Choosing the right long-term volunteer program is hard and maybe is holding you back from that life-changing experience.
You can use this post as a guide to know if a long-term volunteer program abroad is legit and trustable. I’m giving you 10 good signs that an organization has an excellent volunteer program overseas and that you should commit to this great adventure.
If you search “volunteer program abroad”, google gives you 27.500.000 results, that’s a lot of choices and you are probably overwhelmed just reading about it.
Not to mention the number of scams that still happen nowadays in the nonprofit world. It is sad but you still need to be careful with that too.
But lucky for you, there are still good organizations that fight to change the world for good and they offer good volunteer opportunities overseas.
If you are volunteering in a local organization in your community, it is easy to know if it is a real program and try it before committing full time.
But what happens if you want to volunteer in another country? You have to make sure the organization will take care of you and you will have a good experience while helping. The biggest challenge when volunteer abroad is taking the big step and hope that it works.
* The following points are mainly for long-term volunteer programs (at least three months), I believe this is the best way to make an impact and have a responsible and sustainable program.
1. You love their mission
This one seems obvious, but if you are giving time, effort and energy to a cause it has to mean something to you. And even better if you are passionate about it.
A mission statement will define the non-profit purpose and cause, answering questions about who they are, where are their long-term direction and the foundation of their programs.
An organization always has to show its mission, vision and values on its website. So, if you can’t find it anywhere, not a good sign.
How to find mission statements on nonprofit websites? You can usually find this information in the “About us” or “who we are” pages.
2. Contact you with former volunteers
What better way to know if a nonprofit volunteer program is legit than talking with a former volunteer?
Some organizations will give this option once you’ve been accepted to the program, others can offer a call during the application to motivate you.
Either way, you can always request this in any stage of the process to talk to someone “not working” on the organization and have an inside view.
Talking to past volunteers is a great way to answers your questions about the program, know the experience of other volunteers and ask for some tips.
It’s true that most of the organizations will keep just the former volunteers with good experiences to be involved in this. But it is also true that every single volunteer experiences some kind of frustration and they will probably tell you about it.
When I used to talk to potential volunteers at the NGO NPH, I always mentioned the hard times, the cultural adaptions and some frustration of the job because that was my reality too. However, the good experience was the highlight of the call and I always genuinely encouraged the person to join the program as well as some packing tips.
3. Have a volunteer coordinator
If an organization has a volunteer coordinator role, that’s for sure a good sign that the volunteer program is taking care of.
Besides recruiting the volunteers, a volunteer coordinator is key to make you feel secure and also that you follow the organization’s expectations and code of conduct.
Having a coordinator on-site means that you have someone to rely on, someone that will answer all your questions, guide you, and help you with any issue you have.
This is huge when volunteering abroad, especially if it is your first time.
Looking for more practical volunteer tips? Take a look at some of my other posts:
4. Have a volunteer manual and a job description
Imagine you are overseas, ready to start your volunteer work and suddenly no one there knows what you should be doing and you don’t know what is expected from you. Red flag!!! Getaway as fast as possible!
A good volunteer program should be able to give you a volunteer manual and at least a job guideline. And of course, they should provide this before even accepting the position.
Even if you are given thousands of guidelines, expect to be chaotic the first weeks of starting the program, as a volunteer is mandatory to be flexible. However, having a handbook and a description of your job is essential to arrive mentally prepared.
How many hours are you going to work? What rules are the volunteers need to follow? What are your rest days? What are your position duties? What vaccines are you going to need before traveling? What are the goals of my volunteer work? All of these are questions that can and should be answer beforehand.
5. Request of documents and interviews
Applying for a volunteer opportunity is mostly like applying for a job. Certain documents are necessary to make sure you can exercise certain positions; you are not going to work in any clinic around the world except if you have some medical degree.
The organization needs to verify that you are trained or at least you have enough experience. It is a good sign when they ask for certificates, references and licenses.
Other documents they would request are medical check-ups or criminal records.
When I was recruiting volunteer hiking guides for a non-profit in Nicaragua, it was essential to have a health statement completed by a physician.
Organizations should also be making sure that you will be a good fit for their program and that you are mentally stable.
The first time I applied for volunteering in Peru I had to pass a psychological interview. Especially, because I was going to be working with children, so the organization had to make sure I could deal with that for the children’s safety.
Another reason they need documents and interviews is that there are mandatory by the local government. This is also a great sign that the non-profit is legit, they follow local laws and they worry that the program is secure.
While volunteering in Mexico, we received several visits from the government that request documentation of our volunteers as visa permits and other “boring” papers. Yes, it was annoying at times, but it made us aware of the importance of this.
6. They training you
Some organizations will request that you assist to training before starting the volunteer, it can vary from a one-day session or even a three-day training workshop. Either way, never skip this opportunity!
It shows good organization from the nonprofit and gives a lot of excellent opportunities of knowing the program and your commitment better.
When organizing these volunteer training, it is common that the organization bring former volunteers to give talks, a great way to ask all type of questions.
Besides discussing rules and guidelines, you will also learn cultural guidelines, the history of the country you are going to and much more.
You will also have the chance to meet other future volunteers, and if you are lucky maybe some of them are going to the same program as you. You can start bonding right away!
7. Help you with legal stuff
Most of the countries in the world require some kind of visa when staying more than 3 months.
Visas, medical insurance and legal documents are a pain in the ass, let’s be clear. If any procedure is hard in your own country imagine in a foreign one.
A good volunteer program will have the process figure it out and they will help you with that, especially if they have a volunteer coordinator as I mention in point 3.
Ask all about it previous to your departure, a good program will be able to handle your paperwork and guide you to the visa process.
Ask about medical insurance, some of the organizations where I volunteer included basic insurance that they cover for me. Ask if they have a recommendation or a deal with any company on your country.
Don’t be shy to ask for documents and help.
When I needed vaccines before entering the country where I volunteer, I asked for a document from the organization to present at the vaccine center. With that document, I was able to have some free vaccines because of the purpose of my trip.
8. Search in legit websites
They are some good websites where you can find volunteer opportunities abroad.
Trustworthy websites already did some of the work for you, like verifying that the organization is legit, ask for documentation and provide a good description of the job.
Lucky for you, I already write a post:
9. Long-term commitment
As I said in the introduction of the post, for me a good volunteer program is when they require a long-term commitment. Meaning your work will have time to develop and you will have time to adapt and understand the situation.
When doing volunteering for more than 6 months the impact on the program is bigger. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but your 3-day “volunteer trip” is not making any impact, sure there are some exceptions like medical brigades or specific needs.
In general, if an organization asks you to commit for the long-term, as a whole year, is a good sign that they want the position to be impactful and sustainable. If you are a therapist, for example, you know is going to be more helpful to do therapy at least for 12 months, so if you are going abroad to volunteer as one it’s no different.
A bonus to this point is also asking why they need your profession or skill on-site? The best scenario is that you are supporting local staff, you can go to do training and workshops or you are covering a skill that can’t be found in the country.
Keeping the example of the therapy, one of the volunteer positions I used to search the most was occupational therapy because in a lot of the Latin American countries where we work it didn’t exist that career.
10. The program doesn’t cost a fortune
If you read this far in the post, first of all, thank you. Second of all, I’m glad you are deciding to embark on this epic journey of long-term volunteering abroad.
But you are wondering: “I really want to become a volunteer but I don’t have a fortune to do it”. And I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to be a millionaire to commit to a nonprofit program.
Excellent long-term services abroad will value your work and knowledge. Look for programs that cover housing, basic primary healthcare or even a small stipend.
It is not strange at all that an organization offers its long-term volunteer some stipend and benefits during its service.
Common expenses will be your plane ticket, a course in a language school, or your own extensive health care insurance for example.
But if you find a program that asks you to send money beforehand or pay an insane monthly fee for six months, don’t hesitate to block them and keep searching.
If you are a professional going abroad and working (as a volunteer) the organization has to value that point, so it is a good sign that they provide a stipend, care and benefits for you.
First of all, do your research before joining any volunteer program abroad, contact the organization as many times as you wish, and ask all the possible questions.
A good and responsible volunteer program is important for many ethical reasons and the development of any country. Take your time and verify that the program is transparent, trustworthy and benefiting a real cause.
I hope these 10 signs of good long-term volunteer programs gave you a helping hand to figure out what to look for. These points plus your common sense will probably help you to find a program that fits your beliefs and has a great impact.
My two years as a volunteer in Peru really change my life and it helped shape my future and being involved with other great causes that came later.
I can’t wait for you to experience that and help good causes for the good future of this planet.
I will like to know if you have more good signs or any questions about volunteer abroad. Leave a comment.
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