of the woodwork. The volunteer abroad segment is increasingly fragmented–there are thousands of international volunteer organizations and thousands more projects to choose from within them. It’s difficult, and seemingly impossible, to differentiate between the good actors and the bad.

I visited a volunteer organization in the Caribbean where participants were housed in a gorgeous villa, given cooking lessons, and taken to a beautiful white sand beach. It was an amazing tour package, but the volunteer program was terrible. Untrained volunteers were placed for one week in classrooms that didn’t expect or know what to do with them, or taken to an orphanage to babysit for a few hours. They received no training beforehand, and between hidden fees, conflicting information, and general disorganization, volunteers left the project even more confused than before they signed up.

The founder didn’t have bad intentions, but she made the same mistake too many volunteer abroad organizations make: she didn’t do adequate research and development before setting up projects and recruiting volunteers. She saw there was a market for volunteer travel, developed local partnerships, and brought on untrained, short-term volunteers to work with a vulnerable population. As a result, while she made a fair amount of money from the outset, she started to see negative reviews, volunteers abandoning their projects, and lower sign-up rates.

Reviews are vitally important to choosing a good volunteer abroad program. Lots of us rely on TripAdvisor to find the right hotel or tour package, and on a day-to-day basis, many of us rely on Yelp to find a good restaurant in our neighborhood. So it should go with volunteering abroad: see what others have to say about their own experiences and use that feedback to inform your decision.

Rachel Lewis sums up the importance of seeking out volunteer reviews in this article. She states:

“Voluntourism opportunities aren’t divided between perfect life-changing experiences and total scams. It might just be that the organization places you with a host family when you’d rather live with fellow volunteers, or that they provide your meals when you’d rather cook for yourself. But a little bit of research allows you to get the exact program you want and leaves you free to engage in the experience as much as possible.”

But what about scam reviews? Negative competitor reviews and positive self-reviews run rampant on the Internet–across all services and sectors–and unfortunately there’s no surefire way to completely control it. Knowing how to separate the real from the fake, and how to make an informed decision about what you read is an important tool in finding an excellent volunteer abroad program.

Here at Volunteer Forever, you’ll find over 2,000 reviews for hundreds of volunteer travel organizations worldwide. Many of our top programs, including Maximo Nivel (which is our top-ranked organization) features 100+ reviews that highlight the varied experiences that their volunteers have had. We’re unique in that we combine crowdfunding and reviews onto a single platform and have much more verifiable information about a reviewer to tap into.

Rather than providing a laundry list of anonymous reviews, Volunteer Forever highlights assessments from those who have completed the full usage cycle on our website by creating and completing a crowdfunding campaign, blogging about their experiences before and during service, and then leaving a review after they return home. Reviews from these volunteers are deemed more trustworthy and therefore given more weight for prospective volunteers searching for an opportunity abroad.

3: Skillsets needed for volunteering abroad and proper conduct overseas

As mentioned earlier, not all projects abroad require high-skilled volunteers, but you do need to be appropriately skilled. Let’s use medical volunteer travel as an example.

When planned carefully and undertaken with the right program, medical volunteering can be a great way for students and professionals to expand their skillsets and gain valuable experience in their field. But many participants–especially students–may be tempted to engage in medical procedures or practices that they’re not licensed to perform in the hopes of gaining valuable clinical experience to reference in graduate school applications. U.S. medical volunteers who serve abroad should note that the American Medical Association has published guidelines for providing patient care overseas. Some things to remember:

  • The primary purpose of medical volunteering is observation, not hands-on medical care.
  • Always keep the patients’ welfare in mind, not the perceived opportunity to prove yourself.
  • It’s vitally important to learn about your host community and the people you’ll serve as a means to building a cultural bridge.
  • Students should never engage in unsupervised medical activity, such as diagnoses, administering narcotics, performing surgical procedures or suturing, or other tasks usually reserved for medical professionals.
  • There will always be disparities between what you and other students have been trained in–while someone else may have successfully been able to undertake a task, don’t assume you can as well.
  • Finally, it’s not necessary to travel abroad to serve people in need.

While selecting a medical volunteer program, look at organizations such as International Service Learning and VIDA Volunteer Travel. Volunteers for both of these organizations work under the supervision of licensed healthcare practitioners, and they work within the countries’ established healthcare infrastructures to augment rather than supplant existing medical systems.

Remember, even if your country’s medical association or other professional governing body hasn’t established guidelines for conduct overseas, you should critically assess whether you have the required skills and expertise for your particular volunteer project.

These rules can apply to many other volunteer projects and skillsets as well: even if you travel abroad to teach English, work on an organic farm, or build a house, look at the guidelines above and see how well they translate to your project focus. If you’ve never taught in a classroom before, what kind of teacher training will be provided as part of your English program? How will you assess your students’ language skills and provide lessons that are structured and beneficial to their needs? Will you work as an assistant to a highly trained teacher, and what will your responsibilities be in the classroom? Regardless of the type of project you take on, make sure you can adequately answer these questions before signing up–and to help manage and inform your expectations.

4: A word about orphanage volunteer programs

A few years ago, I was asked to join a volunteer project at a children’s home in Honduras. Before agreeing to it, I paused: I have a strong personal and professional distaste to volunteering short-term with such a vulnerable population.

I agreed to sign up, however, because the organization didn’t place volunteers with the children. They instead supplement the smaller projects that the home’s full-time, professionally-trained staff don’t have time or funding to focus on. My volunteer group painted ceiling tiles in a boys’ dorm that was recently built but that hadn’t been occupied by the time I arrived to the project. If the tiles weren’t sealed with paint, then over time they would break down, releasing potentially harmful dust into the air. It could become dangerous quickly with a dozen children sleeping in bunk beds just feet away from the ceiling. Painting the tiles was the last step in opening the dorm for use.

The money we paid for this weeklong trip directly benefited the children’s home – it allowed Melody and Jacob, the house parents, to fix a flat tire on their home’s van, to purchase paint and supplies for the volunteers, and to feed and provide medical care for the home’s children.

Orphanage volunteering is one of the most popular sectors in volunteer travel. Every year, well-intentioned tourists sign up for projects at orphanages thinking they’ll make a positive difference in the lives of children who have no families and very little support.

Unfortunately the idea that they’re helping a community that needs them isn’t entirely true. As Al Jazeera reported from Cambodia, many children encountered through the course of these programs aren’t actually orphans. They have families, but are exploited and presented as orphans to well-meaning travelers who want to do some good on their trips abroad. With the influx of tourists with the best of intentions but little background knowledge of international development and aid, shady tour operators have responded to the market in the worst way.

Al Jazeera’s report describes “children being kept in deliberate poverty to encourage ongoing donations from volunteers who have become attached to them and organisations that repeatedly ignore volunteers’ concerns about the children’s welfare.”

This isn’t specific to Cambodia; it’s seen worldwide. And sometimes the organization isn’t inherently shady; the Caribbean organization I mentioned above didn’t deliberately keep children in poverty, but it did cater to unskilled, well-meaning volunteers rather than the children they served. The classroom volunteers distracted students and set teachers back a day in lessons for every day they were on the project, and the orphanage volunteers at best provided house mothers with a two-hour break in the afternoons.

While a volunteer might think, “I’m leaving a bright spot in this child’s otherwise miserable life,” the children in turn see a constant stream of visitors singing the ABCs, giving hugs, and leaving behind crayons and coloring books. It’s not helpful. It’s not the education they need, and by sending a revolving door of volunteer travelers to work in orphanages, these children are not receiving long-term care from qualified individuals, and they’re not being provided the resources necessary to gain self-sufficiency later.

If you really want to volunteer in an orphanage, use the steps above to find a program that’s truly beneficial to its own population. If you want to teach or care for children, find a long-term program such as VE Global (4 month commitment required) that will provide adequate training and guidance for you before and during the project. If you don’t have several months or longer to give, think about what professional services you can provide–perhaps as a doctor, dentist, engineer or other skilled professional–or take on unskilled projects such as the one I did with the boys’ dorm in Honduras.

Speak to the executive team, the staff you’ll work with, and returned volunteers. Read reviews and find people to contact directly. Ask for detailed project descriptions–“caring for children” is a broad phrase, so be sure to ask what specific activities you will engage in, and then evaluate whether you’re qualified to take it on. And find out where your money goes. The Al Jazeera report cited above highlights an issue that’s far too common in the volunteer travel world: for $3,000 volunteer fees, only $9 per volunteer per week was actually used for the project. Keep in mind that price is not necessarily associated with quality. There are several cheap and low-cost volunteer programs that will provide a high-quality volunteer abroad experience.

Summing it all up

If you decide to volunteer abroad, know that it will be an amazing opportunity – one that can change your life. But if you want to really do a great job of it, be sure to find a program that’s beneficial both to you and to your host community. Think through your reasons for volunteering, and what you will be able to realistically contribute to a community that might be very different from your own. Find reviews and testimonials from volunteers, compare the groups that interest you, and remember to ask questions. Volunteering abroad isn’t always a case where every little bit helps but when done well, your experience can make a difference.

P.S. If you’re still looking for a volunteer opportunity, check out our list of best volunteer abroad programs and recommended volunteer projects in Africa, Central America, and Thailand. You can also read about 7 Great Medical and Veterinary Volunteer Abroad Projects, 10 Dental Volunteer Abroad Program and Medical Mission Tips for Pre Dental Students, and nursing volunteer abroad projects for students and nurse professionals. Or, if medical volunteer projects aren’t for you, be sure to read about our sports and coaching volunteer abroad, wildlife conservation and veterinary abroad, teach abroad, and intern abroad programs. Lastly, if you’re under 18, you may be interested in a teen volunteer abroad program from one of our many great partners.