In 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in hopes of sending "the best and brightest Americans abroad on behalf of the United States to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world." This paved the way for the hundreds of international organizations today to offer volunteer trips worldwide. Volunteer vacations and voluntourism (volunteer tourism) have become huge trends in recent years, with thousands of people all over the world traveling to underdeveloped countries, such as Colombia, Tanzania, Kenya and Morocco. Working with children in schools and orphanages, nursing injured or ill animals back to health, and building houses are just a few of the programs offered.
The possibilities are endless -- and so is the list of organizations and companies offering volunteering opportunities abroad. With more and more volunteer organizations and companies popping up every year, it's hard for a traveler to know which to trust, which is why U.S. News spoke with Erin Barnhart, an expert in the field of international service and volunteer engagement. She provided tips on how to choose the right organization and red flags to look for when signing up for one of these trips. And fret not, Barnhart strongly believes that there is an international volunteer program for everyone.
Voluntourism vs. international volunteer organizations
First things first: voluntourism and international volunteer organizations are different. Volunteer tourism companies, such as G Adventures and STA Travel, are typically for-profit companies (although some are nonprofit, too) that provide potential volunteers with short-term volunteer placements coupled with vacation excursions. For example, you might work in an orphanage for two days and then go on a safari for the remainder of the trip. Or spend a few weeks backpacking through Southeast Asia completing different jobs such as building a school or working at a daycare. Usually, voluntourism companies allow anyone and everyone to volunteer, not necessarily requiring participants to pass background checks or have prior knowledge of the destination or work being completed. But here's the biggest difference: Voluntourism is primarily focused on the individual's experience. That's not to say all voluntourism companies are lacking a humanitarian focus, but recent studies have shown that certain programs -- such as working in an orphanage or school -- have detrimental effects on both the community and the children. For example, children can form close attachments to volunteers and face abandonment issues once those volunteers leave. A UNICEF campaign is even aiming to end short-term service in orphanages. After all, how much can you realistically change children's lives by working with them for just one or two days?
On the other hand, most nonprofit international volunteer organizations, such as Cross Cultural Solutions, United Planet and Global Volunteers, partner with local in-country nongovernmental organizations or cultivate their own projects in response to the needs of the community. They screen potential volunteers to ensure they are placed in the right program and can properly and efficiently aid the community. "International volunteer programs serve as a bridge between the NGOs and the volunteers," Barnhart said. Many international volunteer organizations also have long-term partnerships with local community NGOs and continuously send volunteers throughout the year. Their primary focus is the development and sustainability of a community, with less emphasis placed on what the community can do for the volunteer and more focus on what the volunteer can do for the community.
Expect fees, fees and more fees
A major factor to consider before deciding whether to volunteer through an organization is the associated project fee. Yes, spending a summer volunteering on the beaches of Madagascar conducting research and saving turtles sounds great -- except there's a catch. Many of these volunteer opportunities come with a hefty price tag (think upward of $2,000), and that's not including airfare. Paying to volunteer seems like a funny concept. Why would someone pay thousands of dollars to essentially work for free? Many international volunteer organization company representatives said the majority of the fees ensure that the project is run safely and efficiently for both the community and the volunteers. Some of the fees go toward 24/7 in-country staff support, pre-departure information and training, airport transportation, travel and medical insurance, ground transportation, and food and accommodations.
Voluntourism companies typically offer more budget-friendly programs than nonprofit international volunteer organizations, but that doesn't mean you should go with the cheapest option. As Barnhart put it, "You wouldn't want to buy the cheapest car because it probably doesn't run that well." And the same goes for a volunteer program. Whether it's an organization or voluntourism company, do your homework and make sure that the majority of the money you're paying actually goes to the community's sustainability and development. Most organizations have a breakdown of where the money goes on their websites and are open to answering all your money-related questions. That's another thing Barnhart recommended: You should do plenty of research about the country and reach out to multiple previous volunteers about their experiences abroad -- they're likely to be the most forthcoming and tell it to you straight.
A cheaper option for going abroad: work camps
If you're still interested in volunteering abroad, but don't want to (or can't) fork over the money, you may want to consider a work camp. Work camps are short-term programs, usually two to three weeks, and focus on projects like building a school, working as a camp counselor or assisting with animal conservation efforts. Work camps are significantly cheaper than going through international volunteer organizations. Most often the only cost associated is the application fee, which ranges anywhere from $75 to $200. Volunteers must pay for their airfare and transportation to and from the camp, but once they arrive at the camp accommodations and food are free. Check out Service Civil International for more information and a list of work camps offered worldwide.
Should you volunteer on your own?
So, is it worth paying an organization to volunteer versus doing it on your own? The answer is yes and no. Volunteering abroad through an organization or company is easy, safe and convenient, all you have to do is book your flight and the company does the rest. An international volunteer organization is great for those who want to volunteer, but only have a limited amount of time or for those who have never volunteered or traveled much. Volunteering abroad on your own takes a lot of planning -- you have to make your own travel plans, buy health and travel insurance, arrange in-country transportation, locate your own accommodations and the hardest part: find a place to volunteer. If you're a seasoned traveler, have been to the country before and feel comfortable and confident making your own arrangements, go for it. After deciding which country you want to volunteer in, you will want to reach out to small in-country NGOs and see if you can work with them. Before leaving, make sure every detail is ironed out -- you don't want to travel thousands of miles only to be told that you can no longer volunteer for the organization.
If you're still interested in volunteering abroad through an organization, websites like Goabroad.com and Gooverseas.com will allow you to search volunteer organizations by country, program and length. There are also volunteer reviews, so you can read firsthand accounts of what previous travelers have experienced abroad. Another helpful tool travelers can use is Idealist, where the pros and cons of volunteering with an organization versus alone are spelled out.
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