How to Find an Ethical Volunteer Abroad Program

Volunteering abroad has been a popular way for many to combine their two passions of seeing the world and making a difference. Many people set out and want to make the world a better place, helping the ones who are less fortunate then themselves. They would even pay money to volunteer abroad, work for free and live like a local. They would dedicate their time and skills to help out the locals deal with catastrophes and ongoing economic hardships. 

Sounds like a very noble plan, doesn’t it? I thought so too, for a long time. For years, I wanted to volunteer in an orphanage in Africa. I felt like I could relate to them, because I lost my mom when I was young as well. I wanted to go there to show them that somebody cared about them and loved them. Maybe I could teach them something that would make a difference in their lives down the line? The pictures of those little angles with their big, round eyes and their even bigger smiles, on all the volunteer abroad sites were melting my heart. But when I dug a little deeper and started doing some research, I found out some ugly truths about the volunteer abroad industry that made me question my plans. Finding an ethical volunteer abroad program wasn’t quite as easy as I had thought. 

Unfortunately, many companies that offer volunteer abroad trips are in it for the money. Not all, of course, but there are quite a few black sheep that threaten to ruin it for all of them. A fact that made me rather sad. Reading those stories also made me realize that I had to rethink my personal gain from my plan to volunteer abroad as well. Here are some of the questions that I think everyone should ask themselves, before signing up with volunteer abroad. Here are some tips on how to find an ethical volunteer abroad program. 

1. What is your personal drive to volunteer abroad?

Most people who want to volunteer abroad have a good heart and good intention. I strongly believe that, because this is how I choose to see the world. I give people the benefit of the doubt. But I also have come to realize that people are often a bit unaware of the consequences of their actions. When you volunteer abroad, you have to ask yourself what your real motivation is.

Do you genuinely want to help the people and the community, or do you have a hidden, ulterior motive? Like padding up your Grad School application or filling your Facebook feed with pictures of you surrounded by cute little kids smiling into the camera? You have to ask yourself, if the end justifies the means. Yes, as long as you do the work and actually contribute, this can be a win-win situation. But some volunteer companies focus a bit too much on how to boost how great the volunteers feel about themselves, rather than making the benefit to the community their main focus. Helping others makes us feel good and there is nothing wrong with that. However, volunteers should make sure that the volunteer organization actually focuses on making an impact for the locals. 

How to select a good volunteer abroad program?

2. What is your skill set and how could it be useful for the community where you want to volunteer abroad?

Try to find a volunteer organization that can make the most use of your specific skill set, so you can make the most impact. Keep in mind that if you are interested in volunteering abroad in an area where specialists are needed, but you do not have the skill set that they are looking for, you might do more harm than good. Especially in crisis situations, such as after natural disasters or epidemics, the affected communities need the help of people who know what they are doing. This is not the time to train people without experience and untrained volunteers often just use up valuable resources and are in the way. Keep this in mind, when you are looking to volunteer abroad, especially during a current crisis. 

3. What follow-up programs are in place after you leave?

Before you decide on a volunteer program, make sure that they have a long-term plan to support the community. Do they have enough volunteers to sustain the program in the long run? For example, if you want to teach a skill to the community members, find out if the program offers follow up classes, so the locals can take their skills to the next level? Try to find a program that is established and has a long term vision to improve the standard of living for the local community. 

4. Is your volunteer organization well organized and puts the needs of the community before its own profits?

How to find an ethical volunteer abroad program - 7 questions to ask before you sign up!When you sign up to volunteer abroad with an organization, try to not only take the price into consideration. Yes, I know, sometimes you have to stretch yourself to make it happen at all, but this isn’t something you should save money on. If you cannot afford an ethical volunteer abroad program, consider volunteering closer to home or maybe even at home, while you save up some more money to find a great, not just cheap program.

When you sign up, try to get a feel on how organized the organization is. Do they send you information in a timely manner? Are they professional, when you call them? Do they offer you to talk to people on location? Do they have a current and professional website with detailed description of what you will do, an overview of the impact of the volunteer activities in the past and a vision for the future?

Here are some questions that you might want to ask them, to make sure you are signing up with an ethical volunteer abroad program:

  • What percentage of the program costs goes towards overhead (paying for your food/accommodation, trip organization, training, salaries of employees, etc.)
  • What impact has the program had over the years and how is its success measured?
  • Do you operate on a for-profit or not-for-profit base?
  • Are the people who run the program locally foreigners or locals?

5. How will your volunteer activity disrupt the local community?

Can you imagine you are a little kid in school and there is a new teacher coming in every week? By the time you build up the confidence to speak up and get used to the teacher, a new one comes along and you have to start all over. That sounds pretty disruptive, right? Especially, when it comes to volunteer activities with children, try to opt for long term programs, and always be mindful of how attached little kids might get to you over this period of time. 

Volunteer activities can have a huge impact on a community, good and bad. Ethical volunteer abroad programs try to minimize the negative impacts as much as possible. I have to admit, until I really did some research about how volunteering might affect the community, I had no idea how much damage volunteering can do. Here are some examples:

  • In Nepal (and other countries), children are bought from their families in rural areas and trafficked as orphans to orphanages in other parts of the country. Families are ripped apart and many of the children end up on the street, or even worse. 
  • Some volunteer programs take away jobs from locals, as the programs get paid to hire volunteers, who in return work for free. This makes it hard for locals to start their own companies and create opportunities to sustain themselves. Make sure that your volunteer program supports business opportunities from within the local community, rather than destroys them. 

6. Does the volunteer organization focus on quality materials and train volunteers?

Helping others only makes sense, if you actually know what you are doing. Does your volunteer program offer training to the volunteers, so you can have maximum impact during your volunteer time? Find out, if your volunteer program offers skill based placement or training. It has to be a good mix. On the one side, you don’t want to be in training for a week to do 2 days of volunteering. But on the other hand, you want to make sure that your output benefits the community and doesn’t do more harm than good. For example, if you are teaching English abroad, make sure that the teaching material was created by an expert and not some other untrained volunteer. This will give your lessons a guaranteed level and the kids will get something out of it. 

7. Best intentions aside, are you doing more harm than good?

For a Good Cause: How to find an ethical volunteer abroad programVolunteering abroad is such a great way to give back, immerse yourself into another culture and also learn how lucky you are, just because you were born at the right time, in the right place. I know that I mention a lot of pitfalls of volunteering abroad in this post, but I do believe that volunteering abroad is something positive and good for the volunteer as well as the local communities. IF IT IS DONE RIGHT! There are many ethical volunteer abroad programs out there that are ethical and do amazing things for the local communities. But there are some black sheep as well. So I urge you to ask yourself these questions, do your research before you sign up, and make sure you find an ethical volunteer abroad program. 

Sometimes, the right thing to do, is to write a check and volunteer at a local institution. You might make much more impact that way, even if it doesn’t sound quite so exotic and lovely. That is what I decided to do. Instead of volunteering in an orphanage in Africa, I volunteered with a local hospice organization. I spent time with some incredible people during their last months or weeks, listening to their stories, talking to them and giving their care takers a moment to breath and get out of the house. Volunteering at a Hospice was not easy. I often drove back home with tears running down my face, because I had to say good bye for the last time. But the courage and strength, the wisdom and kindness that my patients showed me during this time has taught me so much and changed the way I look at my life. It made me realize that things don’t matter, but our experiences and the memories we create with the people that are important to us. I am very grateful for this experience and for the opportunity to support my patients and their families during this difficult time. 

I recently participated in a Volunteer Cruise to the Dominican Republic with Fathom Travel and I was very skeptical at first. Would this be a ethical volunteer abroad program or just an opportunity for rich tourists to bask in the glory of helping “those poor people” and patting ourselves on the back for the great work we had done? Or would we actually make a difference? The cruise took us to the Dominican Republic, where we could sign up for impact activities, such as teaching English, reforestation, working at a paper factory and a chocolate factory, building concrete floors in community houses, and making water filters. I wrote up a post about my experience at the Water Filtration plant and how this impact activity had a real impact on the local community. While I don’t know the long-term effects of the program, I do believe that Fathom did a good job in creating this ethical volunteer abroad program that lets people combine volunteering and travel. 

Have you volunteered abroad or at home? What was your experience like?