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How to Evaluate International Volunteer Sending Organizations

In recent years, dozens of new organizations are offering a variety of ways to volunteer internationally—from preparing food on an eco-tourism ranch to teaching kids in an orphanage in Tanzania.

With this increasing number of international volunteer sending organizations (VSOs), it is becoming more and more difficult to figure out which ones are a good match for you. After a while, the websites of all the VSOs start to blur into a sea of photos of happy volunteers with adorable children hugging them.

How do you tell which programs are really doing what they say they do? Which programs are worth the money they charge? Which are sustainable and which are a flimsy form of "VolunTourism"—using volunteerism to recruit people and make money, without thought to the potentially harmful impacts on the local community?

There’s no need to get overwhelmed by the choices. With a few steps, you can conduct due diligence and make sure the VSO you select is a good match for you.

1. Make a list of your interests and needs for your volunteer experience. For example, "I want to volunteer in Africa for 2 weeks and do something involving kids." Or "I seek a 3 month volunteer opportunity in Central America that includes language training and costs less than $5000." Or "I want a long term experience in Asia, but I don't want to join the Peace Corps and I need to find an organization that will cover most or all of my expenses."

Use the Volunteer Interests and Special Needs form below to help you clarify your target experience.

2. Create a short list of 3-5 possible VSOs that match your interests and needs. Use on-line databases, word of mouth, and internet research. For databases, see Volunteer Abroad, www.volunteerabroad.com, and Idealist, www.idealist.org. Idealist lists independent volunteer opportunities as well as VSOs. Of course the TransitionsAbroad.com search is also a fantastic resource, especially if you know the country where you want to volunteer, and also includes first-hand participant reports.

The International Volunteer Placement Association (IVPA) screens its members to ensure a high standard of quality. If you are overwhelmed with all the choices, you might want to start with the list of IVPA members www.volunteerinternational.org/memberlist.html.

3. Chose your evaluation criteria. See the worksheet below for suggestions. Pick the two or three that are most important to you, such as

  1. Good preparation for volunteers
  2. Excellent language training
  3. Sustainable programs

4. Research how your short list of VSOs meet these criteria. The most important step in the process is to talk to recently returned volunteers. See suggested questions to ask in the evaluation criteria worksheet below. Be sure to connect with volunteers that worked in the same country and on the same project you are considering. An organization that has a great program in Tanzania might have a mediocre program in Mexico. Any VSO that will not share the names and contact information is hiding something.

Do not trust what the staff of the organization say about their own programs. You should certainly ask the staff questions, but be sure to confirm with returned volunteers.

Also, try to connect with critical volunteers, not just the happy customers that the organization will connect you with. At the end of each chat or email with the happy customers, ask the following question:

“Were there any people who volunteered with you who had a more challenging experience? Could you share their names and contact information so I can get a well rounded perspective on the program and make sure it is a match for me?”

In addition, you will find evaluations of many volunteer programs in my book, How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, available at most university libraries.

Membership in the IVPA, mentioned above, is an indication that an organization is legitimate and providing some kind of leadership in the field. But you should still conduct research to make sure it is right for you: www.volunteerinternational.org/memberlist.html.

5. Make your choice. It will probably become clear after a few calls which organization is the best match for you.

Remember that no organization will be perfect. Especially in the developing world, there are uncertainties and risks. Make your best choice, and then take any challenges and frustrations as part of the learning adventure involved in international volunteerism.

Worksheet for International Volunteer Experiences

I want to volunteer for ___ days, weeks, months, years

I want to volunteer in the following country or region:

My financial limitations:

  • I can pay up to ________
  • The organization must cover all my expenses
  • I will need to get my student loans postponed

My other goals include:

  • Learning the following language:
  • Developing the following skill:
  • Improving my intercultural abilities
  • Other:

I would like to volunteer:

  • A friend
  • My spouse
  • My child
  • My partner

My preferred living situation:

  • Home stay
  • Independent living
  • Being with a group of volunteers

Other special needs (e.g. disability, special issues, etc.):

Evaluation Criteria for Volunteer Sending Organizations

No organization is perfect. Pick the 2-3 criteria below that are most important to you.

Quality

Criteria

Sample questions to ask returned volunteers

Accuracy

Honesty about expenses, activities and challenges in all promotional materials.

Did your experience differ in any significant ways from what was portrayed in the organization’s materials?

Affordability

Assists volunteers with fundraising if needed.

Did you get any assistance in raising funds to pay the volunteer fee, if any? Were there any expenses not covered by the fee?

Preparation

Provides high quality training and preparation. Orientation includes health and safety as well as cultural sensitivity and history.

Please describe the orientation and training for your volunteer experience. In retrospect, are there ways you wish you had been better prepared?

Cultural Immersion

Encourages volunteers to experience the cultural wealth of the local community. Includes a homestay, and opportunities to connect one-on-one with members of the local community.

Did you have the opportunity to do a homestay or other form of cultural immersion? Did you ever feel you were in an “expat enclave” instead of getting to know the local community?

Language training

Provides professional and effective language training if needed.

Did the program include language study? How effective was this training?

Sustainability

Project does not harm the local environment or violate local cultural norms. There is evidence that the project is supporting local organizations and not simply creating dependence on external funding and staff.

What signs were there that the volunteer program was sustainable? Any evidence that the program added to environmental destruction? Did the project create dependencies between local community and international volunteers?

 

Follow up

Program assists volunteer with re-entry issues upon return home.

How was your “re-entry” transition? Did you get any support from the program after returning home?

Adapted from How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas.

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