work with local people to ask them what they need and then determine whether and how they might be able to support those needs?”
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.
“You’ll likely be traveling with the founder of the trip,” says Clemmons. “You get to hear the stories of what it has been like to put it all together — the heartaches, the triumphs, the mistakes, the brilliant ideas. It’s like riding with Henry Ford in the first car he built. What could be more exciting?”
Your dollars also have a bigger impact with a small group, says Clemmons, since the organization has fewer overhead expenses, and the volunteers tend to be more adventurous and travel savvy. “They did some serious due diligence to come across one of these organizations, or it was a word-of-mouth referral from the creator,” says Clemmons. “There’s a positive attitude. You probably won’t hear something like, ‘Well, this wasn’t in the literature about this trip.’ ”
That’s the upside. How can you make sure a small organization is equipped to follow through on its promises?
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?