International volunteer opportunities can be a fantastic way to see another part of the world and make a difference in communities that need it. The problem is finding the right cause to volunteer for. Volunteer expert Sarah Van Auken offers some great advice in this interview.
Please tell us a about your website, Volunteering Global
Volunteering Global is a site that educates individuals about service opportunities worldwide. There are two main parts – the list of volunteer programs and the blog. Currently, there are 420 individual service groups listed, with information on costs, accommodations, type of work, and other basics that people might want to know. The blog covers general travel and about volunteering, whether it involves safety tips, packing advice, stories from returned volunteers, or even highlights of specific service programs.
What volunteer experiences have you had?
Most of my volunteering has been U.S.-based, so I’ll highlight work that my friends and I have done as an example of the types of projects available worldwide:
- Tracking and tagging nesting sea turtles in Costa Rica
Repairing damaged trails throughout Appalachia
- Researching small mammals in Mongolia
- Helping with HIV/AIDS affected families in Kenya
- Building and repairing homes in New Orleans
- Educating children in Peru
Most volunteer opportunities actually cost money, why is that?
Most volunteer organizations are nonprofits, so their funding comes from their participants and donations. Fees usually cover food and housing, transport to and from the project site, tools and other supplies, and training and support. Costs vary depending on the experience the person wants. Some groups arrange a “luxury” style of trip, such as a hotel stay, cultural excursions, and entertainment in addition to a volunteer project, while other opportunities are available for a person to get down and dirty and focus entirely on the project at hand. Trips range from $5 per day for the more rustic and hands-on experience, to $6,000+ per week for more indulgent ventures.
Is it possible to find free volunteer opportunities?
Unfortunately, there are very few organizations that cover travel expenses, though many offer tips and resources for fundraising.
There are two main types of no-cost trips: free and sponsored. Free trips usually last six months or longer, though the volunteer must cover his airfare and personal expenses. These often are available for individuals with minimal training, but who can work on a long-term basis. Think of it as an unpaid internship.
Sponsored trips are those in which airfare and other travel expenses are covered by the host organization. These range from a few days to over a year, and usually ask that their participants have specific abilities – such as dentistry, grant proposal writing, or other scarce skills – that are needed in the host country.
It is possible to find short-term opportunities at a minimal fee, but it takes more extensive research to find them. If cost and timeline are an issue, start the program search early and don’t get discouraged!
Is it possible to have a long term volunteering career without having lots of money first?
Absolutely! The free and sponsored trips mentioned above sometimes include a small stipend for those who volunteer for six or more months. Generally, the longer a person volunteers, the less expensive the program becomes.
Not only does a career break allow the individual to give back and to experience a new culture, but it also offers valuable job training and education. Many volunteer programs are offered for mid-career professionals who would like to help with marketing and fundraising, small business development, teaching, and other projects that translate well onto a résumé later.
Many organizations charge hefty fees to coordinate volunteer work, are those fees worth it?
It depends on the volunteer, the agency, and the community. Most of the more expensive organizations are placement groups, meaning that the volunteer doesn’t actually work with that establishment – he works with a host. Think of it as a volunteer travel agency. If a person doesn’t realize this, and wants something different than what the organization offers, then obviously he will feel cheated.
On the other hand, David Clemmons recently wrote an article highlighting a negative experience in which the volunteer felt her trip was a rip-off; I’m inclined to agree.
As for the community aspect of the program, it is of utmost importance to know that the community is being impacted positively by the volunteer work. Some of the best work is being done by volunteer organizations that actively involve community members. The goal should be to eventually pull out of the area and allow the locals to sustain the project on their own.
A great website to check for information on best practices in volunteer travel is Voluntourism101.
Can you recommend some good organizations and volunteer opportunities?
Here are some programs working in every region worldwide:
Uganda Wildlife Education Centre
Can you recommend some good directories or websites of volunteer opportunities?
Are there any black lists of companies to avoid?
I’m not sure I know of any that have been outright blacklisted, but two problems seem to pop up most often with troublesome projects: Lack of funding information, and “hug-an-orphan” programs.
Most organizations will be happy to provide their funding information for you, including where your money goes and who supports the project, e.g., volunteers or local businesses. If they’re not forthcoming, then you should probably move on.
“Hug-an-orphan” and similar projects also should be avoided. This is summed up very well in an article by Saundra Schimmelpfennig of Good Intentions Are Not Enough.
There are many, many great volunteer organizations out there, so if you are uneasy about one, then don’t become discouraged. Just keep looking, and you’ll find something that fits.
Where will you be volunteering next?
I would love to visit Peru next – but really, I’m willing to go anywhere!
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