When you join a volunteer abroad program, you are investing your time, your heart and also your money. For many, their volunteer abroad experience is something for which they have been planning and saving for many months, maybe even longer. Many envision it as the trip of a lifetime where they will gain great experiences and do their part to make the world a better place.
The fact is, that to realise this dream, you are relying on finding a great volunteer abroad organization to put everything into place. No doubt, that if you’ve found your way to this page, you are already aware of the hundreds of volunteer abroad organizations online appearing to all offer the same thing. You will have realised that they seem to offer very similar programs, in the same countries and you will often even find different companies offering space on the exact same programs but charging wildly different fees.
This research stage can be very overwhelming for those looking to start their volunteer abroad journey, especially those who have never volunteered abroad or taken part in similar programs. It is important that you look at compare the different companies and programs rationally in order not to make a very costly bad decision.
In this article, we will provide some valuable tips to help you know what to look for in a volunteer organization, so you can create the best possible experience for yourself. Below are some of the most important criteria you should consider.
Is the website and blog updated and professional-looking?
As with anything, a quick look at the website of the organization can give you a good sense of their level of professionalism and shows how much time and effort they put into their work. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do they keep the blog up-to-date? When was the last post?
- Is the website/blog full of grammar and spelling errors?
- Does the “About Us” section appeal to you? This the organization’s opportunity to let you know who they are and what they stand for.
- Are the projects well-explained? The page for each project should give you specific information about what is expected of the volunteers, what the project’s objectives are and even an approximate schedule. As we explained in a previous article, many organizations giving vague information about the projects do so because they work with numerous projects and in these cases you may find yourself working on a project you didn’t really sign up for.
- Is the website informative? Do you feel that the most important questions are answered either in the content or in the FAQ section?
- Do you get a good feeling of the projects from the photos? Do the photos show a range of projects and volunteers? A lack of photos can be an indication of lack of experience or even a lack of happy volunteers!
- How long have they been in the industry?
- How many projects do they have?
- Do they specialise in a particular type of project? organizations that appear to be able to offer you a huge range of projects all over the world may well be spreading themselves too thinly. Also, if an organization seems to specialise in work with children but also offers one or two wildlife projects, maybe stick to the type of work they have established themselves in.
- Where are the projects located? Some organizations may seem to offer projects around the world but are actually primarily focussed on one region. If location is very important to you make sure you know where you will end up.
- How many volunteers have worked for them in the past? Generally speaking, volunteer abroad organizations work on their reputation and reviews, so a large number of previous volunteers tend to indicate a well-run organization.
Is their social media updated?
An active presence on social media indicates that the organization is likely to be proactive in responding to your queries and running programs efficiently.
- Check Facebook – do they update their Facebook regularly with current volunteer programs? Do volunteers and other organizations seem to be present on their page? Do they respond to comments and posts? All of this is a sign that the organization is successful.
- Check Twitter, are people excited to follow their projects? Happy volunteers want to stay connected with their organization. Do they seem to be fielding any complaints?
- Check their Instagram. Just like their Facebook, perhaps even more so, the Instagram of any good volunteer organization should be frequently updated with pictures from current projects.
Check program fees is the price reasonable?
The majority of volunteer abroad programs offer the same things: host families, 2 or 3 meals a day, work on a local project and in country support. Yet somehow programs can cost as little as $500 or even as much as $5000. So how on earth can you determine if you’re being overpriced, getting value for money or just a shoddy service?
- Check to see if profit is the main motive.
- Are they honest and transparent in terms of allocation of the fee?
- Where does the money go? Do the host families and project get a major portion?
- What exactly are you getting from it?
- Check to see if there are hidden costs?
Any reputable volunteer abroad organization should include all of this information in their website and it should be easy to find. If not, get in touch to find out. If they are vague or unwilling to answer any of these questions, this should be a major red flag.
Reviews – Rating
Generally speaking, the top volunteer abroad organizations have excellent reviews and unpopular organization receive terrible reviews. People tend to take the time to write reviews if they feel the organization deserves praise or if their experience was so bad that they feel the need to warn other volunteers. Here are some general tips on how to use reviews.
- Don’t just read reviews on the organization’s own website. The organization is only going to show you positive reviews. Look at a couple different websites.
- Do not expect 100% positive reviews. There will always be a small number of people who were not happy even with award-winning organizations.
- Look for consistent complaints. Maybe one person had a bad experience that was not the fault of the organization but if many volunteers are complaining about the same thing, it is likely that this is a problem
- Observe how the organization responds to negative reviews are they apologetic? Do they offer an explanation? Or are they aggressive and defensive?
- Does what volunteers are saying back up the wonderful things an organization says about itself on its website? Feedback should not only match self-praise, it should exceed it.
See commitment to local or ethical cause
For the vast majority of volunteers, knowing that the organization they are paying is ethical and actually seems invested in making a difference is of the utmost importance
- Does the organization seem focused on what’s happening locally inside the countries they have projects in?
- Are they supporting a local project, like a school?
- Do they seem ethical?
- Do they seem concerned about the welfare of local people?
- Make sure you don’t get the feeling that they are only operating for money. They should clearly be not for profit.
References from past volunteers
It’s always a good idea to talk directly with previous volunteers, not just reading reviews. In this way you not only get their opinion on the organization but you also learn more about the projects and in-country experience.
- Ask for the email addresses of at least 3 past volunteers.
- Contact them and ask questions.
- Check their Facebook or other social media to see if they’ve shared photos or memories about the experience.
- Sometimes googling the name of an organization or project will point you in the direction of blogs about volunteer’s experiences. Just try and make sure these blogs are independent and not run by the organization.
As we mentioned in a previous article, the best way to assess the speed and helpfullness of an organization’s communication is to get in touch with them. This will also allow you to get answers to specific questions that may not be answered on the website. Remember, this is a big decision you are making and you should not part with your cash until you are completely comfortable. The best volunteer abroad organizations will understand this and be willing to answer even the smallest of questions.
- Send an email to the organization, introducing yourself and expressing interest.
- Check how quickly they respond. You should get a reply within 1-2 business days.
- How professional do they sound? Are they willing to help?
I hope this has given you a clearer idea of how to separate the countless volunteer organizations out there and you now feel more comfortable in your research!