Have you ever started looking for something before knowing exactly what it was you wanted? Say you are looking to buy a new cell phone. You check the websites of popular service providers, talk to friends and family for recommendations, check manufacturer websites, and read online reviews of different devices. You realize you have a lot of questions; What is my budget? How flexible is my budget? What services or features am I willing to sacrifice? What features am I not? And many more. You end up frustrated and overwhelmed because you did not ask these questions before you began your research.
Knowing exactly what you want is crucial before making large purchases or large decisions. This applies to cell phones and to voluntourism organizations.
You’ve made the decision to travel and volunteer- now who is going to help you in the process? Before looking up organizations, we recommend asking the following questions:
How long can I commit to volunteering? Do I want to volunteer the whole time or do I want to have a holiday at the same time? What is a good balance? Do I want to help in a specific way such as research, construction, or teaching, or do I want to assist more generally? Is there a specific country I want to travel to? Do I want to travel alone or with a group? What is my price range?
These questions will help you establish a baseline to build off of. If you come across an organization that connects established, practicing, doctors with clinics in different countries in Southeast Asia, but you are a second year History major, with a budget of $2,000 USD, you can cross that organization off your potential organizations list.
Once you have a nice list of potential organizations, begin to do some in depth research in the following areas.
How long has this organization been facilitating volunteer trips abroad? Do they share their success stories online? Are you able to connect with past participants and talk about their experiences.
Most people assume this applies solely to the location of your monetary contributions, which it does, but it can also apply to other areas of operation. Do organization representatives promptly respond to your inquiries? Do they answer questions you ask regarding how they operate?
If you ask a question like “why do you only send volunteers to certain countries?” or “why do you provide me with travel insurance when I have access to my own?” they should reply promptly and accurately. And you should ask! The purpose is to assess the response to questions as well as the answer itself
History with Host Community and Partnering Organization
Does the organization work with indiviudal or organizaitonal partners in the host country? This is a crucial question to ask and something to look for. Voluntourism organizations are often critiqued for not only directing the volunteers, but for directing the projects they work on. Organizations working on sustainable development projects have to work directly with local leaders. In country partners ensure that projects are needed and that they continue to be maintained after international volunteers leave. It is crucial to work with an organization who prioritizes community needs and their self-identified project.
Volunteer Support and Ethics
How does the organization treat volunteers? Do they provide support before, during and after the trip? How do they say they will do this? Are they easy to reach- via phone, email, or in person? Do they answer questions promptly? Another good way to assess this is to ask to speak to a previous volunteer. Look not only for organizations that say whether they will support volunteers, as all will, look for how they will support volunteers. Many volunteers who go on voluntourism trips are novice travelers, not having much experience in developing countries or having to work and live with a language barrier or cultural differences. If you are such a volunteer, do not hide your experience. Be honest with potential organizations and see how they work to make the transition and smooth and fun experience for you!
Again, look not just at organizations that say they will provide safety, look to how they will ensure, as best they can, that your experience is safe. Do they have a proven track record of safety? What initiatives do they have in place in the case a problem arises? Do they connect with your emergency contacts? How? When?
Overall, and perhaps most importantly, you want to work with an organization whose mission, and strategy for completing that mission, you agree with and fully support.
Deciding to go on a voluntourism trip is a large investment- financially, emotionally and physically. As soon as you decide you are interesting in volunteering abroad you should begin to do your research. Even if you only start with a longing to make a difference in a community other than your own, your research will begin to shape the answers to the questions above.