8 Things Every Volunteer Organization Should Provide
I always tried my best to take advantage of my summer breaks at university, using them to travel and experience the world. It was my mission to spend every summer abroad. When the funding permitted, I did and saw as much as I could.
I am by no means declaring myself a travel expert or a volunteering expert. However, based on my own experiences and the stories I gathered from other travelers, both good and bad, here are some things I believe everyone should expect and demand from a volunteer sending organization:
One of the main benefits of using an organization to do volunteer work abroad is that you’ll gain a better idea of what you will be doing upfront. Volunteer sending organizations deal with a high volume of travelers all year round. Before booking, a pre-departure team should get in contact to explain exactly how you can get involved with volunteering. This team should be able to answer all the questions you may have about the work you will be doing, where you will be staying, and more.
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The downside of volunteering through organizations is the cost – much higher than going it alone – but from what I’ve heard, it seems that going directly to a charity isn’t without its challenges, even if it may originally seem cheaper and more authentic. The people I spoke to who chose to volunteer without the involvement of an organization ended up doing different work than they had expected, or not doing anything at all because a school was closed. In one case, a guy I met had just been helping with his host’s business but felt obligated to stay.
A Fair Price
As with many things, you get what you pay for. I paid £790 for a two-week project, but I’ve also stayed essentially for free on others, with a small contribution to the charity. Unfortunately, expensive programme fees don’t always go 100% to the charity – fees often reflect the quality of accommodation. If you’re paying thousands (excluding flights), you have the right to expect not to live in a shared sex dormitory or to be required to bring your own camp bed. So, do check what you’re getting for your money.
Same Day Replies
If you are emailing or phoning a potential organization within regular working hours, you should expect a same-day response. Within reason, of course – don’t be too surprised if you email at 16:57 and don’t get a response until the next morning. If no one gets back to you for a couple of days, though, you may want to reconsider your choice. Organizations with slow replies may be unorganized, understaffed, or unprofessional.
In the early stages of planning, slow responses may not seem like a serious issue, as you’re in no immediate need of the information. However, when you’re in a foreign country later or have missed a connecting flight and need support immediately, this can become a safety issue. Imagine being unable to find your airport pick-up driver, or getting locked out of the volunteer’s accommodation – you don’t want to be waiting two days for an email.
Contact with Other Volunteers
First volunteer trips can be scary and daunting. Organizations should be able to put you in contact with others who are traveling around the same time as yourself to ease your nerves. Having some familiar names and faces before you join the project and once you land should help with settling in.
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Be aware that smaller projects may not have a group of volunteers together at one time, they may only take one or two volunteers each month. If you are nervous about volunteering and this is your first trip, it’s probably best to start on a group project with other volunteers.
Provision of Relevant Country Information
Even well-traveled people can become confused by the technicalities involved in visiting a new country. For inexperienced travelers, getting a visa can feel like a highly complicated process.
Visas involve tricky applications, and the process can be rather lengthy. You will fail to get a visa if your organization doesn’t provide you with the correct details. Your organization may provide supporting documentation to assist with your visa application, ask them!
Be sure to apply through the correct visa agency or consulate – keep an eye out for scam sites. You should be told which visa-type you need (tourist, student, working, etc). Some countries won’t allow volunteering on tourist visas, and deportations are not uncommon!
You will need the addresses of your hosts for most visa applications; these should be provided.
Some countries will also have immunization requirements. You may have to allow time between shots, so plan accordingly. Organizations are being irresponsible and putting your health at risk if they do not tell you about the immunizations you will need before travel.
A Volunteer’s Packing List
Some projects require certain things you’ll need to add to your packing list. Providing volunteers with a list of what to take is not mandatory; you may have to request a packing list after booking. Budget volunteering projects may require you to bring more items, such as bedding or a sleeping bag. You can guarantee an uncomfortable night’s sleep in your future if you forget to bring a pillow or hammock!
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Volunteer accommodation can be rustic or comfortable depending on how much you are paying, but in any situation, don’t expect a turndown service with free toiletries and a chocolate on your pillow.
A reputable organization should have a regular driver whose responsibility is to pick you up and get you to your accommodation safely.
In reality, once you’ve landed and have gotten off your flight, it can feel as if you’ve just been beamed in from another universe. Everything is different. The language barrier alone can turn something as easy as getting a taxi into a challenge. Demand a pre-arranged airport pick-up from your volunteer-sending organization.
No pick-up service? Not all public transportation methods in underdeveloped countries can be trusted. Don’t use public transportation until you’ve touched base with in-country staff and have been advised on which options should be used and which to avoid.
Unless you are well-traveled or confidently self-sufficient, avoid volunteering on projects which have no in-country support team. This team is your safety net if things go wrong. The bare minimum support offered should be the telephone number of someone who can be there if you need help. The team doesn’t need to be with you 24/7, but you should at least be able to contact them when you need them.
Volunteers have the right to expect the in-country support team to be bilingual, able to communicate with both volunteers and locals; have experience with hosting volunteers; able to organize at least a rough schedule for volunteering; and most importantly, ready to help you in case of emergency.
Here is a list of reputable organizations and portals to find charities which either I used or were used by people I met:
- HelpX – Hosts looking for volunteers and helping hands.
- TheBarWa Centres – a non-profit humanitarian organization in Myanmar
- Original Volunteers – Low-cost projects all over the world.
- Wildlife Volunteer – Animal sanctuaries based all around Thailand.
- ProFauna – Conservation volunteering in Indonesia.
- Discover Corps – More comfortable volunteering opportunities around the world.
- US Peace Corps – American volunteers only