A big part of being able to age in place is helping others. Volunteering can be a part of a healthy lifestyle. This weeks feature is from the AARP and discusses the steps involved in finding a match when volunteering.
Teaching a classroom of children in Nepal, caring for cheetahs in Namibia or studying sea turtles along Sri Lanka’s shores — exotic opportunities like these have made volunteering part of the growth industry in the travel biz. But the key to a good work experience is not the work you do on your trip. It’s the work you do before you ever leave home. Ken Budd, from AARP The Magazine researched “Vacationing as Volunteer” and created a seven step plan for finding the ideal match.
Find the right trip for seeing the world while making a difference in people’s lives.
To help make that ideal match, follow this seven-step plan.
1. Ask the right questions
Selecting an organization is a bit like getting married: There are plenty of possible partners; the hard part is finding Mr. or Mrs. Right. To narrow the often-overwhelming options, start with these three essential questions:
•What kind of work do you want to do?
•Where do you want to do it?
• How long do you want to stay?
2. Become a snoop
On a travel site called Worldhum.com, a blog about voluntourism led to this cynical post from a reader: “If you pay to volunteer, you are a total sucker.”
Snide as that may be, there is something odd about paying to perform free labor. But there’s a reason why most groups charge “program fees,” as they’re called. These fees typically cover not only the basics of your trip — lodging, food, security, local transportation — but also help pay the group’s basic operational expenses. To find out how your money is being spent, ask the organization for a breakdown or check its website: Most explain how the program fees are used.
Don’t stop your detective work there. To get a more intimate view of a potential assignment — the living conditions, the food, the work projects — contact previous volunteers. Obviously, the organization will put you in touch with people who had a positive experience, so if you want an unfiltered opinion, search for blogs that might be commenting on a particular organization, or check travel review sites TripAdvisor.com or IgoUgo.com — these commentary and community sites let you post questions and take advantage of other travelers’ expertise.
3. Gauge a group’s interest in you
When my wife and I volunteered in Costa Rica in 2006, we didn’t find out we’d be teaching English until a few days before we left home. Had we known further in advance, we could have brushed up on our teaching skills (which were nonexistent), talked with ESL teachers and developed some tentative lesson plans.
An on-the-ball organization will send you a skills audit or questionnaire before matching you to a placement. You should also ask for a job description.
4. Find out the group’s impact on the community
One of the big questions with any voluntourism trip is whether the work you’re doing actually benefits the people it’s intended to help.
Christina Heyniger, founder of Zola Consulting, a company that focuses on the adventure travel industry, says there are ways to see how committed the organization is to the local community. Do the group’s leaders speak the local language? Is the local community engaged in the projects (are they contributing time or money)? Is the voluntourism group creating dependency or are they building a self-sustaining program? Equally important is why the project was started.
5. Don’t overlook small organizations
With so many volunteer groups to choose from, the appeal of bigger, more-established (and pricier) organizations such as Cross-Cultural Solutions, i-to-i, Earthwatch or Global Volunteers is easy to understand. They’re safe. “They do what they do really well, and they’ve got it down pat,” says Doug Cutchins, co-author of Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others.
But sometimes the more rewarding experiences come from smaller, lesser-known groups, says David L. Clemmons, who offers expert advice on his site, VolunTourism.org. Clemmons points to organizations such as Conservation VIP, Conscious Journeys, Go Differently, North By North East and Voluntourists Without Borders, which typically work in no more than a handful of countries.
Step one: look for nonprofits, says Clemmons. Most nonprofits will have to be registered with a governing body — the Internal Revenue Service, for example — and other countries have similar entities. You can also check up on them at sites like Guidestar.org or GlobalGiving.com.
If you’re considering a small for-profit organization or a tour operator, Clemmons suggests contacting tourism authorities or the governing bodies that represent those groups – the United States Tour Operators Association, Asia Transpacific Journeys and so forth — to see if they have information on the company. Have there been any complaints? Any reports of impropriety?
6. Watch for warning signs
- Find out how long an operation has been in existence. “If you cannot find this somewhere on a website, or in printed literature, stay away,” says Clemmons. A new group may be just fine, but it is more likely to be working out the kinks of its program.
- Realize that you may not get “true” answers from the company that you contact. If you can’t find information about the organization in articles or from other sources — if you’re going to Thailand and the local tourist authority has never heard of the group — this should be a clue that the organization is bit, well … mysterious.
- Be aware that an organization isn’t necessarily a nonprofit just because its website has a “.org” address. If working for a nonprofit is important to you, ask to see a 990 Form or an annual report.
7. Expect good customer service
A voluntourism trip in a third-world country is obviously not the same experience as a therapeutic massage weekend at a world-class spa. But the lack of pampering and plush five-star accommodations is no excuse for poor customer service.
Take a businesslike approach to the search process and you’ll have a much more gratifying experience.