Questions from our volunteers abroad about donations are some of the most frequent ones we hear.
With good reason too.
Just from their research and talking with us, upcoming volunteers understand that there are many needs in the communities they will serve.
Should they collect shoes, clothes, and toys from home? Or wait until they arrive and donate? Or not donate any items at all? After arriving, volunteers often feel overwhelmed because they want to help out so badly but do not know where to start.
First, please understand that our organization does not require or expect you to make any donation above and beyond your program fee and your time volunteering.
Our programs are focused on donating our own and our volunteers’ time, energy, skills and compassion to others in need. Everyone is aware of our philosophy and approach, including Program Coordinators, host families, and the organizations where volunteers work.
However, we appreciate that resisting the urge to donate money or items is much easier said than done! So, if you do decide to donate to local organizations in the host country, we have some guidelines for you below.
Buy Items in the Host Country
We recommend buying the items in the host country rather than bringing them from home.
1) You’ll be sure to give items that are familiar to locals. Examples: medicines whose toleration/side effects are known to locals; culturally relevant flash cards; flip-flops that fit properly.
2) Locals can easily get more of the items when your supplies run out.
3) You’ll be supporting local shops/vendors where you’ll buy the items.
4) You’ll have less stuff to pack in your bags from home.
There is No Shortage of “Stuff” Abroad
Our host countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have legions of supermarkets, shops and vendors everywhere — even in the tiniest, most remote villages. They sell all of the items foreigners typically like to donate including: shoes, clothes, toys, food, pens, chalk, notebooks, cell phones, eyeglasses, sports equipment, toiletries, and medications, toiletries.
It’s not that the local schools and orphanages cannot find the above materials. They usually just lack the money to buy them.
One dirty secret about the entire donation game is that often enough the local beneficiary organizations cannot even use the items! We have visited several orphanages where they had a special store room where they kept the unused donations. But the organizations are reluctant to push back for fear of putting off the donors.
Do Not Give Cash
We do not recommend donating cash to anyone abroad.
It has a way of disappearing.
Our volunteers in the past have, for example, donated cash to orphanages in Ghana and Nepal without any direction or oversight. They simply hoped the orphanage directors would do the right things and use all of the cash for the children — for things like food supplies (like rice), uniforms, school tuition, and medical checkups.
Unfortunately, little-to-none of the cash got spent on the children and ended up in individuals’ pockets instead.
However, despite our advice, we realize that our program participants will still occasionally donate cash.
So, if you do go ahead and decide to give cash, the best chance of having it spent according to your wishes is to make sure the cash goes directly from your pocket to the hands of the shopkeepers.
Being “present” would mean actually going to the shop with the orphanage director (for guidance on what to buy) and buy the items yourself.
If you cannot be physically present when purchases for items are made, then just keep the money.
Another example is school tuition. Go to the school and hand the money to the principal, and have them give you a receipt or letter confirming the amount and the students benefiting. Then, make a copy and give it to the students parents so the parents have proof of tuition-paid.
Is It That Bad Out There?
We appreciate that some of the above might seem harsh. Because surely others have had positive experiences with donating items and cash to people abroad (although we don’t hear those stories often).
And of course there are many honest and caring people in our host countries who run orphanages, clinics, schools, and AIDS organizations.
To be fair, the Western world has as much — if not more corruption — than in our host countries, but our volunteers with donations often have to deal with it on the street-level abroad.
But staying true to the approach we’ve always taken, we prefer to give our program participants the true picture of everything that is involved in volunteering abroad.
We avoid the slick, sugar-coated versions of service learning trips that many other organizations are happy to provide.