Snide as that may be, there is something odd about paying to perform free labor (it’s kind of like winning at blackjack and then paying the dealer). 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. “Talk to as many as possible,” says Charlotte Hindle, co-author of Lonely Planet’s Volunteer: A Traveler’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World. “This is the one of the surest ways of finding out about an organization.”
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.
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.
“It is really important that you volunteer with an organization that wants to spend time with you, working with you on finding the right placement,” says Hindle. “I, personally, would never volunteer with an organization that tries to tee you up quickly with a placement online or over the phone and one that doesn’t spend proper time understanding your skills and how they can best be used.”
An on-the-ball organization, says Hindle, will send you a skills audit or questionnaire before matching you to a placement. You should also ask for a job description.
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. Heyniger writes on her website: “Did the operator simply cruise through the village one day and say, ‘Hey! Looks like these people need more tennis shoes, windbreakers, and blankets — I’m going to bring some of that through on my next tour!’ Or did they take a collaborative approach, and