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If You’re Going to Volunteer Overseas, then Do it Right

Voluntourism is a constantly growing industry that leaves a lot of ethical questions open. I mentioned already back in April 2014 some of the concerns about this practice, particularly that voluntourism at orphanages is wrong and I absolutely stand by that.

However, just because this type of volunteering is wrong, doesn’t mean all volunteer opportunities overseas are wrong. I do again strongly encourage that if people want to truly make a difference, then they should volunteer in their local communities; however, I realized that other digital nomads like me may not really have a “local” community to speak of. So for those who are location independent and still want to give back, here are some tips of how you can volunteer responsibly and ethically abroad.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Volunteering Abroad

Don’t volunteer in a position that can take work away from a local

Ask yourself this, if there are locals that can be doing the job that you’re doing, then why are you doing it? Unless you are fulfilling a specific skill set, you are merely taking work away from locals whose livelihoods depend on it, making it more difficult for them to sustain themselves.

Do work within your skill set

Any real volunteer opportunities that aren’t created merely to profit off of voluntourism will only accept you to do something within your skill set. As attractive as the idea might be to go and build a school in Tanzania, if you have absolutely no construction experience, then walk away from this type of volunteer program.

Sitting in a stuffy office working with excel sheets to track expenses might be a little less exciting than you had in mind, but if that is the way that your skill set can actually help people, then that is the type of project you should be doing. After all, you’re doing this to help aren’t you, and not merely for an altruistic experience?

Don’t volunteer with a for-profit company

This is quite simple, those who profit off of volunteer experiences will create volunteer experiences just to make a profit. This means that not only does your work not benefit anyone, it will most likely actually exploit and harm the local people and their community.

Also follow the money. Make sure that expenses paid out for project resources benefit the community instead of the money going elsewhere – say for imported resources. If the money doesn’t trickle down into the community, then it isn’t helping the community.

Do do your homework to ensure the organization is reputable

This should go without saying. Make sure that the organization that you are volunteering with is legit. Often you can find this out with a quick Google search. I also mentioned this before but will mention it again, because it’s important: any organization that will allow you direct contact with children is NOT a reputable organization. This means, stay away from orphanage tourism – voluntourism opportunities with orphanages.

Don’t exploit the community to document your experience

The cash-grabbing companies out there like it when you post a million happy, smiling pictures with locals on a personal blog or on your social media, because it perpetuates the product that they are trying to sell and they may even use some of these pictures on their website.

All this does, however, is exploit these local people and sell voluntourism packages that do more harm than good.

Do use discretion

If you want to discuss what you are doing and share your experience on social media, or even want to blog about it, that’s ok, but do so respectfully and with discretion. With cheap web hosting options available to check out to keep a blog up and running, it certainly makes creating a blog to keep friends and family up to date more attractive.

However, if you do blog or post to social media, make sure that you censor content and images to ensure that you don’t infringe on any civil liberties. In the end, you are there to make a difference, not to have some great experience that is only life-changing or meaningful to you.

Don’t go if you cannot commit the time

Ultimately, you want to make sure that you are there long enough to make a difference. If the trip is too short to contribute any real and lasting help, then don’t go.

As a general rule, if you are sincerely interested in helping on a long-term project, you should set aside at least six months to a year to do so; especially if your position will include you dealing personally with locals and forming relationships with them. Building a relationship takes time and cannot happen in two weeks.

Do make sure that you can make a difference during your time volunteering

Make sure that any project you are involved with has an overall plan for how it will help the community long-term and that you understand your role in achieving this goal.

Ask your volunteering organization to outline the larger plan to you so that you can be sure you are contributing to something meaningful. Also ask about how the community is equipped or will be trained to maintain the project after you leave. If you come in and begin a work that a community doesn’t have the resources or skills to maintain after you are gone, then your work won’t benefit anyone.

Always ask yourself what you are bringing to this project and what you are going to leave behind once you are finished. If it isn’t long-lasting and contributing to the development, then walk away.