If you already know an organization that makes a difference in their community and does so with cultural respect, that’s the best place to start! But if not, don’t worry, because I didn’t either. All you have to do is leverage the power of the internet and email. Regardless of where you are in life or where you’re going, volunteering can allow you to gain great experience, live in a new culture, save money, and contribute to the world! If you have the flexibility to volunteer, spending some time giving your skills, whatever they are, has many, many benefits.
The Benefits of Volunteering
Read: too many to count! Some of the biggest ones include the following:
If you are down on luck and haven’t found a job in a while, you might start worrying about a gap in your resume. Or if you have just graduated or are undergoing a career change, it’s tough when so many of the jobs that you see list “a minimum of 1 year of experience” as a requirement. How do you show potential employers that you’re keeping up with your skills? Using them!
The biggest benefit of gaining experience by volunteering is that the offers are often pretty easy to find. Many organizations and all good organizations (see below for good vs. bad), are in need of dedicated volunteers. If you need something more relaxed and/or short-term, volunteering is the way to go.
Most of the organizations will happily allow you to do things that entry-level employees or people with unexplained gaps on their resume wouldn’t do. These include writing grants, teaching classes, creating curricula, designing websites, taking patients’ vital signs, feeding animals, etc. As you invest your time without pay, organizations must give you some sort of a return. Because the return isn’t a salary, it’s often experience that you can really leverage for future job applications. If you are implementing real skills, ABSOLUTELY include them on your resume!
Living in a New Culture
When you commit to an organization abroad, you will inevitably meet locals (if you don’t, the organization might be exploiting you and you should leave right away). The locals, and location away from the main city and tourist attractions, can give you a much better feel for the culture. You can get deeper into the traditions of the local community so that you feel like a native in no time.
[Recommended Read: How to Learn a Completely New Language While Abroad]
If you volunteer, you are often saving money on things like food, accommodations, and transportation costs. Organizations, especially the best ones, provide free meals and cheaper (compared to local rates) or free housing to dramatically reduce your living costs. And if you’re staying in one city for a bit longer than usual, you also aren’t spending money for buses, trains, or planes.
Contributing to the World
Self-explanatory. This takes on many forms, so pick the one you like! If you’re not making a difference, it’s probably best to move on.
[Recommended Read: Don’t Pay Your Bank!]
Things to Look for in an Organization
One of the tough parts about finding a good organization abroad is differentiating the great ones from the fraudulent ones. If you’re looking, keep these things in mind. While these are by no means comprehensive, if you find an organization that fulfills these criteria, chances are that the organization you’ve found is a worthy one.
It Has a Reasonable Online Presence
Chances are, you’re going to find this organization online. If that’s the case, their online presence – website, social media, email – is the only way to know information about them first-hand. While there are wonderful organizations with terrible online presence, the amount of effort that they put into representing themselves online can be indicative of their legitimacy. With their website and social media, what is most important is the kind of information they put out and the amount of it. Information may be old because dollars spent on the website are dollars not used towards their goals, but basic information must exist. Are they willing to be held accountable by publishing actual numbers of schools built, money raised, etc.? The more transparent they are, the more promising the organization is.
It Works WITH and FOR the Local Community
One of the biggest issues with development work is the so-called “White Savior Complex.” The danger with going abroad to volunteer is that volunteers and organizations do it poorly because they are there solely for personal fulfillment, and implement a sort of neocolonialism. Instead of listening to the real needs of the community they work with, they rely on assumptions that lead to mutual resentment and vastly wasted resources. A well-known example of this is organizations that give out insecticide-treated bed nets in malaria-infested areas, meant for children’s use, only to find that adults have put the nets on livestock instead. Because of these well-publicized failures, all good organizations know that their work must involve community buy-in to be effective.
If your organization has local consideration, they will likely be more than happy to advertise it. While such buy-in takes on many forms, such as community forums, financial investment, representation, and other leadership, such information will almost always be visible on the website home or about pages.
It Clearly Discusses Sustainability
The other major problem with development work abroad is that sustainability can be difficult to accomplish. While medical clinics for rural communities are fantastic, the effects of a single doctor visit and prescription last for a month at most. Such a model requires an unending supply of clinics, which is highly unsustainable. Instead, look for an organization that is proud of their ability to wane a community’s dependence and expand into multiple development areas. If you teach English, how do students maintain their language abilities after you leave? If you provide medical care and drugs, how does the organization address root causes of illness (education, poor environment, etc.)?
It is Responsive to You
This is one of the biggest indicators of organization reliability. Do they provide a contact email? If you email it, how long does it take you to get a response (more than one week means you should be wary)? What kind of details can they provide about what you can do for them, where you can live, and what their expectations are? Try to email at least several times to make sure that you get a more accurate picture of how they might value and support you if you work for them.
It’s Willing to Connect You with Former Volunteers
Getting real feedback about the organization is invaluable, especially if you can get it from former volunteers. You can ask the organization directly to connect you with some former volunteers if you want to get in touch with them through email. Often, you can find great information by searching Twitter and Instagram with hashtags of the organization. If people have talked about it, they probably had a worthwhile time.
It is Registered as a Nonprofit
A good organization doesn’t have to be nonprofit. However, registration as a nonprofit indicates that the organization has legal restrictions on its fund allocation. Nonprofits do break the rules, but most are focused on improving their community. They likely also have experience working with foreign volunteers.
It Has Well-Known Supporters
Having social proof indicates that other parties have recognized the organization for its work. If the website has logos of media outlets or other nonprofits you trust, you can take that as you might take a friend’s recommendation. It’s always best to check on these by searching for the organization’s name and the other party that endorses them to verify it.
It Doesn’t Charge Exorbitant Fees or Ask You to Provide a Plethora of Other Contributions
Due to the nature of nonprofits, money may always be tight. But unless there is a very good reason, you shouldn’t have to pay for volunteering! You are already providing your time and services; there is no reason to get the compensation equation backwards. While small sums (~$100) may be acceptable, many other volunteering organizations are willing to accept you with no or a tiny fee. Leave the donations to businesses and people who don’t volunteer their time and efforts.
[Recommended Read: Everything You Need to Know About Bolivia]
Searching For a Good Volunteering Organization
There are millions of worthy organizations to volunteer for, but how do you find them? Google is a great tool, but searching with a focus will get you a match much more quickly.
Ask People You Know
This is the best way to find a good opportunity. Friends can tell you the good and the bad. The in-depth insight on places they have volunteered is more trustworthy than that of someone random online – even if that person’s me!
Look for Partners of Highly-Trusted Organizations
The other way to get recommendations is through “endorsements” by trusted organizations. Often, good volunteering nonprofits partner with NGOs and the local government to advance their mission. If you see on an organization’s website that they list several partners, such as the local country’s Ministries and NGOs like the UN or World Bank, you can be sure that they are legit.
One of my favorite websites to look for opportunities is Grassroots Volunteering. They have handpicked and vetted nonprofits and social enterprises around the world. They accept foreign volunteers, which takes the guesswork out of Google results. You can search by region or topic! They have also ranked the organizations by the amount of money they ask for – so you can avoid scams.
If you’re from the European Union, you may also check out the European Voluntary Service. The EU backs the project and approves every organization on the list as well! Even if you’re not from the EU, browsing it can show you some good options for organizations to do more research on.
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