Nothing makes my heart flutter more than making a difference . However, I’ve gotten woke to a trend in the travel community – paid volunteer opportunities. Full disclosure: I am 100% guilty of this. And I’m not alone. During my freshman year of college, I spent over $2000 to build bathrooms, water storage facilities, and showers for poor destitute Honduran farmers while improving my Spanish. Was it an amazing opportunity? Yes! However, in retrospect, I realize that by spending the equivalent of 10 years worth of a Honduran farmer’s salary, I took a job best done by a local for largely my own gain. Don’t make my mistake. As a partial atonement for my sins, I’ve compiled 6 rules to consider while looking into volunteer opportunities.
Consider volunteering locally.
You know the saying: charity starts home. While volunteering in your hometown might not be as exciting as flying to Borneo, there are numerous benefits. You’ll be directly impacting your community. There are no prohibitory travel costs. You can stay longer, thus creating more meaningful connections and experiences. The opportunities you find may be more inline with your career goals. For example, in my small home town (population: 15,000), not only are there a dozen great opportunities, many provide job skills such as web design, marketing, coding, and language skills. To start, look at your state’s volunteer website and United Way. Also, volunteering with causes you care about could be a great option as well.
2. Do your research.
Before committing to a program abroad, do your research. There are entire Facebook groups dedicated to horrible experiences with a variety of volunteer providers. Crucial questions to ask about each program are: Where do the program fees go? How are they working with? Are there ways that this could be exploitative? What can I reasonably expect to do every day? What value will I add? Why are reviews positive (or negative)?
3. Use ethical and sustainable volunteer organizations.
If you are stuck and can’t find an opportunity that provides satisfactory answers to your questions, focus on groups with a history of responsible volunteering abroad. One such organization is Responsible Travel. They provide meaningful experiences abroad while limiting their environmental impact and exploitation.
4. Go to the source.
By now, you’ve noticed that many providers charge exorbitant fees to volunteer for a couple weeks in relatively cheap places – in fact, much of this money goes in their own pockets. By using lists like Volunteer South America, you can directly reach out to organizations who need badly volunteers. Most charge a tiny fraction of traditional program costs (or are free), help volunteers find housing, and provide amazing opportunities. Through the above list, I found options to help Peruvian street dogs, support micro-finance education in Mayan villages, empower women and girls, and protect Amazonian animal sanctuaries. This way, volunteers are working on the ground with groups who actually know the community.
5. Focus on opportunities in your area of expertise.
The best way to make an impact is by doing something in your skill set. Unless you have experience building structures or digging wells, your efforts could be better utilized creating fundraising plans or providing health education to families. By focusing on something on a specialized area, you are creating value for the community without taking jobs from locals.
6. If you can, stay longer.
Imagine having a new teacher every 2 weeks. By the time you are used to their teaching style and personality, they’ve already left. When volunteers are on-sight for only a short amount of time, their impact decreases or they can be disruptive. This is especially true when working with children, who get attached quickly. If you can, volunteer for a month or more. However, it is understandable if you can’t take that much time to help; bills have to be paid somehow. This is just a point to keep in mind if you have the option.
By considering these 6 tips, you will be improving the world as ethically and responsibly as possible. Happy volunteering!
Have you volunteered abroad or domestically? Do you agree? Disagree? Leave me a comment below!