6 questions to ask yourself before volunteering abroad

Much has been written about how to search for and prepare for a volunteer or career opportunity abroad. But how do you select an opportunity in the first place?

The truth is, while volunteering in a different country can be a great way to give back, learn more about the world around you, and launch a career abroad, there are many questions to consider. Aside from concerns around transparency and support for volunteers (is the money you give actually doing what the organization says it will?), you also have to think about whether or not your work is doing more harm than good (read about the “hug-an-orphan-vacation” phenomenon).

I launched vofair.org (short for volunteer fairly) in 2012 to help take out some of the guesswork in selecting international volunteer opportunities. We verify projects in person and provide a platform that links helps volunteers find experiences with grassroot, non-governmental organizations that are fair, ethical and purposeful.

In doing this work, I’ve realized there are a few questions all volunteers should ask before accepting an international opportunity.

What’s happening in the country where I want to volunteer?

Before you decide on a volunteer opportunity, explore what’s going on in  the country where the opportunity is located. First, review the news and be alert to any political changes. Also review traveler forums and make a list of risks and dangers to see if you can avoid them in your travels.

Aside from political concerns, read up on any vaccinations you might need. Prepare a pack of medicine that you are used to take in case of emergencies. You shouldn’t plan to rely on local pharmacists knowing the names of drugs you might need.

What kind of accommodation will be provided?

Organizations, when possible, should send you a guide with detailed explanations of the living conditions, your tasks, and other aspects of your life as a volunteer so you can prepare accordingly. For example, we’ve heard stories of a lack of potable water for volunteers (which can have serious health consequences) or accommodation without windows (which was actually considered as luxury, since no windows meant no sun coming in with the heat!).

If you’re paying, what are you paying for?

If an intermediary claims that your money spent on their service goes in part to the community, ask for proof. You can ask for a signed letter from the people who receive those funds or to contact them directly. If this is not feasible, ask for any reports from audits that the company has undergone in the past.

Who is the volunteer coordinator and what experience does he/she have?

Whenever possible, try to talk to the volunteer coordinator beforehand. Ask for their time within the organization and previous volunteering experience. At vofair.org, we interview the volunteer coordinators in front of a camera and we publish the videos on project profile pages, so that the future volunteers could have the chance to know more about the person they’ll likely be spending a lot of time with.

What is the final purpose of the whole project? Who are the beneficiaries?

You might be so excited about going abroad to volunteer that you might forget the most important part – who will actually benefit from your hard work? Make sure that you know the mission of the project and the organization as a whole. Are your future tasks in line with the mission? If you are going to be working directly with people, especially children, the time you spend there is really important. We recommend you review our short guide and make sure you volunteer long enough according to psychologists´ recommendations.

What do former volunteers say?

You will get the most honest reviews from former volunteers. Sometimes it is hard to obtain their contact information from the hosting organization (and even then, they might only connect you to ones they’ve chosen). Try searching via online forums and LinkedIn. If you manage to contact them, ask about what they loved and gained, but also asked about their most difficult times and how the experience might have been different than they expected.

All these precautions will reduce any types of risks when volunteering abroad. Best of luck in your volunteer opportunities and changing the world for a better place!

Born in Poland, Paulina has lived in eight countries across three continents and speaks five languages. She holds MSc degrees in business engineering and ecological economics. In 2012 she started vofair.org, a foundation incorporated in Chile, and operating globally. Paulina believes in transparency is key to great volunteering. She is currently moving to Australia and never stops to attract the best volunteers for her organization.


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    • Sara
    • August 22, 2013

    Great article, Paulina. I tried to go to your website, vofair.org, but I got a 403 forbidden website error. 🙁 Seems like it would be a good site to get started with international volunteering.

    1. Dear Sara,

      I hope you could enter the website later on, it was so unfortunate that our server had some issues just at the moment of publishing of this article. If you need any help in the future, you can write to us directly: contact@vofair.org

    • Heather
    • August 22, 2013

    I stumbled upon this article a few hours after having been offered an internship position in South Africa! I’m happy to say that I asked and received positive answers to all of these questions. The trip is on!

  1. To select a good opportunity is very challenging nowdays! Volunteering is a fantastic way to gain some experiences in many ways! But often it is all about the money. The industry behind it is growing and not working hand in hand with international NGOS or the civil society. They are sadly profit driven. Whether you’re looking to take a gap year before university, or want to use your summer break to do something different, many companies advertise all over the web that they are the safest and the one with the best quality. Thousand of promises create a wrong picture. In most cases it is best to volunteer directly with the Organization, that’s why an initiative such as VOFAIR is the perfect way to organize your stay. The companies often will create a feeling, that traveling or volunteering directly with local Volunteer Organizations or local schools, placements is dangerous. This is wrong! Some companies will not even give you travel and placement details until 2 weeks before the starting date (They worry it creates to much work or volunteers go directly to the placement not having paid the fee yet). Also there are many websites helping you to organize your own stay. You will safe money and you can donate more. Check out our facebook page to see how to fiend local projects and how to avoid spending more than u should.

    The truth is that the companies hardly know what is happening in the country they work in (sometimes the local partner they signed up with does).
    The truth is that they know hardly anything about the accommodation nor do they care that they are sustainable or with families who really need volunteers.
    The Truth is that you will often not know anything about your work before you arrive if you go with a company (creates also to much work/questions)

    The Truth is that NOT even one company will give you proof on how the money ahs been spend and what the impact was. They may tell you what goes to the local partner, but from there on they have no idea what happens. They will also not give you reports from audits.

    There are thousand reasons to sign up with an organization with VOFAIR rather then wth a company. The companies websites are full of promises, I have recently seen even one company (I VHQ ) saying they provide trainings for their local partners. Yes, they may do that. But they call it a training if they have briefed you an hour on volunteerism. Ask for proof, ask for reports. It is your right as a potential custommer! So be careful, when you choose a company and read very careful, what you have to expect!

    Visit our facebook page for more advice: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Responsible-Volunteering/270333629677425

    1. Hi guys!

      I would like to inform you with great pleasure that we have launched a VOLUNTEER VERIFIER programme for those who wish to travel with a mission! Please check it out at our fb page: VOFAIR.ORG or the main website (www.vofair.org). VOFAIR´s team works completely free of charge and our verification and certification process is also pro bono. We are not an intermediary of the certified projects – they serve as best case studies to promote fair volunteering and raise awareness and more transparency. We do our little bit, so you can help us out as well! Apply to become a volunteer verifier! Cheers!

      1. Hi Paulina, this is GREAT . I am mailing from a hill overlooking the sea with indigenous forests behind me with minimal signal , on the Wildcoast of S.A. where we are just about to enter the world Volunteering as a grass root rural based NPO (It is not about dogs by the way). While researching stuff I came across this . . it is a minefield out there! anyway I will send you our info in a month or 2 and follow up on this. Go well!

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