If you’re looking for ways to give back in a different country, it can be challenging to find a reliable nonprofit and know how to best support on-the-ground efforts. Many volunteer programs provide accommodation and orientation programs for a fee, but the quality of services and supervision available to volunteers can vary greatly.
Not every social organization has your best interests — or even the interests of local people — in mind. The dark underbelly of voluntourism has been brought to light, and campaigns on “ethical volunteering” have aimed to encourage travelers to ask thoughtful questions while researching volunteer organizations.
Do research before signing up. Here are eight questions to consider as you choose a social cause to support:
1. What work will I be doing?
Be honest about your abilities and skills. If you are told you will be building houses and you have never picked up a hammer, you might want to look for a different project. While administrative duties may not bring the Instagram-worthy photo opportunities you were dreaming about, these kinds of tasks are often most needed by small local organizations.
2. What will the living conditions be like?
If you can’t stand the thought of cold bucket showers or days spent without charging your cell phone, extended time in a village might not be the right setting for you. Be aware that in remote areas, certain food products may be challenging to find and you may need to adjust your strict at-home diet. Don’t worry, there are plenty of opportunities for you to stay in a guesthouse or hotel with amenities while doing good work in the community.
3. How do you choose your projects?
Gaining understanding of an organization’s core values, mission, and priorities will help you assess whether it is the right fit for you. Does the team align with community partners or do they work as an isolated group? Do they have a history of successful projects? Is there a portfolio of completed campaigns for you to review? Learn as much as you can about ongoing work and future mission goals.
4. Will I receive language training?
Depending on how long you intend to stay, learning some essential phrases will be appreciated by staff and locals alike. While many organizations offer language classes, the duration and extent of these courses vary. Ask to see a syllabus or request study materials if you are worried about quality.
5. Can you put me in touch with past volunteers?
Reputable agencies can provide recommendations from previous travelers. You can also look for past volunteers’ experiences described on TripAdvisor, Facebook, or Google reviews. Newer organizations may not have much feedback listed but more established groups will have traces for you to explore: press releases, event participation, donor appreciations, and photos of happy volunteers.
6. How are my fees used?
Agencies often use income from volunteer programs to subsidize other aspects of their organization. Don’t feel shy about asking where your money goes. Learning about an organization’s financial structure will help you better understand their funding sources and operations. Are they mostly donor-backed or supported by grants? Do any of their projects generate income or do they rely on volunteers to cover costs? Does your visit directly support a project or supplement administrative fees? You have a right to consider which organization you feel most comfortable supporting.
Lastly, if you connect with staff or friendly locals during your placement, think carefully before handing over money before you leave. Though visitors mean well, your donation may unknowingly lead to community disruption if you fail to understand societal trends and pay grades.
7. What if I need help?
Some volunteer placements offer direct supervision; others expect volunteers to be independent. Regardless of how much contact you have with the main office while you are in the field, some communication mechanism should be set in place should an emergency happen and you need to reach family back home (or someone at home needs to reach you). Quality volunteer programs think about emergency situations in advance, not after something happens.
8. Will you provide my visa?
This is a trick question. In Nepal, “Volunteer Visas” are considered a form of a work visa and can be extremely difficult to obtain. If an organization promises you a volunteer visa, this is a red flag. Unless you have an arrangement with a large NGO or international organization, you will be advised to apply for a tourist visa.
Volunteering can be an exciting, exceptional way to learn about a new place. Giving your time and focus to a community can lead to meaningful relationships and positive exchange. Set realistic expectations. Nepal is a melting pot of cultures and customs. If you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to ask. Lead with your heart but ask questions before you go.
Top image: Idex World/Flickr