by Paulina Rakowska
Much has been written about how to search for and prepare for a volunteer or career opportunity abroad. But how do you select an opportunity in the first place?
The truth is, while volunteering in a different country can be a great way to give back, learn more about the world around you, and launch a career abroad, there are many questions to consider. Aside from concerns around transparency and support for volunteers (is the money you give actually doing what the organization says it will?), you also have to think about whether or not your work is doing more harm than good (read about the "hug-an-orphan-vacation" phenomenon).
I launched vofair.org (short for volunteer fairly) in 2012 to help take out some of the guesswork in selecting international volunteer opportunities. We verify projects in person and provide a platform that links helps volunteers find experiences with grassroot, non-governmental organizations that are fair, ethical and purposeful.
In doing this work, I've realized there are a few questions all volunteers should ask before accepting an international opportunity.
What's happening in the country where I want to volunteer?
Before you decide on a volunteer opportunity, explore what's going on in the country where the opportunity is located. First, review the news and be alert to any political changes. Also review traveler forums and make a list of risks and dangers to see if you can avoid them in your travels.
Aside from political concerns, read up on any vaccinations you might need. Prepare a pack of medicine that you are used to take in case of emergencies. You shouldn't plan to rely on local pharmacists knowing the names of drugs you might need.
What kind of accommodation will be provided?
Organizations, when possible, should send you a guide with detailed explanations of the living conditions, your tasks, and other aspects of your life as a volunteer so you can prepare accordingly. For example, we've heard stories of a lack of potable water for volunteers (which can have serious health consequences) or accommodation without windows (which was actually considered as luxury, since no windows meant no sun coming in with the heat!).
If you're paying, what are you paying for?
If an intermediary claims that your money spent on their service goes in part to the community, ask for proof. You can ask for a signed letter from the people who receive those funds or to contact them directly. If this is not feasible, ask for any reports from audits that the company has undergone in the past.
Who is the volunteer coordinator and what experience does he/she have?
Whenever possible, try to talk to the volunteer coordinator beforehand. Ask for their time within the organization and previous volunteering experience. At vofair.org, we interview the volunteer coordinators in front of a camera and we publish the videos on project profile pages, so that the future volunteers could have the chance to know more about the person they'll likely be spending a lot of time with.
What is the final purpose of the whole project? Who are the beneficiaries?
You might be so excited about going abroad to volunteer that you might forget the most important part - who will actually benefit from your hard work? Make sure that you know the mission of the project and the organization as a whole. Are your future tasks in line with the mission? If you are going to be working directly with people, especially children, the time you spend there is really important. We recommend you review our short guide and make sure you volunteer long enough according to psychologists´ recommendations.
What do former volunteers say?
You will get the most honest reviews from former volunteers. Sometimes it is hard to obtain their contact information from the hosting organization (and even then, they might only connect you to ones they've chosen). Try searching via online forums and LinkedIn. If you manage to contact them, ask about what they loved and gained, but also asked about their most difficult times and how the experience might have been different than they expected.
All these precautions will reduce any types of risks when volunteering abroad. Best of luck in your volunteer opportunities and changing the world for a better place!
Born in Poland, Paulina has lived in eight countries across three continents and speaks five languages. She holds MSc degrees in business engineering and ecological economics. In 2012 she started vofair.org, a foundation incorporated in Chile, and operating globally. Paulina believes in transparency is key to great volunteering. She is currently moving to Australia and never stops to attract the best volunteers for her organization.
This piece originally appeared in Idealist Careers where you can learn how to find a job that makes a difference.