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Tips for 1st Time International Travel Volunteers: Things Every Volunteer Needs to Know Before They Go

  Megan & Mike Jerrard

When you’re planning your first trip abroad as an international volunteer, there are many considerations to think about beyond making a list of what you should pack. For instance, is the program an ethical one? How much will it cost? What is that money paying for? Who will the program truly benefit? Do you have the right skills? How to know if a volunteer project is ethical

Combining volunteerism with travel is one of our favorite ways to explore the globe, though it’s absolutely vital to choose a project which makes a genuine difference to the community and society as a whole. While investing in your personal development and growth as well. international volunteer programs

Realizing that this is now an industry which can turn a profit, some companies and organizations are ignoring the long-term effects of volunteering on host communities, and as such the market is saturated with costly projects taking advantage of volunteers, and there is now a lot of cynicism about those who want to become an international volunteer to “do good”.

When structured correctly, volunteer placements can be mutually beneficial to both the volunteer and the local community, though how can we as travelers know which programs are responsible and which are not? What are the signs of an ethical volunteer program?

As a leader in the field of ethical volunteering, we reached out to Mark Horoszowski from Moving Worlds about tips for first time prospective international volunteers, and the things every international volunteer needs to know before they go. What do I need to know as an international volunteer.

International skills-based volunteering, or “Experteering, is more than just an immersive trip, it’s a transformative experience that benefits all parties and helps build a better world.

But I think one of the best aspects of international volunteering, when done right, is the after effect…organizations continue to grow, people are more confident with their skills, and new connections developed turn into long-lasting friendships, and sometimes, even new social impact organizations.

What inspired you to start volunteering?

I grew up volunteering and continued to volunteer throughout college and the first part of my career. But when I hit a dead-end in my career, I turned to volunteering as a way to really explore the types of work that got me the most excited, the industries I was most passionate about, and the best way I could make a positive impact with my career.

What is ‘MovingWorlds’ all about?

Our goal is to connect people to live-enriching experiences that make the world a better place. Globally, one of the biggest barriers to progress is a lack of access to talent, so we help people find where their skills are needed the most, prepare them to make a real impact, and provide resources and support to make sure they have a powerful experience.

What are the different ways a traveller can ensure a prospective project is an ethical one?

So “voluntourism”(paying to volunteer) is getting a lot of heat right now because of the issues it can unknowingly fuel, like the corrupt orphanages in Cambodia. We use a number of “tests” to check for ethical opportunities, but the most obvious ones are:

  • The project is driven locally – meaning a local organization has identified the need/ project
  • It doesn’t erode a local jobs – meaning someone locally isn’t in a position to do it (often times why construction projects don’t pass our test, but challenging architecture or engineering projects are OK)
  • It is focused on sustainability and skills – meaning there is a clear demonstration as to how your project will create a social and/or environmental impact

Who should a volunteer placement benefit?

Every project should benefit the volunteer AND the hosting organization. There is a common misconception where people think projects should only benefit the hosting organization, but this actually creates unhealthy power dynamics where the “volunteer” is privileged and the hosting organizations is “needy”; and that’s not accurate.

The truth is, both have so much to gain in the experience and it’s important that both talk about it. We provide a training to our Experteers, as well as a guided planning process to help the Experteer and hosting organization plan an effective partnership. Serve-Smart.com also has a great training.

What kind of organizations do you connect people with?

We support startups, social enterprises, nonprofits, schools, community groups, and even some governmental organizations that are locally led, have the greatest potential to create jobs, and are working to solve last-mile challenges. There is a breakdown of the percentage of these on our 2014 impact report.

We find that the matching to startups and social enterprises (for-profit businesses that exist for a social reason) make for really great hosts as they are growth-minded, have clear needs for skills, and are eager to find the right professional – meaning they’ll provide free accommodations to skilled volunteers and invest in creating a great experience.

We find that the best experiences come when there is a balance of both of these things. As an example, maybe an accounting professional who is great with Excel and setting up financial controls is partnered with a hosting organization to help setup a new accounting system. But, instead of just doing accounting, the person should focus on teaching someone in the organization the proper concepts and processes to grow without outside help in the future.

So the accountant is working in a familiar area, but is working on new skills like training and on implementation in a new industry.

Should volunteers speak the local language of the country they are working in?

It’s always helpful, but not necessary. We placed on Experteer in Brazil who didn’t speak any Portuguese, but the Experteers was working to help the startup expand to areas outside of Brazil, so her English and Spanish was actually more useful than her knowing Portuguese.

Why should volunteer placements be free?

It’s a good litmus test. If you’re paying to volunteer, the organization is after your money, not your skills. Sometimes, that is OK. Like nonprofit environmental organizations who can’t really make any money from protecting gorillas or turtles against poachers. So instead of working on a real project, they create a unique and immersive field experience.

However, other pay-to-volunteer projects, like paying to teach kids in an orphanage, build a home, or dig a well is a pretty good sign that a project is being invented to procure your money, not to make an impact.

This is really tough, but my guidance is that cost is not a sign of ethical or unethical behavior… I know of one organization that conducts bicycle trips to Myanmar. They charge over $10,000 for the trip, but all of that goes as a donation to specific organizations that the donors get to meet themselves, have been pre-screened, and are led-locally.

I’ve seen other organizations charge $10 / day, but they essentially kidnap kids from remote villages to fill their “orphanages”. So as a traveler, searching for a “budget” volunteer project might actually be more unethical than an expensive program.

What is the problem with companies and organizations who charge extortionate fees for volunteer placements?

As mentioned above, it’s not the size of the fee, but it’s where the fee goes. If you are paying, you should get full insight into:

  1. Where does the money go to, and what is the breakdown?
  2. What is the legal status of the organization?
  3. Is the organization led locally, or is it based in another country?

Specifically, be on the lookout for:

  • High fees for room & board. If you’re paying a lot to live, then that diverts resources from the actual mission.
  • Organizations that are not based in the country you are traveling too who are capturing most of the fee. In some cases, 80% of volunteer placement fees are going to middleman and travel, not the actual organization on the ground.
  • The majority of money NOT going to the mission (i.e. if you’re going on an environmental conservation project, if most of the money is going to a tour guide and your room & board, the organization might not be a good steward of dollars).

Ultimately, it’s so that we can source ethical projects that don’t charge you to volunteer. Groups like HelpX and WOOOF also have similar models. While sometimes a membership fee is a barrier up front, it can actually save thousands of dollars in the process as you get connected to places where you live for free.

In our case, it allows us to find specific projects based on your profile and preferences, and sustain a global support team to provide person support, to keep improving our resources, and to grow our global network of ethical, skills-based projects.

What is generally included in a free placement – ie meals, accommodation, local tours?

At MovingWorlds, all our projects provide unique benefits in exchange for your time. One of the things I think is really unique is that we support all kinds of social impact organizations, from 1 person to thousands of people.

The smaller the organization, the less they can provide, but the more authentic and impactful the experience. The larger the organization, the more resources, and the more benefits they can provide.

As an example, a 2 person startup might provide a room in a shared house and some cooking lessons, whereas a larger organization can often provide a private room and even help cover travel costs or send you on a local tour.

What kind of different projects are available through MovingWorlds?

From one week to one year, we have a really diverse set of projects. Some are related to training, like helping startups learn marketing and sales best practices. Some are for specific projects, like setting up an accounting system, building a website, or creating a video for a grant application.

Others are longer term consulting projects around specific challenges, like lowering operational costs, improving supply chains, expanding into new markets, or developing new products.

What is the most unique volunteer placement you have heard of through MovingWorlds?

We had a project for a chef to help a research team eat healthy, sustainable food while doing oceanic research in Central America.

I think it exemplifies that no matter what skills you have, you can use them to support world-positive ventures.

You actually offer some placements which pay volunteers, correct? Is this still volunteering, or does the inclusion of a per diem then make a placement something else?

Correct, but it’s typically for the purpose of offsetting living and/or travel expenses. As an example, one of our partners in Brazil wasn’t able to provide a place to live, so they provided a small living stipend to help the Experteer cover her costs.

These per diems aren’t that common, but if an organization is in real need of expertise, you’ll see them provide a small stipend to attract an Experteer as soon as possible.

You guarantee to find people a placement – how do you make this kind of a commitment?

We find that about 1/3 of our matches come through projects that are never listed. These matches occur when our global support team gets to know you, then works to source new projects that are the best fit for you.

As an example, if you want to go to Djibouti for exactly 3 weeks to work on marketing for startups starting on June 1st, there is a really small chance that your dream project was posted and is just waiting for you. As such, we work with a partnership network of over 2,500 organizations around the world to find which partner could most benefit from your skills, passion, and availability.

I think every country needs volunteers equally, and this includes the USA. You might see a volunteer make a bigger impact in specific countries that are notoriously resource strapped, but there are needs everywhere.

A recent report from ANDE shared that in some countries, like Brazil and India, the biggest barrier to progress is a lack of access to talent, so we tend to see more requests from countries that have already had big cash investments for the purpose of development – think countries that have had big donations from major foundations (i.e. Gates Foundation) and large investments from impact investors (i.e. Acumen).

Another thing to highlight is that every country can produce volunteers, too. We’ve had Experteers from every continent.

Any other tips for first time prospective volunteers?

We’re full of tips, and have open-sourced some of our content about finding and planning an engagement. But here are a few highlights:

  • Be selfish in planning your volunteer experience. The only way you’ll really make an impact is if you’re motivated to do your best work. As such, you have to be totally bought in to the mission, feel that you’re needed and respected, and know that the organization is co-invested in you and the project.
  • Be humble and open. Just because you have skills does not mean that you know the best way to lead a project, especially when you cross cultural and contextual boundaries. We recommend everyone “shut up and listen” before doing any actual work to ensure that the right solution is being delivered.
  • Create a partnership. The best way to have an immersive experience is to become partners with your hosting organization. Our free training on Udemy does a great job of highlighting the importance of this, and how to go about it.
  • Remember that success happens after you leave. In our planning process, we ask our Experteers and the hosting organization to work in partnership in defining a goal that happens one year after engagement ends. This makes both parties think more about working on sustainable projects that are locally led, and transferring skills to the right people to ensure that the organization can continue to prosper after the Experteer has left.

Why should people volunteer?

In short, It’s good for you, and it’s good for the world. We recently published an article on Forbes, 5 Surprising Benefits of Volunteering with some really compelling research about how much people gain from volunteering, especially if its skills-based volunteering (aka Experteering).

In summary, your most valuable assets are your time, heart, and brain, and today, the biggest challenges facing the world need those 3 things, even more so than money, in order to create a healthier, more equitable planet.

Meg & Mike Jerrard