How to Tell That Your Volunteer Program Is Legitimate, and Not a Scam

How to Tell That Your Volunteer Program Is Legitimate

Underserved communities and populations with a lack of access to health professionals and medical programs need help all over the world for nearly all types of healthcare services. More than 1.3 billion people across the world lack access to basic healthcare services – primarily because of a shortage of healthcare workers and limited access to advanced healthcare technology. Unsurprisingly, there are volunteer opportunities for just about any skill set in virtually every corner of the world, including everything from basic health checkups to vaccine provision to preventative healthcare.

If you’ve decided to become part of the solution and contribute your time, energy, and skills to a good cause, the next step is to thoroughly consider your volunteer goals and research the organizations offering programs that interest you. Volunteering abroad can be a fantastic experience and while most organizations have the same good intentions that you do and are truly working to benefit their communities, there are some bad apples and scams out there. It is important to diligently vet any program you are considering to make sure the organization is legitimately supporting the people and places they serve.

Here, we provide a list of ways to determine that your program is legitimate and not a scam:

1. Make Direct Contact with the Host Organization Ahead of Your Arrival

In recent years, growing interest in volunteer travel has sparked an increase in less legitimate organizations. Those of us who have taken an interest in traveling abroad have all heard the cautionary tales of orphanage scandals or the heartbreaking stories of volunteer participants arriving in a rural village only to find that the organization they were supposed to volunteer with has been closed for a year – or didn’t exist at all.

As a volunteer, you should have no problem finding information about your host organization and should be able to speak with them in advance about logistics, living conditions, what sort of work you will be doing, and important regulations of the country where you will be volunteering. If you are having a difficult time finding information about the program or making contact with the organization, it might be an indication that it’s not legitimate. At the very least, a responsible organization should be able to provide you with guidelines about the job requirements and goals of the program. If red flags start to appear, consider working with a volunteer placement provider instead of going at it alone. Companies like Maximo Nivel, International Volunteer HQ, or Volunteering Solutions are legitimate, trustworthy placement providers who have already visited and vetted the partner organizations they work with.

2. You Are Provided with Guidance about Visas and Important Logistics Prior to Departure

Your volunteer organization should have experience hosting and placing volunteers, including knowing everything there is to know about the laws and regulations of the country where you will be spending your time. For example, many countries require that foreign visitors possess a visa for full-time work (even if the work is unpaid) and will only grant a tourist visa to people who will be in the country for 90 to 180 days. If you’re planning on spending more time in the country, you may need to apply for a real visa.

If your organization doesn’t seem to know or care about what you need to make sure your time spent in the country is completely legal, it should be a red flag that the organization may not have the experience or doesn’t care much about your experience. You should make sure to ask questions about visa, medical, and other requirements for your destination country before you commit to travel. If you’re not satisfied with the quality of the answers, you may want to research other options.

3. You Have a Clear Understanding of Where Your Money is Going

Volunteer organizations incur expenses when they provide volunteers with housing, food, training, transportation, and program materials. They also have their operating costs to maintain the project which is why most organizations request a financial contribution or program fee to participate. As a potential volunteer, it shouldn’t alarm you if an organization requests a fee, and it doesn’t mean they are a scam.

It is, however, reasonable for you to ask questions about where your money is going and to expect a certain level of financial transparency. If the organization does not provide the information online, you can request a breakdown of how your contribution gets allocated. A reputable organization should be able to clearly explain what your contribution covers and how much of the fee goes back into the project or community. In the United States, nonprofits are required by law to make public financial disclosures that contain details about their program expenses and financial management. Reporting requirements in other countries vary, but that shouldn’t prevent you from asking questions about where your money goes. If an organization is evasive or refuses to publicize financial information, it could be a major warning sign.

It is common for volunteer organizations to have different titles and descriptions for their expenses, but they generally fall into the following functional categories:

  • Administrative / Managerial Costs – These are costs related to managing the day-to-day activities of an organization and typically include operational and administrative expenses such as bookkeeping, governance, and management. While important, organizations generally try to minimize these costs when possible.
  • Volunteer Costs – Expenses directed towards volunteer transportation, health insurance, orientation, room and board, volunteer stipends, and other training – costs which are required to keep the program running – typically fall into the category of volunteer costs.
  • Program Expenses / Field Operations – For responsible volunteer organizations, program costs generally represent most of the overall expense of the organization. These are costs associated with providing programs and services that fulfill the organization’s defined mission. When assessing the financial responsibility of an organization, people generally prefer to see the largest allocation of company funds to this category.
  • Staff / Personnel Costs – Compensation (i.e. salary) for supporting operations, including field staff, program managers, and supporting volunteers.
  • Promotion & Fundraising – Any expenses that relate to marketing, advertising, and fundraising (activities that appeal to financial support). Examples of these costs include internet marketing and advertising, holding a fundraising event, and the salaries of individuals who spearhead the process of fundraising.

As a general rule, an organization with integrity will allocate between 75-85 percent of its outgoing funds to program expenses, which means that a large chunk of the fees contributed by volunteers and donors are directed back into the community and its development. A good organization will have no problem sharing this information with you.

4. They Take Volunteers Skills and Qualifications into Consideration

A responsible volunteer program will demonstrate a commitment to vetting its volunteers to ensure that they have the skills to be effective. No legitimate volunteer program should ever allow their volunteers to participate in activities they would be unqualified to take part in back home. Naturally, the level of skills required by a volunteer project will vary depending on the community served and the program goals – some projects need highly skilled volunteers, while others require little more than able-bodied volunteers with a desire to help – but an effort should always be made to confirm that volunteers possess some relevant prior experience, language skills, are mentally stable, and have some level of pre-departure training.

If you are ever told that the need for volunteers is so great that the organization is willing to take anyone willing to make the trip and contribute a program fee – you may want to look elsewhere. If an organization doesn’t seem to care about your background or have any interest in your special skills, it may be a sign that the organization doesn’t care whether your inclusion is a good fit for you or the people it is serving.

This is especially true for medical and healthcare programs or work that involves children. Medical, nursing, and healthcare professionals should be required to show proof of a professional license in good standing, and anyone working with children, in any capacity, should be required to submit a background check. Organizations without these requirements fail to prioritize the safety of those they are supposed to be helping.

5. It’s Not a Requirement to Buy Flights, Visa Assistance, or Travel Insurance through the Organization

As a matter of convenience, it may seem like a nice option to purchase your flight and any transportation abroad through the volunteer organization hosting your program. Especially in cases where larger groups are involved, it may make sense logistically to arrange for any travel through your volunteer provider.

If the above case is true, the option should still be presented as a choice, rather than a requirement. If your volunteer provider is mandating that you purchase a flight or requiring that you make arrangements through a particular travel agent or insurance provider, the company may be profiting from additional markup or receiving a fee for referring your business to a partner. Our suggestion – to calm any fears of a scam – is to do your research on a travel website and to inquire independently with a travel insurance provider before consenting to purchase through your volunteer provider.

6. Read Reviews and Consult with Other Travelers

Like most major decisions in life, the best strategy to help you when facing a difficult decision may be to seek the advice of others who have been through a similar experience. In the case of choosing a good volunteer program, you can often save a lot of time, energy, and heartache by reading reviews from other people who have been through the program themselves. There is no guarantee that your experience will mirror that of another, but you will certainly have more information and peace of mind that you are working with a reputable organization.

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