How to Ethically Volunteer Anywhere in the World


**Kerala Volunteer prides itself on being an ethical volunteer organization with no agency fees and extensive volunteer support.  Volunteers are never left without support and know the question, “Where is my money going?”  needs never be asked.  Read more about how to select a legitimate volunteer organization from long-time traveler and volunteer Shannon O’Donnell…

When I first left in 2008 on what I thought would simply be a year-long round the world trip, I was overwhelmed by how convoluted and ethically ambiguous the international volunteer industry seemed. Simple searches to find projects I could support on my trip yielded a bevy of companies touting volunteer experiences operating in the poorest countries in the world and yet costing many thousands of dollars—it didn’t make sense and it nearly discouraged me from doing any work at all. But once I traveled, and researched, and learned, I realized there are so many quality, ethical options out there for travelers interested in volunteering, but finding them is tougher than it should be. It is the very nature of this quandary that motivated me to write my book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.

I know what it’s like to want to volunteer and travel, but to be confused by the sometimes huge fees, the equivocal ethics, and the sheer number of options. With that in mind, I jumped at the opportunity Matt gave me to share five clear steps that show how to find and vet good-fit volunteer projects.

Step One: Understand Development and Aid

Shannon O'donnel from
During my first year volunteering internationally I overlooked this first step and instead fueled my volunteer efforts with enthusiasm and little knowledge, and as a result I unfortunately supported a few projects that I now see had fundamental ethical issues. One of the hardest things for new, eager volunteers to understand is that not all organizations—even non-profits—are doing good, necessary work that ethically develops the communities and eco-systems where we volunteer our time. For that reason, take a step back from the planning and instead learn more about core problems facing the development projects when they bring in Western volunteers and Western ideas.

Two core themes I analyze in my book center on how too many volunteer projects can  actually foster dependency on international aid and compromise the dignity of the people they are trying to help. Before you volunteer, your job is to understand the macro-industry around volunteering. I’ve collected a list of fantastic books, TED Talks, and websites that provide context for international aid conundrums and the interplay between volunteering and development work. Each one of these three offers a good start towards broad-level understanding:

Step Two: Choose a Good-Fit Type of Volunteering

Shannon O'donnel from
There are an overwhelming number of ways to volunteer, and since I started traveling more than four years ago, I have tried most of them. I used a placement company on my RTW trip to find a monastery in Nepal where I could teach, I have taken recommendations from travelers on the road, and now I most often volunteer independently with small organizations I find organically as I travel. Your next step is to assess your time commitment and your personal volunteer motivations to pick your best-fit option.

  • Independent volunteering: Independent volunteering is ideal for long-term travelers and those on a flexible round the world trip if you don’t know when or where you might be traveling. There is usually little or no facilitation—you must arrange all travel, accommodation, and food and in exchange the fees are low or free. You are traditionally working directly with the project/organization on a very hands-on level.
  • Placement companies: Middlemen take a fee to match you with a specific type of volunteer project and usually offer a medium level of facilitation. Ideal for very specific or niche volunteer experiences and either short or long time commitments.
  • Voluntours: These offer a high level of facilitation and are ideal for those on a short vacation and want to pack in a lot of sites with a nod to service integrated into the trip. Voluntours are expensive and the ratio of touring to service can vary greatly. Usually, the bulk of your fee goes to the tour company itself.
  • Social enterprises: All travelers can support the small businesses working within their own local communities for change. If you can only volunteer for a very short time, consider nixing the volunteering and instead infusing your money into local communities as you travel. Volunteering is not always the right choice on every trip but you can still do good by choosing restaurants, shops, and business with an underlying social mission.

Step Three: Research Organizations in Your Interest Area

Shannon O'donnel from
Now we’re down to the nitty-gritty details. Travelers too often skip the first two steps and risk having an unfulfilling trip at best, and doing harm with their volunteering efforts at worst. My prep work for a new volunteer trip starts with a search of the major volunteer databases to see what projects exist within my interest area—I then use a spreadsheet or an Evernote folder to effectively track the details.

These websites allow you to sort and sift through the whole gamut of types of volunteering (conservation, teaching, medical, etc.) and requirements (family, timing, location). For now, simply fill your spreadsheet or folder with projects that excite you and in the next step we’ll look at vetting potential volunteer projects.

  • Grassroots Volunteering: A small, growing resource of free and low-cost organizations and social enterprises all over the world. This site is my personal passion project that I launched in 2011.
  • Go Overseas: This site collates volunteering placements from many companies and returns a lot of variety in the search results.
  • A large database that occasionally returns some fantastic small, niche organizations.
  • Pro World Volunteers: A wonderful middleman placement company with community-driven projects that offers internships, volunteering, and study abroad programs.
  • Volunteer HQ: Very fair placement fees even with the refundable registration fee taken into account, and they seem to choose projects with a long-term community approach.
  • WWOOF: Working on organic farms is a wonderful way to give time to farm, agriculture, and sometimes conservation projects. Matt has previously covered a full guide on how to WWOOF on your travels.

Step Four: Ask the Right Questions

Vetting the volunteer projects you researched is your next step and allows you to narrow your list. Diligently follow through with this stage of the process because there are heartbreaking consequences to supporting projects that are not sensitive to the needs of the people and places. An example, and a cautionary tale, is the current orphanage scandals reported in Africa and Cambodia; something as innocuous as volunteering at an orphanage often has sad and heartbreaking side-effects on the children.

Frustratingly, there are disparate issues within each volunteering niche so I wrote up a full list of questions to ask your volunteer organization on my volunteer site. The core issues most volunteer projects face come down to:

  • Where is the money going? Look at placement fees and how much of that fee goes back into the community or projects.
  • How is the organization working with the community? Have they asked the local community if this project is something that is wanted/needed? Find out if the organization is prepared to stick around and support the project or development work for potentially many years if that is needed, or leave altogether if not.
  • What is expected of volunteers? What is the exact nature of the volunteer work and what is the level of volunteer support on the ground?

At the point that you have effectively questioned the organizations and projects that interest you, you are only left with the personal decision of weighing time, costs, and project details to decide which one fits your volunteering goals. My 11-year old niece and I volunteered during our seven month trip to Southeast Asia and my volunteer goals then were quite different than when I travel solo, and so my various projects over the years have reflected my differing circumstances … as will yours!

Step Five: Take a Deep Breath

The single decision to weave international service into my round the world travels changed the direction of my life. I left the United States back in 2008 confused about the direction I should take—I left behind my previous dreams as an actor living in Los Angeles and hoped that travel and volunteering would help me re-focus. It has done that and more; the regular integration of service in my life gave me a new lens through which to experience the world and an ability to experience communities and cultures in a way that simply traveling through a country does not allow.

Once you’ve picked your volunteer experience, take a deep breath before you tackle the planning phase and those practicalities. I have travel resources and volunteer resources when you’re ready for that, but pause first. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details, but the larger picture is very rewarding when you are able to sit down on the airplane—your bags are packed, vaccinations done, details planned—and simply anticipate the new experiences and new perspectives you are about to face.

Shannon O’Donnell has actively traveled around the world since 2008; she travels slowly and volunteers in small communities along the way. She recently published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, and her travel stories and photography are recorded on her travel blog, A Little Adrift.


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