Choosing a Volunteer Abroad Organisation
So you’ve decided you want to make a difference in the world. And after some thought and exploring your options, you’ve decided you want to participate in an international volunteer programme. Wonderful!
But now what? What should your next step be? How do you decide where to go and which organisation to choose?
Your initial Google search has revealed dozens of organisations, all advertising that they are the one for you. But are they really?
How do you know? Where do you start? Are they really a reputable volunteer organisation?
In this post, I’ll answer your main question “How do I choose a volunteer organisation?” and we will go through the following important points:
- The types of volunteer abroad organisations.
- How to look beyond the slick marketing.
- Knowing the difference between a for-profit and a non-profit organisation.
- Misconceptions about international volunteer organisations.
- Paying to volunteer, what to look out for.
- The scams and ethical transgressions that you must know!
- Should I trust the online reviews?
- Questions you should ask before choosing your volunteering opportunity.
The types of volunteer abroad organisations
When you are looking to volunteer abroad, you will likely come across many different types of organisations without even knowing they are different. The first organisations you are likely to encounter are the commercial companies - this is due to their marketing power compared to a small local charity. Commercial companies will have teams of marketing experts, whereas charities will have teams of teachers or animal carers. Here is a brief outline of the variety of organisations and how they work:
- Large commercial company:
Likely based in the developed world, London, New York… Sydney.
Operates in the same way as a travel agency, only the tourists are volunteers.
Volunteers are sent to partners projects overseas.
For profit – none of your money likely goes to the charity cause.
- International non-profit charity:
May be based in the developed world or in the countries where you will be volunteering.
Places volunteers at its own projects or partners.
Does not make a profit.
- Small commercial company:
Many are based overseas.
Often a local agency working in tourism or language school.
For profit – none of your money likely goes to the charity cause.
- Small local charity project:
Looking for volunteers to support their charitable work.
Does not make a profit.
The other types of businesses that you will come across are online directories of volunteer organisations. Volunteer organisations often pay a fee to appear on these directories which can feature hundreds or thousands of organisations. The directories have great marketing power, and you will find all types of volunteer organisations listed with them.
Look Past the Marketing – Is it All About the Money and does that matter?
In your internet searches you have come across many organisations with flashy websites and pictures of smiling faces, advertising their low fees or their best volunteer abroad programs. This may be fair and useful information, and it is certainly a good tool for attracting new volunteers. But is it telling you the whole story? Or is the elaborate marketing distracting you from some unwholesome truths?
Volunteering while traveling has become enormously popular in recent years, and with this popularity, the number of organisations specialising in “voluntourism” has expanded. However, many organisations are taking advantage of this new market of well-meaning tourists simply to make more money for themselves. Their first priority is not the project, the project’s beneficiaries, or the volunteers, but their own profits. They are for-profit commercial companies, exploiting the volunteer travel trend for their own good, not that of the projects with whom they work.
Does this matter?
Does this matter? Surely I need to pay for my own accommodation and food, as well as the services from the volunteer organisation? Of course, the local charity is not likely to have sufficient funds to pay for the cost of hosting international volunteers, and the volunteer organisation is coordinating everything for you. The issue comes when you are volunteering at the local charity, and you can see the amazing work they carry out with very few resources. You hope that the thousands of dollars that you paid the volunteer organisation was of help to the project and their amazing and essential work. But you discover that none of the money that you paid ever reached the charity to support their work! The money you paid covered the costs of your accommodation and airport pickup, and the rest went to the corporate organisation that you paid to organise your volunteer trip.
Do you know the difference between a for-profit and a non-profit organisation? And why it should matter to you?
For-profit organisations have owners and shareholders, and their goal is to maximize profits and forward them to these same owners and shareholders. It’s all about making as much money as they can for their owners. Conversely, non-profit organisations do not have owners or shareholders. Their goals are centred on social or environmental causes, with a humanitarian or philanthropic attitude towards providing for society’s and earth’s needs. This means that while they are still concerned with making sure revenue is greater than costs, any revenue is recycled back into the non-profit to help it achieve its mission and vision.
Being a non-profit does not mean the organisation doesn’t have an income or paid staff, but it does mean that they do not make a profit that is used for anything other than working towards the mission of the organisation.
If you are truly wanting to make a difference through your volunteer experience, then ethically, this distinction should matter to you. But it may be hard to see through the marketing agendas to know whether you are giving money to an organisation that is placing its own profit margin above the needs and concerns of the projects to which they send volunteers.
Know the Difference – 6 Common Misconceptions about Volunteer Organisations
Prospective volunteers face a number of misconceptions and false impressions when searching for service opportunities. To avoid making the wrong choice, there are several questions you should ask yourself before deciding an organisation is “the one.” But more importantly, you should be asking these questions of the organisation itself.
Let’s talk about some of these misconceptions so that you know what to look out for. Then we’ll help you think about what questions you should ask before making a decision.
“The website is a ‘.org,’ so it must be non-profit, right?”
The answer to this question is NO! Definitely not. Anyone with a website domain can register it as a “.org” without restrictions. Originally the .org domain category was meant for non-profits, but this was never enforced, and the specification has since been removed. While most non-profits do use a .org domain name, for-profit entities and commercial companies can use this domain name if they choose to, and many do to give the impression of a charitable organisation.
“The organisation says it is a non-profit on their website, so this must be true.”
Unfortunately, this is wrong! First of all, the definition of “non-profit” varies by country.
In the United States:
For an organisation to be truly a non-profit, it must be registered as a 501(c)3 with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), meaning that its primary activities are “charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering amateur sports competition, preventing cruelty to children, or preventing cruelty to animals.”
In the UK:
A “non-profit” is simply a commercial organisation that does not have shareholders. Though considered non-profits, they are legally called a “Company Limited by Guarantee” and can still distribute profits to members. If they do this, they are not eligible for charitable status – their activities are commercial and not necessarily charitable in nature.
In contrast, the legal equivalent of a 501(c)3 in the UK is a Registered Charity. These organisations:
- Have high status
- Are non-profit
- Have their finances independently examined
- Have publicly available financial information
- Are regulated by the UK Charity Commission
Charities must be registered with and endorsed by the Australian Charities and Not-for profits Commission (ACNC). Without this registration and endorsement, you cannot know if the organisation is truly non-profit.
What about volunteer projects registered in the country where I will be volunteering?
This is where things can get complicated as in many underdeveloped countries, a legal registration of a charity means something very different to a UK or Australian Charity or a USA 501c. Every country has its own unique way of registering organisations, what they call different types of organisations and how these organisations are monitored. Unfortunately, even a locally registered orphanage could be a fake and a scam as detailed in our blog about orphanage volunteering. There are many wonderful local charities registered in undeveloped countries, but you should carry out your own due diligence. Ask - do they have accounts? Are they independently audited? Are there yearly reports? Do they have connection with other local charities or international charities?
Can I just trust what the website says?
So, you cannot always trust what a website says. You must research the specifications of the country where the organisation is located and independently verify that the organisation is registered with the proper entity. Many will call themselves 'charitable, non-profit or social enterprises' on their websites, but do not have that status legally registered. Many volunteering organisations, especially international ones, are actually commercial for-profit companies. Many admit this if you investigate the fine-print on their websites. Don’t let clever marketing fool you and question why they tried to give you the impression that they are a charity or non-profit when in fact they are a commercial, for profit company.
“The volunteer fees are very low, so that must mean this organisation isn’t making any profit.”
Wrong again! The prices may be low because they are not sending any money to the projects with which they work. If an organisation is taking volunteer fees, a portion of this should be donated to the projects directly, making sure they have the funds necessary to carry out their important work, as well as support the volunteers on site. Many organisations do not do this, allowing them to keep their fees low and entice more clients.
Can you verify where your volunteer placement fee is going? Do they have independently audited reports verifying that their income is used for charitable donations and activities? While legitimate non-profits may not be able to break down your donation pound by pound or dollar by dollar, they should still be able to provide evidence that all volunteer fees are spend appropriately and not placed in their own pockets.
Your response might be, “But the commercial organisation has a pie chart telling me where their money goes, and it looks like lots of money goes to the charity.”
Unfortunately, commercial organisations can create their own pie charts and information about how your money is spent. Because they are not regulated by an outside agency, no independent audit is required for them. For example, they may use words like “program development” in their fee breakdowns, which may sound like money is going to an orphanage (or whatever the given project is) to develop the improve the project. But, it could also mean staff salaries and flights to travel abroad! True non-profits and charities have independently audited accounts and are only allowed to provide these accounts publicly; they cannot change the words or amounts to suit a marketing agenda.
Hidden Volunteering Fees
Furthermore, be sure to look out for hidden fees! Many organisations advertise low prices: “Volunteer for only $20 per week!” But when you read the fine print at the bottom of the page, there is more often than not a separate “admin fee” or “application fee” for $300 or more that is not part of that per-week price. Often there are also banking fees attached, or even more fees on top of that depending on the programme that are not advertised in that weekly fee! Also consider that if you pay $20 a week, what support do you receive in country, what resources are available, and what is your accommodation like? The local charity is unlikely to have enough funds to support international volunteers once in country; their precise funds are spent on the cause they champion.
So don’t be fooled by the marketing ads– be sure you are getting the whole story before you apply. If you aren’t careful, the fees may even sneak up on you after you have filled out your application and are ready to book your trip – if you haven’t read the fine print, you may not know about the fees until you are asked to submit payment.
“Since this is a volunteering programme, it must be ethical and helping to make a difference in some way. They wouldn’t call it ‘volunteering’ otherwise.”
Think twice! In recent years, it has come to light that many establishments offering overseas volunteering opportunities or taking “donations” for experiences are actually scams, often exploiting vulnerable children and animals for profit. Some of the more shocking examples of this are:
- Fake orphanages where children with parents are posed as orphans (for more on this, check out our blog about orphanage volunteering)
- Zoos pretending to be wildlife rescue centres, needlessly taking animals from the wild, for display and profit
- Big cat petting or feeding experiences in Africa where the lions are later used for canned tourist trophy hunting
- Tiger petting experiences (such as the Tiger Temple in Thailand), where tigers are illegally trafficked, drugged, kept in deplorable conditions, and often killed
But there are also instances where the ethical transgressions may not be so obvious.
- Organisations claiming to be elephant sanctuaries, but where elephant riding, trekking, or performing takes place (for more on this, check out our Elephant Sanctuary blog)
- Overseas schools claiming to be charitable organisations, but where middle-class children are charged for classes and international volunteers used as teachers rather than paid local staff, meaning the organisation pockets all tuition fees
- Animal care volunteering organisations where the volunteer experience is valued above the actual well-being of the animals such as a notorious sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica. (i.e. Is it really okay for you to be touching that particular animal? Has the animal’s health and safety been considered primarily, or are you getting to interact with it for your own amusement?)
Many unsuspecting volunteers, tourists, and donors have fallen victim to such organisations, not realising what was really going on behind the scenes or simply being naïve, not realizing their actions were causing harm rather than helping. Do your research! Is this organisation dedicated to their cause, or just to making money? While your intentions may be good, those of the organisation may not be.
Ending bad practices
For example, recently, an elephant sanctuary in Thailand wrote to Globalteer looking for a partnership, as one of their international volunteering partners “no longer shared their vision.” The sanctuary had decided to put the elephants’ welfare first and to end the practice of elephant riding at their site and instead let the elephants live more freely, exhibiting their natural behaviour in the forest. Their commercial international volunteer organisation partner at the time was adamant that elephant riding must be included as part of the volunteer package, or they would no longer send volunteers to them. The volunteer organisation was purely interested in profit and attracting volunteers with the promise of being able to ride an elephant, rather than encouraging the ethical vision of the elephant sanctuary. Is that the kind of organisation you would want to volunteer through?
“I cannot find any bad reviews online. These must be the best volunteer abroad programs!”
Wait just a minute! Most of the larger volunteer organisations will have great online reviews, but if you are in the know about how these things work, not all is as it seems. What kinds of reviews are you seeing? Can you see Facebook reviews and Google reviews? Or has the organisation turned the option off for people to leave reviews on Facebook? If so, why might they have done that? It makes one pause to think. Is there something they are not wanting you to see?
Furthermore, evaluations and reviews found online need to be taken with a grain of salt. Volunteer organisations can pay for online marketing and reviews. So keep in mind that Facebook and Google reviews tend to be more authentic, as it is difficult to create a false Facebook profile to leave fake reviews. If you can’t see any reviews on Facebook, take that into consideration and ask yourself why they do not want reviews on an independent platform like Facebook.
Some big commercial volunteer organisations turn off their facebook reviews so that real volunteers cannot review them on a platform that they cannot control. They rely on reviews posted on sites with whom they have a mutual financial interest. Some volunteers therefore have to use their initiative and create a facebook page where volunteers can freely review organisations.
The connection between commercial volunteer organisations and volunteer review websites is well documented in this article about fake reviews.
Also be wary of volunteer organisation awards. Many of the awards given are from partners in the industry where there is a financial partnership in place.
“The website looks extremely professional – this must be the best volunteer organisation to work with.”
Maybe. Or maybe not. A professional website is a great tool to have, and all volunteer organisations should strive to have one. Presenting clear information and attracting volunteers is key for organisations to do their work and help the beneficiaries of their projects. However, all of the points above should make it clear to you that a showy website may not be conveying all the information you need to know. Often the unsavoury details are only included in the fine print (or not included at all). Look past the marketing!
Questions to Ask Before You Choose a Volunteer Organisation
This may seem overwhelming. How can you know if you are choosing a responsible volunteer organisation? Here are some questions you should research before deciding. And if you cannot find the answers on your own, call them up! Ask these questions to them directly.
Is the organisation officially registered with an appropriate entity to ensure it is charitable?
Is it a non-profit or a commercial company?
Where does your money go?
Are official, independently examined financial reports available publicly?
How can they offer such low prices?
Do they put profit before child or animal welfare?
Do they have a Child Protection Policy and require background checks if they work with children?
Do they encourage harmful practices such as elephant riding?
Do they explain their ethos when it comes to how wildlife and volunteers interact?
Do they have a set of ethical standards to which they hold themselves?
Who benefits from the programmes they offer?
What is the relationship between who I sign up with and who I volunteer with?
How many layers exist between this placement organisation and the actual project (who is my money actually going to and who will be supporting me in-country)
How does the organisation make sure its projects are sustainable?
Are programme goals established and published?
How do volunteer activities support the projects?
Are local support staff employed?
In conclusion - How do I choose the best volunteer abroad program for me?
We understand that it is not easy to decide which is the best volunteer organisation for you or who provides the best volunteer projects. Slick marketing, misleading websites and the power of money all make this a difficult task for the first time volunteer. Here are the top tips on how to choose a volunteer abroad program:
- Volunteer abroad with a true non-profit charity that is correctly and legally registered as a non-profit. Just because an organisation says they are a charitable non-profit, it does not mean that they are!
- Look through the slick marketing, and ask the organisation the important questions listed in this blog.
- Read the online reviews with a pinch of salt; it is too easy to fake online reviews. Look for Facebook and Google reviews as they are more difficult to fake.
Making Your Choice, Responsibly and Ethically
We hope you have found this information useful, and that it will help you to “Know the Difference” when it comes to wanting to “Make a Difference!” Despite all the bad eggs, there are many wonderful organisations out there offering the best volunteering opportunities. You just need to know how to filter through the seas of information to find them.
For many, volunteering abroad for their favourite cause is a once in a lifetime experience. Whether it be working at an elephant sanctuary, in wildlife conservation or with children and communities, your money should be put back into the cause you love.
Of course, we would love for you to volunteer with Globalteer and our great projects. Yes, we do our best to have a quality website, and we try to keep our fees low while still covering our operating costs. But we also are a non-profit, a registered charity, and stand by a code of ethics that we promise to never infringe.
Hopefully you now have an insider view of the volunteering industry and there were not too many shocks! Let us know in the comments below if there are still questions you have about choosing the best volunteer organisation or if you have any further insights and advice for future volunteers.