A few decades ago, there were only a couple of options available if you wanted to volunteer internationally: Join the Peace Corps (a lengthy commitment) or take a mission trip with a religious group. The lack of volunteer organizations to choose from ultimately kept most people from volunteering abroad.
These days it’s much easier to find volunteer organizations that offer international experiences. Nearly all of them have an online presence, and it’s easy to find photos and reviews from previous travelers that can help you make a decision about which program to choose. But for many prospective volunteers, there’s another level to the decision-making process. What about ethics?
How do volunteers determine whether the organizations they’re considering working with are rooted in sustainable travel principles? It can be challenging to determine whether volunteer organizations are truly committed to bringing about long-term benefits to the host communities.
This is often the cause for criticism that voluntourism receives. But there are great opportunities out there for travelers who want to see the world and help out along the way.
Want to ensure that the program you’re volunteering with does more good than harm? Asking the following four questions before you sign up will help you weed through the murky waters and get the answers you need to make a decision about the best volunteer organizations for you…
What is the volunteer organization’s motivation?
The volunteer organization may have a fancy website, complete with colorful photos of smiling children. They might even have a mission statement or vision for the work that they do.
But we encourage you to ask specifically about their motivation as an organization. What is it that drives them to do the work they are doing? And why is it important that volunteers contribute to their mission?
Are they primarily a business, or were they established to achieve a specific, worthwhile goal? Did they develop in an organic way and utilize pre-established relationships within communities to co-create goals for the company?
A track record of investing in communities abroad (either with time or resources) prior to the start of offering volunteer trips to the area is a good way to ensure that the company has the right motivation driving their work in the region.
Does the organization have specific goals in mind?
When volunteers enter a community without a road map, the results can be disastrous. In fact, the goals that volunteer organizations establish should reflect both the community’s needs as well as the skill sets of their volunteers.
These goals should drive the work that every member of the team– from the local partners to the international volunteers– does each day. This ensures that everyone understands, and is invested in, contributing toward the change that the host community is seeking.
Let’s use wildlife conservation trips as an example. If you’re working on a wildlife project, what are the specific conservation goals of the volunteer organization you’re supporting?
If they can’t easily articulate what the purpose of your work will be, it’s important to ask whether you’re taking part in a glorified safari or an opportunity to interact with captured wildlife while calling it service work.
What has the organization achieved?
If you’re planning a volunteer vacation, you’ll likely travel with an organization that has previously sent volunteers to the same region to do similar work. You’ll likely have seen photos and descriptions of the projects online or in reviews. But it’s important to ask, what has been achieved so far?
Responsible volunteer travel companies carefully track the results of the volunteers and projects that they organize. They should be able to tell you what has been accomplished by previous volunteers who spent a similar amount of time abroad as you plan to. This will give you a better idea of what type of impact you can really expect to make.
Additionally, asking this question will give your contribution a deeper context by explaining what has been achieved overall in the region throughout their time there. It will also help to ensure that you’re not made to feel good about painting the same school over and over again.
Is there a reputable non-profit or government agency involved?
The last important question that we recommend asking before embarking on a volunteer program is whether or not there is a reputable non-profit organization or governmental agency involved in the project.
Although this is not always a deal-breaker when it comes to ensuring that a volunteer project is ethical and sustainable, there is a definite benefit to working in partnership with another organization that is established in the region.
When you sign up to work with volunteer organizations, you’re more than likely going into the project with the understanding that it’s a short-term commitment. With a well-designed and properly intentioned project, you’ll make progress. But what happens to that progress that you’ve made once you return home?
When there’s an NGO or government agency supporting the work that you do abroad as a volunteer, you know that the community is aware of, and invested in, what you’re doing. This means that, when your time as a volunteer is complete, the project that you contributed to will continue, with either with new volunteers or local people in the driver’s seat.
This helps to ensure that you, as a volunteer, are one link in a greater chain of good, and that your time spent volunteering is both ethical and sustainable. –Sara McDaniel
BIO: Sara McDaniel is a San Diego-based educator who uses her summers to explore the world, often alongside her students! In addition to writing for The Volunteer Traveler, she has directed international programming for various travel organizations. When she’s not writing or researching, she can often be found swimming in the ocean, eating all of the delicious foods she can find, and teaching in San Diego State University’s College of Education.