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Posted by Jessica on Apr 14, 2009
So You Want To Volunteer Internationally, Part 1

I am an advocate for responsible and effective volunteerism. I hope volunteers will be responsible to the cause or non-profit organization they serve, just as I hope a non-profit organization will be responsible to their volunteers. I believe Martin Luther King, Jr was wise when he said, "Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve." And I get goosebumps whenever I read Margaret Mead's sage words, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

But then my computer makes a noise and I see there's a new email from a prospective volunteer for an international non-profit organization I help out. This time it's a mother and daughter looking for their very own exotic week-long volunteer experience. The Mom has a self-published book (she's an author!) and the daughter can paint (she won awards in middle school!), they're learning how to juggle fire (on the beach in Koh Phangan!) and they've always loved animals (they have a cat!). They absolutely know in their hearts that they can help this tiny organization in the middle of the jungle (they're American after all!) and it will look great on the daughter's college application.

But you see, the Mom pays a lot of money for the daughter to go to private school in the States. So would this non-profit organization mind giving them a discount on their week-long stay? Or perhaps even wave all the fees and the daughter can just paint something for them instead? The mother will even leave a few signed copies of her book too, for extra good measure.

Shortly after reading their email, I notice yet another question about volunteering abroad on an online travel message board. A university student is asking why can't he volunteer internationally for free? Why does he have to pay for the room and board they'll be providing him? He'll be spending a lot of money to fly to Kenya, after all. And don't forget, he's taken a few classes at university and he's positive what he learned will be applicable on the ground in Kenya too. Doesn't this organization want him to volunteer, he asks.

Understanding how non-profit organizations work

Volunteering locally is often a whole different ballgame than volunteering internationally. When you volunteer locally, you get to drive home to your house, make your own dinner, and fall asleep in your bed. But when you're volunteering internationally? That transportation, that dinner, and that bed are often being provided for you.

So yes, that non-profit organization wants volunteers. And depending on how their organization is structured, they may really rely on them too. But no, they can't pay your way.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of volunteering abroad, let's talk briefly about how non-profit organizations work. (Keeping in mind, of course, that other countries may classify them as charities or non-governmental organizations.) The name non-profit alone should give a clue to the nature of the organization, yes? Unlike a company, a non-profit's goal is not to make a profit. (That doesn't mean they don't need money though.) Instead their mission is to serve and to fill a need that isn't being met through other means.

A non-profit organization is essentially trying to accomplish three things:

  1. Create positive change
    They want to make a lasting impact, a positive difference, to the community or movement they serve.
  2. Raise awareness
    Creating positive change can only go so far. To be truly effective, an organization must raise awareness too.
  3. Raise funds
    Like it or not, it's difficult to accomplish #1 and #2 without raising some cash to use during your efforts.

Ideally these goals are interconnected and will snowball into greater and more meaningful work as time goes on. In other words: Creating positive change and raising awareness often lead to more funds coming in, which means more change can occur and more awareness can be raised.

Organizations that are able to have programs (i.e. week-long volunteer stays or 5k walk-a-thons, for example) which accomplish all three of these goals at the same time have scored a real win for the cause they serve.

You often pay to volunteer at home too, you know

There are, of course, many volunteer opportunities that keep the goals separate. Specifically, there are a lot of volunteer opportunities that will hit goal #1 (creating positive change) and goal #2 (raising awareness), while the organization's development staff focuses on goal #3 (raising funds).

Take the Special Olympics, for example. If you're a volunteer coach for your town's track and field team, you're helping the Special Olympics reach goal #1 (creating positive change) because you're working directly with the athletes, encouraging them, coaching them, and creating worthwhile experiences. You're also helping the Special Olympics organization reach goal #2 (raising awareness) because you've now learned about the Special Olympics and chances are you've told your parents and a few friends what you're up to on Saturday mornings too. As a volunteer coach, you probably won't be asked about goal #3 (raising funds). But chances are? You'll most likely donate some money to them when you get a chance or your family might too.

Now before you point out to me that you haven't paid anything to volunteer for the Special Olympics yet, let's not forget a few things. The training packet you were given on your first day? You paid a few bucks for it. And that t-shirt that says Volunteer Coach on it? You paid for that too. Also you've been driving yourself to and from the practices and meets, so the gas money has added up. And let's not forget the packed lunches you brought with you on competition days and the spending money you had for the concession stand.

All of these things (understandably so) couldn't be provided to you (and certainly not for free). So while you might not be paying Special Olympics directly for the privilege of volunteering, you are spending money to do so.

The same thing applies to international volunteer experiences: you will spend money in order to volunteer. And as a Westerner, to assume you should be able to volunteer in a program somewhere in South America or Africa (where you may be provided training, shelter, and meals during your stay) and that you won't need to pay anything simply because you want to help? That's naive at best and (cover your eyes if you are easily offended) ethnocentric at worst.

One more caveat

Yes, there are volunteer experiences that don't cost a dime. I volunteer as an ESOL teacher for my local library and all it costs is the price of gas for me to drive to lessons and home again. And there will be volunteer opportunities like that in other countries too. For example, we taught in Kratie, Cambodia for a few days and it didn't cost a cent. (That said, it wasn't an organized volunteer experience. It was just something that we got to do because we were in the right place at the right time.)

But the volunteer opportunities that I see folks asking about on the online travel boards? Those travelers are asking about the volunteer opportunities that provide room and board too. They're looking for the volunteer opportunities that are experiences in and of themselves. They're looking for something to put on their resume and something they can boast happily about to their friends back home. Those things are all fine and good, of course. But they're forgetting to consider how that non-profit would pay for their stay. And they're forgetting that a non-profit also needs to raise much-needed funds.

Are all non-profit organizations good?

In a word, no. Just because a non-profit isn't trying to make a profit, doesn't mean they're always altruistic. A non-profit organization may have good intentions, good goals, and even a good staff. But that doesn't mean they're a good non-profit. They might be horrible at managing their money, they might spend too much on overhead costs (salaries, mass mailings, etc), they might spend donations in frivolous ways.

And you know what? They might not even be good at making a difference. In fact, they might even be hurting a local community if they are not connected to the community they work in. If a non-profit provides a service they think a community wants (versus what a community needs), that's not good. And if a non-profit does everything for the community (but doesn't involve community members or get them invested in the process) then all the work they've done will go down the drain when that organization leaves that community. That's not good either.

So no, not all non-profits are good. (Though, thankfully, I'd say the majority I've worked for and volunteered with have been.) But the lion's share of them are probably trying their best even when they are understaffed, underfunded, and (often) poorly managed. And I'm willing to bet the lion's share of them are making a difference too.

But if not all non-profits are good, then how will you know where to volunteer internationally?

Next steps

We'll look at that million dollar question in an upcoming post. We'll also talk about the best approaches for contacting a non-profit organization located abroad and how you should book your stay too. It's not as straightforward as you may think. And finally, we'll talk about what you hope to get out of volunteering internationally. (You'll probably be volunteering to make a difference, but I promise it'll make a difference to you too!)

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April 15, 2009 at 8:03pm

Really good points!
So well said… as you know, this strikes close for me. There's a certain stepping-out-of-ego that occurs in some of the best of these situations, at home or abroad.

April 16, 2009 at 12:30pm
I'm much too filled with rational self-interest to volunteer my time to any great degree. I agree with Shana's comment above about the "stepping-out-of-ego" that occurs, and I'm far too egoistic for that!

However, at least I'm honest about this. My wife and children have first claim on the time that work doesn't take, so I tend to write checks for the causes I support.

That said, I greatly prefer my honest selfishness to the more furtive variety (the folks who are looking to pad a resume or an application with their volunteer activities). And I'm looking forward to your (experience-based) analysis of how to gauge the quality of a non-profit and its operations.

Tim the hedgehog
April 17, 2009 at 4:16pm

That said, I greatly prefer my honest selfishness to the more furtive variety (the folks who are looking to pad a resume or an application with their volunteer activities).

A fair point, that. But it makes me think of another kind of selfishness, too.

Before our trip, I'd never really been one for any kind of "giving back" or volunteer work. Now, a few years later, I find myself volunteering a significant amount my time to a few different organizations.

(I tend to blame a certain elephant-fixated foundation for that change, although a certain young lady isn't entirely innocent here either.)

The thing is, though, to a very real extent I've been doing it all for what I guess could be considered "selfish" reasons. It makes me feel good. I feel like I'm helping to make a difference, and that gives me the warm fuzzies.

In the end, this is rather an entirely selfish reason too. Selfish can be good. :)

Jessica the hedgehog
April 17, 2009 at 4:20pm

as you know, this strikes close for me.

*hugs Shana*

Like Noah, I agree with your comment too. Very well put indeed. :)

April 21, 2009 at 4:05am
Volunteerism is like exercise. It's great for your heart, mind and soul but you need to build it into your schedule or it doesn't happen.
I've dried many clothes on a stair stepper and my heart's not any stronger! Likewise I've dropped many a dime for address return labels and my mind doesn't feel much better either.
Sounds like my soul is crying out for a 5K!
April 21, 2009 at 2:25pm
Well thought out article! I'm going to share this one with our Service-Learning and Civic Engagement office (fancy name for getting students into volunteering) here at MSU, for them to read as well. Thank you for taking the time to write this!
Jessica the hedgehog
April 22, 2009 at 2:00pm

I'm going to share this one with our Service-Learning and Civic Engagement office (fancy name for getting students into volunteering) here at MSU, for them to read as well.

CocoaJava – That's wonderful! My fingers are crossed it'll prove useful to a prospective volunteer or two. I know if I hadn't been as involved in the non-profit world for as long as I have been (both professionally and as a volunteer myself), I'd probably be pretty confused at the way volunteering can work sometimes (particularly internationally).

Thank you for taking the time to write this!

Awww, thanks! *blushes* It was my pleasure. I hope to write a few more parts to this series too. Volunteering is something I'm rather keen on. :)

Jessica the hedgehog
April 22, 2009 at 2:04pm

Volunteerism is like exercise. It's great for your heart, mind and soul but you need to build it into your schedule or it doesn't happen…Sounds like my soul is crying out for a 5K!

Janet – I like the way you think, Janet! It's awesome to help out however we can whenever we're able to do so. But (in my humble opinion) being able to make a consistent contribution somewhere is when things really start to make a greater impact: both for the place we volunteer for and for ourselves too! :)

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