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Volunteer Abroad: How to Choose a Volunteer Programme

By  Jim Carson June 16, 2009

When I think back on it, my first experience volunteering overseas kind of sucked. It's a long story, but the short version is that I showed up in Nepal thinking that I was going to save the world and found out that really I was on an adventure tour posing as a volunteer programme.

Let's just say, I was a little disappointed and eventually left the group with two other 'volunteers' to find out if there were ways that we could help in the local communities. Since that day eight years ago, the three of us have being trying to help volunteers lend a hand overseas.

Having learned a few things along the way, I now realize that most of my disappointment could have been avoided by being careful to choose a programme that matched my own goals and expectations. The following guidelines are some of the things that I wished someone had told me before I had started wading through the hundreds of options out there.

Step 1 - Define your Goals and Expectations for Volunteering Abroad

The first thing that you need to do is figure out exactly what your goals and expectations are. Here are some questions you should ask yourself:

How long can I go? Do I want to go on my own or with an organization? Do I want to be in a group or work independently? What are my goals? What do I hope to get out of this experience? How immersed in the culture do I want to be? What type of work do I want to do? How important is volunteering as a part of my trip? Do I need to fundraise to pay for it?

Step 2 - Finding a Placement to Volunteer Abroad

Once you are clear on what type of experience you are looking for, you need to choose how you are going to plan your trip. Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can go about doing this. You can either do it all yourself, or you can get an organization with experience to help you.

Organizing a Volunteer Abroad Placement On Your Own

The least expensive way to volunteer abroad is often to just show up in the country and try to find an organization to work with. While it may be the cheapest option, it can also be the most unreliable way to go. First, you will have to manage all aspects of planning your trip including sorting out where to stay, how to get around and how to take care of yourself. Then you actually have to find an organization that will take volunteers and that also happens to be looking for someone with your background and skills. This can be surprisingly difficult unless you are able to spend a long time (more than 6 months) volunteering or you have a skill that is in high demand.

Another challenge with this do-it-yourself approach is that it makes fundraising to help offset your costs almost impossible. It is really hard to ask for money when you can't tell people who you will be volunteering for and what you will be doing for them.

Unless you're a particularly tenacious (and flexible) person, this is really best left for seasoned travellers or people with specific skills that are in high demand.

Online Search for a Volunteer Programme

Another way to go is to use the Internet before leaving home, to find an organization overseas that would welcome your help. This can work well provided that you find a good organization. However, beware: there are hundreds of websites out there for organizations that no longer exist, never really existed or just do not do the work that they claim to do. So, when trying to set-up your placement with an overseas organization over the Internet before you go, make sure that you are working with credible people on the other end!

There are many websites that have lists of placements or provide notice boards where organizations can post volunteer want-ads. Remember, most of these sites make no claims about the legitimacy, or even the existence of the placements posted, so again, it is up to you to make sure that the organization you will work with is for real. Your best bet with this approach is to get a solid recommendation about an organization overseas from someone you know and trust.

Volunteer Abroad through a Placement Organization

If you want to be sure that you are connected with a good volunteer placement and that your time overseas is well managed, your safest bet is to go with a reputable organization that facilitates volunteer programmes overseas. There will always be some organizations that do things better than others, but for the most part, if you are working with an established, well-recognized organization, you can be pretty sure that they run their programmes fairly well. (Those who don't tend not to last too long). The trick is finding an organization that runs the type of programme you are looking for. Programme types generally fall under the following broad categories:

Service Learning Abroad: Service learning programmes normally incorporate elements of leadership training, cross-cultural learning and volunteering into one programme. They offer great opportunities to meet people from other cultures and to spend a portion of the time helping out. In general, they're best for people who have diverse goals that include a volunteer component. If volunteer work is your primary reason for going abroad, these programmes may be a little too diverse.

Group Volunteering Abroad: Group volunteering programmes are a great opportunity for people who are looking for a safe and relatively comfortable way to volunteer overseas. Reputable group volunteer programmes will have strong support staff, both western and from the host country, and projects are likely to be well managed. While you gain security and focus with this sort of programme, these groups can, at times, be quite insular with much of your time spent hanging out with your group, and cultural exchange limited to specific points during the day.

Independent Volunteering Abroad: Independent volunteering involves enlisting a company or organization to help you find an appropriate placement with an organization working overseas. These programmes are the best bet for someone who wants to spend most of their time working for an organization that needs their help. This approach tends to offer the most flexibility in terms of the type of work you can do. It's important that you find out how the organization arranges your overseas placement, and also that you're satisfied the organization is capable of doing the job well.

Long-term Volunteering Abroad: If you can afford to spend a year or more working as a volunteer, long-term programmes are almost certainly the best way to go. Organizations that handle these sorts of programmes will normally manage all kinds of visa regulations and logistical problems for you and in some cases also cover the cost of room and board. If you can afford the time, these programmes will ensure that your time and efforts are well spent.

Adventure Travel and Volunteering Abroad: A number of adventure travel companies include a volunteer component as part of their traditional adventure travel itineraries. Typically, they are short duration programmes (a few days to two weeks) and their brochures and websites focus on non-volunteer adventure activities. These programmes are a fantastic opportunity for someone who would like to have some basic involvement on a volunteer project for a few days while they travel. If your main goal is to volunteer overseas, however, these sorts of programmes may not be what you are looking for.

Step 3 - Choosing Your Organization to Volunteer Abroad

Selecting an organization or programme is a complicated mix of information gathering and gut instinct. There are a few things that you can do to make sure that you cover the basics. First, you want to make sure that when you compare the prices of different programmes, you uncover as many hidden costs as possible so that you can compare apples to apples. These questions should help you do that:

Is medical and rescue insurance provided? Are meals included? How many meals are provided? Is my accommodation included? Where will I be living? Is there an application fee? Are my flights included in the programme fee? What expenses will I be expected to pay in the country?

Most organizations will do their best to answer your questions accurately, but you still need to do your homework. For example, if someone tells you that meals or accommodation are not included but that they are only a few dollars a day, you should make sure that you know for sure how much these things are likely to cost. (Travel guide books like Rough Guides are a good resource to help piece these things together and gain a realistic estimate of the costs).

Once you have a good idea of the 'true' cost difference between programmes, you will want to try to assess the credibility of the organization. There are two big pieces to credibility. Let's call the first overall credibility and the second task-specific credibility.

Asking the following questions will help you to assess overall credibility:

Will you provide me with email contacts for past participants? Who will help me in case of an emergency? How can people get in touch with me while I am overseas? How many years has your organization been operating? Where and how do I make my payments?

Task-specific credibility is a little more difficult to pin-down as this depends on what you are looking for in your placement. Here are some questions that are generally useful, but you may have more based on your personal goals and expectations.

How do you make sure that the placement you select for me is appropriate? What kind of training is provided to help me prepare for my placement? What support is provided before I leave home? What happens if I want to leave my placement? Who is the staff in country? Will there be western staff working with my group?

A Last Word About Volunteering Abroad

Spending time as a volunteer overseas is a big commitment, but it can be one of the most rewarding and life-changing things you ever do. Making sure that your goals and expectations are in keeping with what an organization actually does, is a good step toward making the most of your time abroad. My own negative first experience wasn't necessarily the fault of the company that I went to Nepal with. My expectations and the type of experience the company was offering were two different things.

Whether you're the sort of person who likes to have all the 'i's dotted and 't's crossed before leaving the house, or the type who prefers to just step out the door and let things happen, there are overseas volunteer opportunities for everyone, and organizations that can help you to find a programme that is a good fit for you.

Related Articles:
Best Practices and Volunteer Organizations
How to Find an Ethical Volunteer Organization
International Volunteering for the Independent Type
5 Tips for Being a Star Volunteer

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