There are many things to consider when choosing a volunteer abroad organization for your service trip abroad.
You have to consider things like the reliability of the organization, the structure of the volunteer programs offered, and of course the cost.
Below are important things to consider when searching for a volunteer abroad program.
Where Is the Organization Based?
There are two types of volunteer abroad organizations:
• One that is located in your home country. (or similar western nation)
• One that is based solely in the country where you will volunteer.
The best option for most travelers is the first one – a volunteer organization based in your home country. This is true even for the most seasoned travelers. Why? Some of the reasons include:
Housing and meals
Guaranteed volunteer placement
Follow-up after you return home
A volunteer abroad organization in your home country will be staffed mostly by people who share your culture – language, customs, worldview, school background, work life, etc. Because they share your culture AND they have considerable expertise in the volunteer abroad field, the staff is able to give you the best knowledge and preparation for being a “stranger-in-a-strange-land” during your trip.
They know what it’s like to:
Plan for a trip abroad
Handle culture shock
Live in a foreign household with completely different rules
Thrive in a foreign workplace with language and culture barriers
Learn and understand local customs and practices
Avoid being an easy mark for local scam artists
If you choose to go with a volunteer organization based in the country where you will volunteer:
Will you be able to call them with questions? For example, if you’re going to Kenya to volunteer and you live in California, the time difference is 11 hours.
When you get someone on the phone, who pays for the call? You or them?
What if you cannot understand their accent? And vice-versa?
Phone connections can be notoriously bad, especially on mobile phones and especially with calls to places like India, Africa, and Latin America.
Most people don’t want to think about the fact that things might go wrong with your volunteer trip abroad. But since you’re likely spending several thousand dollars on your trip, you have to.
For example, if the volunteer abroad organization’s negligence or incompetence ruins your trip; say, if they do not deliver what they promised or they have to cancel your trip altogether, you might want to seek legal action against them. In that case, it will be much easier and less costly to pursue the matter if the organization is located in your home country.
As you will noticed in your search for a volunteer program abroad, the program fees charged by various organizations can vary significantly.
What does the program fee include? The program fee you pay to the volunteer abroad organization should include most of the following:
Pretrip Phone Support and Guidance
Assistance with Visa Process
Transport to Program Site
Introduction to Host Family and Program
Placement and Supervision in Program
Meals & Accommodations
24-hour Emergency Support
Letters of Reference / Certificate
How Long Have They Been Around?
When was the volunteer organization established?
What year did they have their first volunteer abroad?
Many volunteer abroad organizations are less than 10 years old. This is because the emergence of third-party organizations arranging volunteer placements abroad is a relatively new phenomenon.
Starting a volunteer abroad organization is often done by former volunteers who are sufficiently inspired by their own experience to want to help others volunteer abroad as well. Others are in-country locals who are similarly well-meaning but also see the field as great money-maker for themselves.
Because it is relatively quick and easy to start a volunteer abroad organization – basically just put up a website and you’re in business – it attracts those who might not necessarily have the skills, dedication, and experience to see things through. It is incredibly difficult to grow and manage a viable volunteer abroad organization that provides tremendous benefits and support to its volunteers as well as to the local community.
Bottom Line: Find an organization that has been placing volunteers regularly for at least three years.
That’s normally enough time to weed out most would-be entrepreneurs who, while enthusiastic early-on, are not truly dedicated to developing their organization and eventually just move on to different fields of work or study. So if they’re less than three years old, buyer-beware.
Non-Profit Or For-Profit
Volunteer abroad organizations come in two forms in terms of their legal structure: Nonprofit and For-Profit.
A nonprofit organization is organized for public rather than private benefit. Examples include churches, schools, and disaster relief organizations. The individuals governing and operating the organization are prohibited from taking a profit from their activities. (They may earn reasonable compensation, however).
For-profit organizations, on the other hand, are organized primarily to earn a profit on their activities.
In terms of the services they provide to you as the volunteer, both types of organizations are virtually indistinguishable. They both recruit volunteers, prepare them for their trips, arrange the volunteer programs, house and feed volunteers, and provide emergency and post-trip support.
What’s the Primary Difference? Tax Deductibility.
Volunteering with a Nonprofit organization that is tax-exempt* allows you to lower your tax bill when you file your annual tax return. Most of your expenses towards the volunteer trip – including airfare and the program fee – can be deducted against your adjusted gross income. With a for-profit organization, you cannot take any tax deduction.
The only person who can take the tax-deduction for the costs related to the volunteer program is the volunteer him/herself. So if your parents pay for your trip, neither you nor your parents can take the tax deduction for the trip expenses. Please see IRS Publication 526 for a full discussion on charitable contributions.
* A nonprofit volunteer abroad organization that is tax-exempt has the official classification with the IRS in the US of 501(c)(3). Not all nonprofits are necessarily tax-exempt organization. Nonprofit organization must go through a rigorous application process with the government in order to obtain tax-exempt status, by proving that their purpose is not to earn profits but to provide a public service or good. You can search for these types of volunteer organizations at Guidestar.org. www.guidestar.org.
Are they registered with the local government? On the Federal and State levels?
Is their government registration information available on their website?
Tax-exempt non-profit in the US must make their tax returns and tax-exempt status letter from the IRS available to the public. Ask them for copies of each, if only for your piece of mind.
24 Hour Support
The volunteer abroad organization should have an in-country coordinator who is available 24/7 for you for daily support and assistance for any emergencies.
The volunteer abroad organization should also have a telephone number that is answered by live staff 24 hours a day at their home office, in case of any emergency, such as urgent medical care.
The volunteer abroad organization must be available 24 hours a day to contact your emergency contacts at home in case of any emergencies.
Do they answer the phone right away during business hours?
Do they answer emails promptly, say within 24 hours?
Do they answer all your questions?
If they don’t know an answer, do they research it and answer you promptly?
Are they patient and friendly?
Do they sound professional? Knowledgeable? Caring? Honest?
Do you feel like just a number to them? This should worry you.
Will you have a dedicated representative handling your program?
Will you get passed around the office, getting lost in the shuffle?
Clearly Stated Policies
Every reputable volunteer abroad organization has formal policies. This shows that the organization has thought about important factors relating to your volunteer trip abroad. They should also list those policies on their website. This shows that they are transparent and honest about their policies and procedures.
Some important policies to look for:
Payment schedule for Program Fee
Code of conduct
Alumni and Testimonials
Reputable volunteer abroad organizations always have available the contact information and testimonials from some of their alumni. You can usually find this type of information on the organizations’ websites. Some alumni are even kind enough to talk to potential volunteers like you on the phone.
Where Are the Volunteer Programs Located?
Keep in mind the region (e.g. Africa, Asia) as well as the country.
Do you want a rural placement?
Do you prefer an urban environment with modern conveniences?
Do you want to be around other volunteers?
What Type of volunteer work do they offer?
Do you prefer to volunteer with children, say at an orphanage or school? Or hands-on conservation work where you build houses or clean parks? There are also volunteer medical programs designed for medical students and professionals. Many organizations also design custom volunteer abroad programs based on your input. You can either work in a group setting with other volunteer or work individually at a volunteer project.
Length of volunteer abroad program
Volunteer abroad organizations vary in the length of the volunteer programs they offer. You can volunteer abroad for as little as one week, as much as a two years, and all lengths in-between.
Flexibility of Volunteer program dates
Find out if the volunteer program has fixed dates or if you are allowed to choose your own travel dates.
Local Support from Coordinators
The volunteer abroad organization should have an in-country coordinator who is available 24/7 for you for daily support and assistance for any emergencies. The volunteer organization should also have an 800 number and staff available 24/7 at their home office in case of any emergency, such as urgent medical care.
Most organizations include accommodations in your program fee. The living conditions vary widely in most volunteer placements, from mud huts without electricity to modern dormitories with satellite TV. Can you live for, say, two months without running water, television, and an outhouse? Do you prefer to live with other volunteers in the same house? Do you prefer a host family with children? Can the host family accommodate special dietary requirements like vegetarian meals?