7 Questions You Should Ask Before Volunteering Abroad

by Stacia Sahi Aug 21, 2014

I have lived, volunteered, and/or worked in Canada, the US, India, and Cambodia, and I’ve seen firsthand that not all volunteer opportunities are created equal. By asking yourself the following questions and learning about an organization before traveling / working with them, you can be more confident that you’ll be engaging with an organization that’s legit, and which you can be proud of supporting.

1. Who founded the organization?

Was it founded by a religious group, a local group, an international organization? It’s arguable that secular, grassroots organizations are more likely to be dedicated to development goals, and have a better understanding of the needs of people, than are foreign- and faith-based organizations.

I had a positive volunteer experience in Bangalore with Peace Child India, which was set up by a local Indian woman who saw a need for better educational services in the society she grew up in.

2. What is the makeup of the company?

Does it have a large percentage of locals working in the organization, or is it primarily foreigners? Locals are likely better at understanding the needs of a community, and thus have a higher likelihood of success at development projects.

Likewise, Peace Child India had a core paid staff of locals; their volunteers were all international foreigners looking to gain experience in a new environment. This meant the programs were designed with a local viewpoint, yet were implemented with foreign expertise. Foreign volunteers were accompanied to their activities by local Indian staff, who could act as translators and help smooth over cultural misunderstandings.

3. What is the content of their programs?

Are their programs culturally relevant and adapted to local circumstances? How much local involvement and participation went into shaping program goals and expectations? This is a tricky one to assess because sometimes programs might not be designed by the appropriate people. If your program is a girl’s club and your objective is to strengthen the rights of young girls within a very strict, male-dominated society, then having the elder men of the community design the program is not the most appropriate solution.

As a volunteer in India, my task was to teach English to street children who weren’t attending the formal school system; yet, I found that what the children needed more immediately than English lessons was instruction in how to write in their native tongue of Kannada. We shared this viewpoint with our supervisors, who agreed to incorporate more local-language lessons into their programming.

Don’t accept programs with “filler content” that are only created to satisfy a foreigner’s need to feel useful, and which don’t address the needs of the society.

4. What is their long-term track record?

Do they remain engaged with the community over significant periods of time? Or is it a one-shot deal? Short-term engagement can indicate a lack of commitment to sustaining change and improving livelihoods. Very short-term programs might be appropriate in addressing certain challenges, like infrastructure creation, but to achieve sustainable improvements oftentimes a long-term commitment is required. A lot of charities might be doing good work, but without consistent support and resources, the programs they seek to implement can fail.

Pre-packaged “voluntours” can cost in the thousands of dollars, yet do you have any idea how much of that money is actually going to the program you’re working on?

The best way to avoid this is to commit to supporting an organization for the long term. Whether this means staying for a minimum of six months, or continuing to contribute brainpower and resources after you leave the country, remain committed to the cause. While I only stayed in India for five weeks, I’ve been able to help create teaching material and raise donations for Peace Child India in the years since I left.

5. Have their programs been evaluated for effectiveness?

Have people said whether or not they benefited from the programs? If not, it may be that the organization is more interested in advertising socially conscious travel than in effecting real change. Monitoring and evaluation is sometimes overlooked in favour of more urgent needs. Yet any program that can’t prove its effectiveness is perhaps useless, or worse, causing more harm than good.

I’ve often found that the best service I can provide to an NGO is communications support and, by extent, helping to assess its programming’s effectiveness. This doesn’t mean I’m an expert in monitoring and evaluation; but simple things, such as collecting stories, viewpoints, and opinions from the people the project aims to serve, can help form the basis of a quick evaluation.

If you can’t find a single, unbiased person who believes the program is a good idea, then perhaps that program isn’t one you want to be a part of.

6. Where does their funding come from?

Where does the majority of their funding come from? And where does it go? Annual reports should be transparent, and companies should clearly be accountable for the projects they engage in. Pre-packaged “voluntours” can cost in the thousands of dollars, yet do you have any idea how much of that money is actually going to the program you’re working on? A lot of the funds often go to the placement agency and toward your own expenses, which are inflated.

It’s much more economical to find volunteer placement through your own research. I found my placement with Peace Child India by myself, and for one month I paid $700, which included food and accommodation but not airfare. Each consecutive month I stayed cost less and less. Another volunteer who was placed with Peace Child India through a voluntour operator paid in the thousands of dollars, yet received the same benefits I did. Do your research carefully, and you can save money and ensure more of it goes to the people you’re trying to help.

7. How are their programs implemented?

Are they handout programs, or do they involve skills training and livelihood building, so people can become self-sustaining rather than dependent? Short-term construction or maintenance projects are the simplest ways to incorporate social justice into travel tours. However, if there’s no training of locals to maintain the sites once volunteers have left, the positive results of this work are negligible.

Ask if your role will involve training local staff, or providing capacity-building services. While living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I taught at a small Cambodian-run private school. My primary task was teaching English to students, but I also found myself helping local teachers improve their own English. They were eager to hear my native pronunciation of words, and to learn about training techniques and lesson plans I found effective. In this way, even after I left I felt I’d left behind something that would continue to prove useful.

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