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Breaking Down the Barriers to Volunteering Abroad

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The village was waiting for me to dance. Hundreds of Greek eyes focused on my two left feet, hoping I'd walk out amongst the circle of clapping hands and complete my 'initiation.' Earlier that day, 15 volunteers, including myself, had spent hours doing construction work and helping the locals rebuild their small rural town in Eastern Greece. It was the first day of a month-long project, and the hosts were so excited to have us there that an impromptu town party had been arranged. And Greeks, even in a small rural village, know how to host a party. As I stepped out amongst the crowd ready to impersonate a traditional Greek dancer, I sensed this might be one of those life-changing experiences. A month of hard work and a village of new friends later, I was certain.

At its core, international volunteerism effects positive change in communities around the world that need it most. And returning volunteers would assert that the experience extends far beyond direct assistance to the host community; it promotes the exchange of ideas and improved cultural understanding, creates global citizens and can be a source of lasting personal transformation.

Now I don't want to sound too much like a Pollyanna. The negative consequences that a poor-quality volunteer project can have on the host community and the volunteer have been well-documented and widely discussed. But there are also thousands of quality volunteer projects around the globe that are providing real and lasting benefits to all those involved. Unfortunately, there are significant information and financial barriers that keep more people from participating in these programs. With the launch of Volunteer Forever, our goal is to provide a solution that helps prospective volunteers overcome these challenges.

I experienced one of those obstacles firsthand while planning for my first volunteer trip. I had the passion, skills and time to offer to a community that needed it, but not the funds to support the entire trip. The cost to participate in these projects is often significant, and makes volunteering abroad unattainable for many people. In my case I was able to raise enough funds to make it a reality, but the fundraising process seemed inefficient and unnecessarily difficult. There was a community of people that wanted to offer their support but no effective way to convey my story and collect donations from my network.

My business partner and Volunteer Forever's Founder and CEO, Steven Weddle, experienced a different challenge. After volunteering in India with a large and well-known placement organization, he came back with several concerns about the experience and how the project was being run. He wrote a fair and honest review of the organization on a review site only to find it deleted the next day. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a large banner ad of the organization he reviewed right there on the site homepage. He began to perceive a conflict of interest between the site supporting their paid advertisers and providing a platform for credible reviews.

He later found out he wasn't the only one concerned about a lack of trust among user reviews. As a prospective volunteer, you're about to spend thousands of dollars and weeks to months of your life in a foreign country. Is your program fee going to good use? Will you actually add meaningful value to your project? Will you be safe? A reliable source of information based on authentic volunteer experiences is critical to answering these questions.

Together we knew there had to be a better solution for volunteers, a way to help them select and overseas placement from authentic reviews and raise money effectively so they could make their trip a reality. This is why we created Volunteer Forever -- to help volunteers find and fund their trips.

Volunteer Forever is a unique platform based on community engagement where volunteers can find all the information and resources they need to travel abroad. The website features reviews of volunteer organizations to help users select an overseas placement, and will soon feature a patent-pending review verification system that leverages a user's engagement on the site to ensure reviewer authenticity.

Additionally, Volunteer Forever offers a crowdfunding platform that simplifies and personalizes fundraising. Volunteers can create custom pages that tell their story and explain their fundraising needs. With integrated blogging and social media tools the volunteer can instantly tap into the power of their extended networks, making it easy to receive donations from family, friends and community members. And those same contacts can share the page with their own networks, allowing for a much larger reach than possible with traditional fundraising techniques.

Volunteer Forever is going to make it possible for more people to volunteer abroad. Steven and I are excited to share the story of Volunteer Forever and why we believe it can make a difference. In the end, we want to not only help people serve communities in need around the world, but also create a more globally-engaged, aware, and concerned citizen base.

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