You’ve heard the stories about international volunteering – the life changing experiences, the moments you’ll never forget, the friendships you make. So you do a quick search and find a charity of your own. You’ve heard great things; you’re full of optimism and ready to go. You probably don’t think for a second about the ways it could go wrong. But sometimes it does.
The first time I volunteered abroad, I went with the first company I found on Google. I was naïve – and incredibly lucky. I had the time of my life, but when I got back and started researching further, I heard horror stories of scams, stolen money, non-existent charities and volunteers abandoned at the airport.
Chances are, none of the above will happen to you, but volunteering abroad (or ‘voluntourism’) is a big industry now and there’s money to be made. Unfortunately, not everyone is in it for charity. This could be the best experience of your life, and there are a lot of factors to consider and choices to be made, so you owe it to yourself to do a bit of research before jumping in.
On a recent volunteer trip to Nepal, I was left feeling frustrated, underprepared and even a little betrayed. I ignored my gut instincts about the program and ended up disappointed after finding that the charity was unorganized, dishonest and frankly didn’t care about the welfare or safety of its volunteers. I felt let down and disillusioned, with this charity and with volunteering in general. I lost confidence. If Nepal had been my first volunteer experience, it would have been my last.
For you, it might not be that serious. 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.
There is no better person to tell you the truth about a particular program than a previous volunteer. Before I went to Nepal I didn’t know about Volunteer Forever, but if I had known, I would have used it to look for previous volunteers’ reviews of the same program, read their blogs, or ask around on the forums if anyone had heard anything about this particular organization. Things might have been very different. I could have gone to Nepal with my eyes wide open, knowing full well what to expect – or I could have gone to Nepal with a different organization entirely, one I knew was reputable and focused on causes that were important to me because I’d had a chance to read the comments of those who know best: previous volunteers. Now that I have returned, I have a platform in Volunteer Forever to write rave reviews about my first volunteer experience – and to warn others about my most recent one.
So do yourself a favor. Do a Google search. Talk to past volunteers. Make use of Volunteer Forever and check out the Program Reviews page. This adventure is going to change your life – make sure it’s in a good way!