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Evaluating A Volunteer Project Or Trip

June 10, 2009

Having spent months on the road experiencing a variety of volunteer adventure trips, one thing we see missing from the guidance being offered to travelers is how to evaluate the substance of the programs they’ll be supporting with their time and money.

Although volunteer travel can be extremely beneficial to local communities, there are instances where well-meaning tour operators or NGOs have initiated poorly designed and researched programs that ultimately do a disservice to the communities they seek to support.

In addition to all the standard questions about fees, accommodations, time spent volunteering, and nature of the work (ie. will you be doing manual labor like helping to build or fix something, or something softer like teaching English classes?), we recommend asking the program manager specific questions about the nature of the program and its impact in the community.

Some of the greatest challenges we’ve seen tour operators and NGOs face are corruption, sustainability, and what we’ll call the “law of unintended consequences.”

Corruption

Sometimes tour operators may not even know when their financial or material contributions are being mismanaged.  For example, they may take travelers to visit and volunteer at an orphanage, but may not know until too late that the orphanage managers are “hiring” kids from family homes in villages to pose as orphans in order to encourage donations.

Sadly, there are too many examples of this type of corruption worldwide. Here are some ways to assess whether the tour operator or NGO you plan to volunteer with is worthy:

How Long Has The Organization Been Operating?
Find out how long the organization and/or its partners have been supporting humanitarian or environmental projects in the country you’ll be visiting.

Then again, if the tour operator or NGO is brand new and has little experience in the region it doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of your support, but they might not have sorted out any issues of corruption with their programs.

How Do They Measure Results?
Ask directly whether and how they measure the results of their program and whether they’ve had to face issues of corruption.  They’ll usually be very candid with you and may share experiences they’ve learned from in the field, and ways they’ve had to modify their program to address these issues.

If an organization can show measurable improvements over time, it’s a pretty fair bet that even with some issues, enough of the organization’s contributions and efforts are achieving their objectives.  Remember, volunteering and doing business in developing countries can be very different from operations in developed countries.

Do They Understand The Local Language?
Find out whether the tour operator or NGO’s in-country team speaks the native language; organizations can only really interact well and understand the social undercurrents in local communities if they speak the language and can establish trust.  This may be especially challenging in countries where local people speak a variety of dialects.

Sustainability

The goal of most humanitarian and environmental aid work should be to build up communities to eventually manage projects that are self-sustaining and can continue without foreign support.

Strengthening local communities through education and economic development is a challenge that can take years, but keeping this goal in mind is crucial - think “a hand up, not a hand out.”

Some suggestions for gauging the sustainability of tour operator or NGO programs:

How Involved Is The Local Community?
Find out how involved the local community is with any volunteer service projects. Is the community in full receive-mode or are they making some contribution of time and/or money as well?

All the research suggests that unless local communities are invested in projects they will not value or maintain them over the long term.

How Self-Empowering Is The Project?
Another serious issue with volunteer travel for communities located on a tourist route is that over time, traveling volunteers may put local communities in a welfare state of mind, lulling them to a place of perpetually expecting and counting on the support of foreign volunteers.

Programs aimed at self- empowerment are best, so it’s good to ask about the organization’s long term goals and how they are working for sustainability.

The Law Of Unintended Consequences

Tour operators and well-meaning NGOs may establish dependencies in communities for services or products they are not in a position to support over the long term.  Talk with the tour operator or NGO to learn the details of how their programs were created. Here are some key issues:

How is Project Need Determined?
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 work with local people to ask them what they need and then determine whether and how they might be able to support those needs?

Donors and well meaning volunteers bring their own cultural perceptions of “need” with them when they travel, and can create needs that didn’t exist in communities, even though they have the best intentions.

Does the organization have a regular presence in the community?
Tour operators that pass through periodically without having any regular presence in communities may be providing services or materials that establish dependencies in local communities, which they are not in a position to continue supporting over the long term.

If you’re part of a tour delivering supplies to local communities, for example, think carefully about that. Once you deliver the school supplies or medical supplies and created a local “need” for these new products, is there anyone dedicated to providing them on an ongoing basis? Do local people know how to use the medical supplies provided?

Wrap Up

While we tried to cover most bases in this volunteer tourism guide, there are no right answers for every situations. Visiting the links mentioned above will expand your knowledge and help you find the perfect volunteer position.

Thanks for reading, and good luck!