How to Travel: Volunteer Organizations
This is the second part of an ongoing series on finding the perfect opportunity for long-term travel abroad. It doesn't matter who you are - traveling the world is not impossible! We last talked about study abroad, which is a great option if you're still in school and want to continue working towards your degree while exploring a different culture. This week's opportunity has some of the more varied options - both in location and what you can do - than most opportunities, and you can feel good while doing it! But tread carefully...not all volunteer organizations are created equally...
Want to travel, most of your expenses paid, while feeling all warm and fuzzy inside? Then volunteering abroad may be for you. This option probably has the most variety of choices as far as what you can do and where you can do it than anything else. Yes, you can help starving kids in Africa, but you can also do conservation work in Iceland. I think helping the starving kids might win you more ‘nice guy’ points back at home, but of course no one would ever think of exploiting that experience…
Vetting volunteer organizations
I’ll say right from the get-go, there are some volunteer programs that are absolute rip-offs and quite unethical in charging exorbitant fees for the free labor of naive foreigners, while putting next to nothing of value back into the community. And even then they cover as few of your expenses as they can get away with. You have to be wary, and sometimes heartless, when you encounter their well-constructed guilt trips.
Several volunteer programs these days are being sold like any other tourism package, and most of the money remains in the first world, far away from the community the organization claims they’re trying to help. That won’t stop them from parading heartbreaking images of said communities on their website, begging for your help as long as you can find it in your heart to give them $2,000 (which will not cover airfare, food, lodging, visa fees…).
The first thing you should do when searching for a volunteer opportunity abroad is to research any potential program’s reputation. Look for info in Internet forums, and read it’s background on Wikipedia if it’s available. Next, their website should give you a complete breakdown of how any fees they charge are used. If they don’t, email them and ask. If they don’t respond or give a roundabout answer then cross them off your list. Next! If they’re more interested in making money than making an impact in the local community, vote with your dollars until they’re extinct, making room for more ethical organizations. Charity Navigator is a fantastic resource that gives a breakdown of where your money is going and rates the transparency of your organization of choice.
I would also recommend looking into how programs spend their funds in general. Several religious organizations will give a hefty chunk to anti-gay organizations. This is quite common in Africa. I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush, but any religious organization coming in to “help” a third-world community has usually yielded questionable if not completely deplorable results. Discouraging condom use in AIDS-ridden countries comes to mind. Building a well where there is no water will do more good than building a church. Filling bellies will make more of an impact than filling someone with the “holy spirit”. I’ll stay off of my religion-is-poison pulpit for now, as I don’t want to alienate someone considering travel for the first time, but yeah, I would stay away from any volunteer organization connected to religion to be on the safe side.
Finally, does the community need what the organization is providing? A school playground might sound like a good idea on the surface, but if people in that community are walking 3 miles a day just to fetch potable water, that’s a bit more important. You should tell the organization so before moving on. Once you find an organization with an admirable goal, try to find out if they’ve completed projects like it before. If you can’t find it through your own research, email them. Trust me, you’ll feel much better volunteering abroad if you’ve vetted an organization beforehand. Traveling and having fun is important, but doing it with a clear conscience while making a positive impact is even more so.
The right fit
Once you have a list of reputable organizations that are spearheading projects sure to have a beneficial impact, it’s time to look for the things that will make you happy. I always, ALWAYS advocate being selfish when it comes to personal happiness. If you’re not happy, it will affect the quality of your work and others around you. Which projects are looking interesting and enjoyable? For that matter, which country do you want to be doing them in? What’s the general makeup of the volunteer groups?
I personally like doing stuff outside. That’s mainly why I chose to do conservation work in Iceland for three months. I can’t imagine a more beautiful office. Some people think the great outdoors is icky, which is fine, and may be more inclined to do something with four walls of protection between them and the horrific insects and parasites of the hot, sticky jungle.
And of course, there are plenty of indoor options. Although I’ve placed teaching English in a completely different category, some NGOs are multifaceted and this is one of the many responsibilities they may dish out. If you have any sort of business experience, you’ll be right at home in an economic development position, most likely indoors. Healthcare professionals will mostly find themselves in hospitals or community centers, but could very likely be involved in a door-to-door operation. You’ve got to go outside sometime.
The makeup of your volunteer group could affect your enjoyment just as much as the task at hand. No offense, but when I’m traveling I don’t want to hang out with other Americans. I tend to look for international organizations that are inclined to put together groups with diverse backgrounds. I also don’t want to be around a ton of people. 10 or less is plenty enough for me. That way it’s easier to get to know everyone and form a working relationship with them. Too many people on a project can get chaotic. But that’s just introverted me, of course. Others may thrive on the energy of a huge project with several volunteers.
After I visited Iceland for the first time in the darkness of winter, I had to go back any way I could, even if it meant – sigh – working there. I found my answer on literally my first Google result. The Iceland Conservation Volunteers, ran by Umhverfisstofnun…which is “environmental agency”. I’m getting so much enjoyment out of picturing you trying to say it out loud. Basically we maintained trails, built stone steps, installed signs, and cleared litter for three months. We stayed in a different remote, completely stunning part of the country every two weeks in teams of five people, each from a different country.
Some may shift uncomfortably when I talk about bang for your buck in regards to volunteering, but let’s keep it real; look no further than this program. I have never found anything else like it. You pay for your plane ticket and they pay for travel around the country, food, and accommodation. There is a week of vacation in the middle, and you’re responsible for that as well, but the Icelandic government has got your back for almost everything else. You even get a sweet, complimentary volunteer jacket that is very high quality and will give you a lot of cred with the locals. The accommodation is mostly camping, which I love anyway. We did stay in some amazing campsites, all of which contained modern toilets and showers.
This was probably one of the most transformative experiences of my life, and I’m still discovering the many ways it has affected me, even now. I met my girlfriend (at the time of this post, my wife!) of four years there – a Londoner – and now we’re both living together in China teaching English. Life is crazy. Add travel to the equation, and whoa, the game of “guess what happens next” gets very difficult. I could literally write a book about this whole progression, and have toyed with the idea, but in an effort to avoid some Inception-like book within a book within a book situation, I’ll simply direct you to this blog post that explains the experience in more detail.
Uprooting | A Beginner's Guide to Extended Travel
If you found these tips helpful, then you might enjoy my new travel guide, written for anyone embarking on their first long-term adventure abroad. You don't need to be the host of a travel show or a trust fund kid to have some incredible experiences abroad. After 5 years of travel through 12 different countries - and living in 4 of them - I've tried to encapsulate everything I've learned into this short guide for anyone who wants to hit the road long-term.