Written by: Jennifer Bannock
Volunteering abroad is one of the best ways to indulge your passion for exploration while also doing a bit of good in the community. But if you’ve ever Googled the phrase “volunteer abroad,” you might have noticed that there are a million options for where to go and how to get there — not to mention the cautionary tales about harmful exploitation.
It can get overwhelming pretty quickly, but take a deep breath and don’t give up. Just do your research and ask yourself these questions when choosing a volunteering program.
1. What are your intentions, goals and expectations for volunteering abroad?
Before you even start looking at opportunities on sites such as GoOverseas or GoAbroad, it helps to ask yourself what your motivations are. Your automatic response might be, “That’s easy. I want to help, people. Duh.” But go deeper than that. Think about what your skills you can contribute and ask yourself what you’re hoping to get out of the trip.
For example, if you’re looking for a very structured experience with a clear schedule, you’ll want to go with a program that has everything all laid out for you, rather than one that’s very hands off in terms of volunteer management.
Long story short: a little bit of introspection will help you choose a volunteer organization that aligns with your expectations and reduces the risk of a bad experience.
2. How much can you afford to spend on this trip?
OK, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Budget is one of the biggest considerations when volunteering abroad because most short-term volunteer programs come with a program fee.
Still, that doesn’t mean it has to be expensive. There are affordable programs out there with fees under $1000, like uVolunteer, which offers volunteer vacations to Costa Rica, Ghana and Thailand starting at $840.
You just don’t want to make your decision solely on how much it costs. Like pretty much anything else in life, you get what you pay for so going for the lowest of the low means your experience probably won’t be that great.
3. Is this the best time to volunteer abroad?
To be honest, there’s almost a never a bad time to go see the world and make a difference. People volunteer at almost every stage from high school to after retirement. However, you may want to consider timing if you are trying to save money on flights by traveling during the off-season, for example.
You should also think about how much time you have to commit. While you can definitely do a one-week drop by, you’ll have much more of an impact if you can do a longer trip for at least four weeks. Longer trips also tend to give you more bang for your buck where program fees are concerned.
4. Which organization is the best for you?
Once you’ve done some honest soul-searching, it’s time to start vetting the various volunteer organizations you’re considering. Not all volunteer programs are created equal.
Some are simply middle men that send you off to the country for another organization to manage, while others maintain direct involvement with you during your entire trip. You also want to make sure that they have ethical programs that are actually making a difference in the communities they claim to be helping.
You can find out this information by carefully reading each company’s website as well as talking to a representative about what is involved.
5. What do previous volunteers think about the organization?
Another great way to tell if a program is good is to read the reviews. Just like you’d check out a new restaurant on Yelp first to see if it’s worth visiting, you should see what previous volunteers have to say about their experience before deciding on a program.
Volunteers will give you the real story that you won’t find on the company’s website. Plus, they can also give you information that you might not think to ask about as a first time volunteer.
With more people traveling these days, it can start to feel like a bit of a race to get to the next hot destination and get the perfect photo in front of all the touristy landmarks. But volunteering abroad is a great way to slow down a bit and travel with purpose. Not only do you get to make a positive impact, but you’ll also experience a new country in a much more authentic way than you would during the typical tourist vacation.
Jennifer holds a degree in Media Communications and has several years of industry experience working in marketing. Jennifer is an avid volunteer traveller and likes to share her travel experiences. Jennifer has been writing for uVolunteer (www.uvolunteer.net ) ever since she volunteered with them in Costa Rica.