Volunteer Abroad

10 Things You Should Look for in a Volunteer Travel Program

Jessie Beck

A Washington DC native, Jessie Beck studied in Dakar and Malta, taught in Costa Rica, and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Madagascar before ending...

Kids in Madagascar

If you're setting out to volunteer abroad, you'll want to make sure you're signing up to spend your time and money on a responsible and quality program.

Unfortunately, the market is saturated with scams and volunteer programs harm more than they help the communities they work with.

Obviously, you don't want to be involved with a program like this. So what then should you look for to ensure the program you choose is legit and responsibly run? Here are ten traits of a responsible volunteer program to keep an eye out for while searching through all the wonderful (and sometimes, not so wonderful...) opportunities to volunteer abroad.

1. They are Transparent About Spending

One of the first things you should ask to assure a volunteer program is legit, is where all that money you're giving them will go. A good organization will be transparent with their spending, and should be able to give you a receipt for your payment, a list of donors, and a breakdown of how much goes where.

This is also a good way to check the integrity of the organization. If, for example, most of the money is going towards commission or keeping foreigners pampered and happy, then they may be in the business to help themselves, rather than the community they claim to be serving. A good chunk of those program fees should be filtering back in to the community and its development and not into one person's pocket.

2. They Have a Good Reputation Within the Community and Other Local NGOs

Books for Africa in Madagascar

Want to know what someone is really up to? Ask their neighbor.

Although past volunteer testimonials and internet research are great ways to begin checking up on how responsible a program is, other local NGOs and the host community will have a better long-term perspective on the work this program is doing.

They'll know the character of the organization and the people running it. If other NGOs and the community can't vouch for this program warranting results, or confidently describe the kind of work they're doing, then take this as a bad sign.

For example, I once encountered a group of Australian volunteers who said they were building a school in a community in Costa Rica that I taught in for five months. They were happy, well taken care of, and sounded like they'd give the program a good review.

However, when we asked local community members about the volunteer program, they revealed that the structure would actually be used for coffee storage, and that the leader was a notorious schemer. Reputation matters.

3. Your Project Has an Achievable Goal that's Showing Results

What exactly is your volunteer program hoping to achieve by sending you to teach sports to inner city youth or work on a health campaign fighting AIDS? They should be able to tell you not just the project (i.e. teaching sports to inner city youth) but also the goals this task will achieve (i.e. Lowering drug abuse and criminal behavior among teenagers). If they've been around for awhile, they should also be able to give you proof that these methods are working.

[Your program] should be able to tell you not just the project...but also the goals this task will achieve.

4. Foreign Volunteers are Filling a Gap in Human Resources

... and not taking away any job that could be done by a local. You should always ask the program why do you need to look outside the community to find someone to do this job? For many tasks, having at least some university education, proficiency in English, and a bit of tech savvy, might be all it takes to make foreign volunteers better suited for the job than a local.

For others, like construction and other manual labor, it's highly likely that the man power could be found locally and bringing volunteers in from elsewhere is hindering, rather than helping, local community member's ability to make a viable income. Even teaching, though a skilled profession, could be just as well done by a local.

5. There's Active Involvement of the Community and Locally Driven Goals


You can only help people willing to help themselves. A good volunteer program won't just be working in a community who has already recognized that they want to develop but need assistance, but will also do so in a way that involves the community, and builds capacity.

This way, you are assuring that you will be fulfilling a need that the people themselves have identified (and will therefore make use of), making use of local resources and knowledge (sometimes better than foreign 'expertise'), and working towards our next trait of a responsible volunteer program...

6. Sustainability is a Goal

Sustainability is a big buzz word in the development field, but for good reason. We know hand outs will only be a bandaid for a problem, and not improve the livelihood of disadvantaged communities the way that education, trainings, and individual empowerment can (the exception, of course, being disaster relief and other emergencies).

Make sure that your program has steps in place that assure development will keep on going once volunteers have gone home, and they have long term project objectives that address the underlying causes of a problem, not just a temporary solution.

7. They Build Capacity, not Dependency

Any organization working with development, whether as a volunteer placement agency, NGO, or for profit company, should essentially be working themselves out of a job by building capacity within the community to do the job they initially set out to do.

We know that hand outs will only be a bandaid for a problem... Make sure that your program has steps in place that assure development will keep on going once volunteers have gone home.

Some of the other traits already mentioned, such as sustainability and involvement of the community, are intertwined with this, but you should also specifically look to see if these long term and community driven goals are empowering the individuals as well.

Will the staff involved with the organization walk away with a new set of professional skills? Will the community members you work with receive training? Will you be helping someone to do their job better, not just doing it for them? Ask your program how exactly they hope to make their role as a support system eventually unnecessary.

8. There's Open Communication with Potential Volunteers

Just as the program should be transparent with their spending, they should also be clear and honest with potential volunteers about living conditions, the sort of work they will be doing, and the impact it has in community development.

If the program is vague with responses, or seems unwilling to answer your questions directly, don't expect any better communication once you've landed in country and find yourself asking "so, what am I supposed to be doing here anyways?"

9. They Take into Consideration the Skills and Qualifications of Volunteers

Pier in Thailand

No volunteer program should ever let their volunteers do something they would be unqualified for back home.

If you have no teaching experience, you would be more helpful to a volunteer program by assisting a permanent teacher and letting them use you as a language resource than leading the class yourself.

On the other hand, if you do have a special skill, it's a sign of a good program if they want to make use of it, and I promise you, even if you aren't trained as a doctor, engineer, or educator, I'm sure you have a skill you could make use of!

Also important, you should question any program that allows unqualified and unvetted volunteers to work directly with children. If you are working with children in any capacity, a responsible volunteer program will require a background check of you first.

10. They Offer Volunteer Support

Of course, each volunteer organization doesn't just owe it to the communities they work with to be transparent and responsible, but also to their volunteers!

Check the organization's website and look through past volunteer testimonials and reviews to understand exactly what kind of support they will be giving you and whether or not it meets your needs.

For example, do they have a plan in place in case of an emergency such as an illness or injury, lost passport, or security issue within the country? Do they provide housing or assistance with housing? Will they give you food or a living stipend? Do they give you an induction to your host country/community and any technical, language, or cultural sensitivity training?

Then, even if they seem to have plans in place, read reviews and ask past volunteers about how good they are at living up to the support they promise.

There Are Responsible Projects Out There!

It's sad to say that there are volunteer programs out there that are using the guise of humanitarian aid to make a profit for themselves (orphanage scams, for example), but fortunately they are not in the majority.

Smart volunteers can volunteer ethically anywhere around the world. If you do your homework, check reputable websites like Go Overseas, and put your super-savvy networking skills to work, you should have no problem verifying whether or not they have these ten traits of a responsible volunteer program and are worth dedicating your time and money towards.

Photo Credits: The Nomadic Beat.