Photo: Olga Moreira/Shutterstock

7 Red Flags When Considering an International Volunteer Program

United States
by Eric Hartman Dec 4, 2015

UNFORTUNATELY, MANY BUSINESSES AND NGOS offering international volunteer programs are chasing sales to a much greater extent than they are actually pursuing cooperative development. Though there are no guarantees, by avoiding these red flags you will have a better chance of working with an organization doing legitimately good work. Warning flags include:

1. They promise a huge change in a short period of time.

It is difficult to work across cultures, in the context of political, social, and economic structures that are entirely new. While there are arguably reasons to be optimistic about global development broadly, even development experts have a hard time agreeing precisely on what interventions truly drive change. If the organization is telling you you’ll change the world in a week, or a month, they’re either unfamiliar with actual development partnerships or entirely willing to sacrifice honest complexity for easy sales.

Also examine how they “sell” their programs. Do they appeal to your personal development, and to dominant stereotypes about international development? Or do they describe an opportunity to carefully participate in an extremely complicated sector? International development is arguably one of the most complicated sectors in the world. Volunteering without acknowledging and working to understand that complexity is dangerous.

2. They don’t pass the ’90 Second Rule.’

Ruth Taylor developed the ’90 Second Rule’ and other important questions about volunteering with children. If an organization will promise you the chance to work with children before they know anything about you, after less than 90 seconds on a volunteer sign-up form, they probably do not have the children’s best interests at heart. An organization should never promise individuals opportunities to work with a child without any background checks or skill evaluation.

3. They have “white savior” photography and wording on their website.

First, read this fantastic article from The Atlantic on the White Savior Industrial Complex. Then, critically examine an organization’s imagery and wording on its website. Does it reflect a “white savior” dynamic, or does it show the dignity of people in host communities partnering with outsiders to learn together?

4. They can’t share a meaningful story regarding how volunteers have been helpful and what the community-driven outcomes have been.

Development partnerships are difficult. Thoughtful partnerships that involve cooperative learning and development may yield less immediate results than projects that involve outsiders coming in, planting a school, and leaving. But community-driven cooperation increases capacity. Request and compare stories about presence and outcomes. An organization should have a history in the community, clearly working with community members.

5. They’re not transparent about where funds go and who benefits.

As with other nonprofit work, the cheapest option is not always the best for communities and organizational mission, but transparency is important for truly understanding the greater picture.

6. They offer opportunities to work with children in orphanages.

This is clearly at odds with major child well-being organizations, and suggests that the organization involved is less interested in community development than it is in sales. With orphanage tourism, many businesses and even numerous NGOs are guilty of selling volunteer experiences that are at odds with professional standards in community development and child wellbeing.

7. They promise or strongly imply clinical medical experience as a strategy to prepare for medical school applications.

Pre-professional medical volunteering exhibits many of the same issues as orphanage tourism. That is, it frequently exposes vulnerable populations to unnecessary risk and harm. While there are ways to responsibly volunteer in health education and outreach, clinical practice is not appropriate for unlicensed individuals. Preying on your desires to gain career experience again demonstrates more interest in sales than in protecting vulnerable populations or empowering individuals in host communities.

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