So you want to be a volunteer? Awesome!

Now how to find a program that will have a truly POSITIVE impact on the host community & ensure your efforts are not lost to those *ahem* not so great pitfalls of volunteering? 

Here are 8 Key Considerations to keep in mind when choosing an organization to volunteer with:

1) Ensure that you won't be taking/displacing jobs that could be valuable to the locals of the community.

How would you like it if someone from afar came and decided to take a job you could have REALLY used?

If your skills are hard to come by locally, make sure that part of your role is to train locals as to not leave a vacancy when you leave. Building a school for example might not be the best use of your skills because maybe you’re no good at it, and it could also be putting a local out of work (but not to worry – we’re confident you’re GREAT at something else ;))

2) Assess the impact of the organization you'll be working with

knowledge flat icon with long shadow,eps10

Providing books ≠ providing literacy.

Giving away things like books, shoes, or school supplies can actually be quite detrimental to the local economy and creates a culture of dependence (NOT GOOD!). Giving money to children in the streets could very well be the reason they are in the streets & will keep them there despite your good intentions.

Gauging the organization will involve devoting some of your wonderful volunteer spirit to some pre-trip leg work. Do your research. Ask critical questions.

Need some guidance? You’re in the right place! Continue to look through this online tool kit or check out our additional resources under the Helpful Links tab!

3) Ensure goals are LOCALLY driven.

Who knows what you need better than you? The same can be said for the communities that volunteer programs participate in.

Volunteering isn’t about riding in on the proverbial horse of privilege and dictating to others what they need or how they should live. It also isn’t about stroking your ego or your image (or those of your horse for that matter!).

Responsible volunteering is meant to promote reciprocal relationships between parties starting from the host community and working outwards. This means that important decisions should be made by people familiar with the community’s needs. When assessing an organization, look for signs that they are working closely with the locals to ensure that this goal is being met. If not, move on and look for an organization that can better serve the host community (and allow your efforts to truly shine!)

This can have serious financial implications as well. Make sure that your trip will be helping the local economy.This can be just as valuable as your man hours put in and can have positive lasting effects even after you leave (Perfect! That’s what we’re after!). Ensuring that the organization is working with groups in the local community and is participating in projects matched to community needs is one thing. Other dimensions to be mindful of are things like ensuring that you are staying in local hotels/hostels, eating in locally owned restaurants, and purchasing locally at every turn. You want your money to be staying in the community and supporting community growth. Goal: a culture of entrepreneurship NOT a culture of dependence (that dirty word again).

4) Consider the sustainability of what the organization does.


This is the old ‘give a man a fish’ problem.

Going away and handing out ‘fish’ for two weeks and then coming home and feeling like you’ve done your share of good for the year is not the point. And trust us, volunteering can be a MUCH more enriching experience if long term change is the objective.

Ask: Is this organization offering short-term quick fix solutions or focusing more on deep-rooted underlying causes of the problems? Be wary of organizations offering excessive handouts — that does not address the rooted problems and it creates dependencies (again no good, what happens when you leave and there’s no one handing out ‘fish’?).

PS. Just so we’re all on the same page, all this fish talk is in reference to the Old English proverb originating somewhere around the 1880’s wisely supposing that if you “Give a man a fish you feed him for a day; show him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Kk, moving on..

5) Question and be wary of organizations accepting un-vetted/unqualified volunteers (& and don't let that be YOU!)

Don’t be silly. We all might think we’re pretty great at something, we aren’t saying that it’s not cool that you have MASTERED the yo-yo, but every skill has a time and a place.

Don’t be blinded by the skills you possess (or lack) that may or may not be useful or make you qualified for the given volunteer initiative. The good news is that we all have something to offer and the right program does exist–it is just finding it and not putting yourself in a position where you’re possibly doing the community and yourself more harm than good. Are you qualified to build homes or schools in your country? Would you be able to work at an orphanage at home?

A good way of thinking about this is asking yourself, are you qualified to perform these tasks at home? If not, then you probably should not be doing them abroad.

Pick a volunteer trip that suits your skills along with your interests, this will get everyone one step closer to creating this reciprocal relationship that we are looking to achieve under the FTL Principles. For example, if you’re really great with electronics you can apply for a job teaching those skills elsewhere (instead of having a false belief that since you are good with electronics you are probably a good carpenter too :S).

Are you looking to learn? If so, ensure that you are ASSISTING not leading a project/work. Again, this also goes back to ensuring that any work being done is locally driven and that the leader of the project is in a well qualified position to be doing such work given the needs of the community.

Final note here: Applying for a volunteer trip should feel like applying for a job not a one stop shop for booking an all-inclusive during Spring Break (that’s a different trip for a different day).

6) Research management and transparency of the organization

Where are the donor dollars or volunteer payments being used? Are volunteers staying in accommodations that supports the local economy (with local families or otherwise) or will you be staying in a for profit hostel owned by SOME GUY in New York or Toronto who has never been there?

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Oh and this is a good time to access the ‘cred’ of the organization all together. Under #6 we talked about vetting yourself and keeping your skills in check. Now is a good time to turn the lens on the organization. Do a background check. How long have they been in business? How are previous volunteers talking about their experience with this organization? Are they falling prey to the 7 Sins of Humanitarian Douchery? (Hint: a well established & responsible organization that is in the community for the right reasons and understands the landscape they are working within will not allow HumaniDouchery to be written all over their efforts. They know better and this higher standard will shine through their volunteers).

If there is any aspect of the trip that is coming across fuzzy, don’t hesitate to ask clear questions, whether this be about what the cost actually includes or what type of work you will be doing. Get in touch with people who have gone on trips with the same organization and have a chat about the experience and expectations. They will tell you the REAL story, past the super happy volunteers hugging adorable children or riding elephants with gleaming smiles on the homepage of the org’s website.

Look for transparency. How are your hard earned $$ being used? Good organizations will publish this information freely and will be happy to share it with you. Now, even NGOs need operating dollars but there’s a difference between putting enough money into the organization to grease the wheels and keep things going or outright exploiting volunteers and communities for profit.  

7) Consider implications of your presence in the community (and your departure)

Research the community (again, this should be something the organization is promoting and aiding its volunteers with for pre-trip prep). Learn about the local cultures and customs before you go. The last thing you want to do is show up as the naive foreigner who didn’t bother doing this and ends up making an *cough* ass of themselves—not to mention being disrespectful and insulting to the host community.

As mentioned under our 7 Sins discussion, you are there to learn for and from the locals, not the other way around. Be prepared to leave your comfort zone and don’t expect to live the same life you have at home.

8) Question organizations that are spending disproportionate amounts of resources on catering to the volunteers

If the organization is spending more time and money on the volunteers having fun than the local initiatives this is when the serious lines begin to blur between volunteer trip and just another tourism company.

This should be a red flag and get away while you can.

If this sounds great than your money is probably better spent on a different kind of trip and volunteering shouldn’t be the facade to wanting to get away and kick-back for a few weeks.

If you are serious about helping create long-term change and keeping that ‘Save the World’ motivation, then this isn’t going to be the organization for you and you would be doing yourself and the community a disservice.

As we’ve mentioned, voluntourism has taken off at an insane rate over the past few years and is very much still on the rise. While we hope we’ve been clear in saying it doesn’t all need to stop—the thought of all this rapid growth is a bit overwhelming. We want all the do gooders out there to find their purpose through the perfect placement, but what happens when do good douchery spreads like wild fire? :S

A big part of creating positive change in any facet of life is harnessing the power of EDUCATION. Indeed, we fully believe that knowledge is power when it comes to eliminating humanitarian douchery. The great thing is, it’s also a power we can all take upon our selves! Now as the Millennial generation we’re used to the quick & dirty when it comes to information gathering. We want it all and we want it now. Well young grasshopper, if we’ve learned anything through our experiences in this field it is to exercise patience and to commit to learning about the cause, the organization, and the community BEFORE making any decisions. Volunteering is not the place for one-stop (or should we say one-click) shops. Think back to the days before mobile took over, fellow 90s kids think back to the days before ‘On Demand’ & having everything at your fingertips. Do you remember having to wait a gruelling ENTIRE seven days before watching the next episode of something and ‘binge watching’ something meant you & a stack of beat up VHS tapes? But more so, do you remember that sweet sweet feeling when after a WEEK of anticipation that next episode was finally airing and like a ritual your [insert day of the week] night was complete? Well here too we argue PATIENCE sure IS a VIRTUE. Give yourself the time to find the right volunteer placement & learn about the landscape you’re entering into and there will be a sweet sweet feeling coming your way (which will be the comfort of knowing you’re not engaging in humanitarian douchery and that you are contributing to REAL positive change for others and yourself).

Being informed when it comes to volunteer initiatives and choosing an organization to work with involves gaining an understanding of the surrounding landscape. On the surface, this includes reading about the country’s background and current state—including gaining an understanding of their cultural norms. A little deeper, this includes seeking an understanding of the cultural, political, and overall socio-economic landscape of the country and the work being done there. And deeper yet, understanding the landscape and being able to decipher for yourself what is/isn’t problematic when it comes to volunteer initiatives involves looking at things like neo-colonialism, privilege, and ‘othering’ through a reflective and refractive lens.

 Starting Point: Define your objective. Set your goals. Understand your purpose.

If you don’t know why you’re looking to volunteer, then others will be at a loss as well. Going abroad to travel and volunteer has become quite normalized for our generation—whether it be during the summer months between semesters, during a GAP year, or even delaying formal education to go see the world and try to do some good. BUT, you should know why you’re doing it and what you’re looking to get out of it. Wanting to gain experience or get yourself out of your comfort zone as part of your objectives is OK, as long as you don’t fall victim to the 7 Sins of Humanitarian Douchery! A good way to avoid this is to keep reciprocity in mind. The volunteer experience should do just as much (if not more) for the community as it does for you personally. In no circumstance should your presence there DETRACT from local wellbeing.

 Seek Cross Cultural Understanding

Look into the cultural norms of where you are headed. It would be AMAZING of you to show up with the best  understanding of the culture & the people you possibly can. From there, RECIPROCITY is key. Building relationships where you are open to learning and understanding life as it is in the given community is essential to responsible service learning. This isn’t about showing up as if you know ‘what’s up.’ It’s about showing up with the least amount of presumptions as possible and in a mindset that will demonstrate that you are committed to giving and learning through this new experience. You want to show that you are committed to supporting the community’s values while you are there—not IMPOSING your own. We are coming from a place where we have seen unethical volunteering enhance illegitimate stereotypes and that is EXACTLY what we DON’T want to see.

Research. Reflect. Repeat.

Be open to new experiences and learning…from the inside out. The ultimate goal is to NOT be imposing values from the OUTSIDE LOOKING IN.



Just like learning about the landscape, responsible volunteering also involves understanding the current environment ‘voluntourism’ is operating in as an industry. This will help you IMMENSELY when it comes to deciphering the GOOD from the BAD (from the UGLY) when it comes to placement organizations. It was briefly mentioned under the 8 Key Considerations, but separating the cream from the crop when it comes to organizations that will set you up with volunteer initiatives abroad comes down to TRANSPARENCY. WHO are they? WHAT are they trying to achieve? WHERE is the money going? Does this fit YOUR objective for volunteering abroad?


The GOOD: equality, reciprocity, positive change with a focus on longevity.

Imagine this..   Jane Volunteer has recently finished her nursing degree here at home and is officially a RN. Coming out of school she already had a nursing job lined up & is loving the exciting new stage in her life. However, after the past four years of nose to the grind focus  and now 1½ years of working, she is realizing that while she’s been buried in books and clinics, many of her other friends have gone off traveling in this time. She would like to find an opportunity to go do the same but does not want to leave her recently achieved RN status in the sidelines. As you can guess, Jane loves people and has always been inclined to help them however she can (Nurse was a perfect career choice for her!). She finds out about this organization that sets up trained nurses who have certain specialties with placements to help fill a need in countries that have gaps in these areas of expertise, for example post-operative care or pediatrics. The volunteer not only aids in filling the gap but also in progressing the learning of these skills locally in order to ensure they are not leaving an equally large gap when they leave. This is PERFECT! Just what she was wanting–she can go see a bit of the world but use her specialized skills to help people at the same time!


The BAD: one-sided relations, imposition, privilege, authority, hegemony, unequal power relations.

Now this…   John Volunteer has just finished High School and has decided to take a GAP year to figure out what he wants to do with his life before jumping into Post-Secondary Education. In this times he thinks going traveling and maybe doing some volunteer work along the way will help HIM find out what HE wants. In his travels he spends a few days at an orphanage and realizes ‘Wow, I don’t want to have kids for a while but how great was that! I helped out all kids who don’t have parents, that feels great! And even though life for them might not be like it was for me growing up they are so happy! Things can’t be that bad. I feel great!’ John travels around for a few more weeks and then he decides he would like to try his hand at volunteering again since last time was such a success (and he’s felt great about it since!). This time he finds a school where foreigners can come volunteer teaching. He has never taught before or even spent much time around kids (other than the ones at the orphanage a few weeks ago). But hey, that he was so good at it then and all the kids loved him so why not give teaching a go! John has a similar experience here, although he runs into a bit of difficulty because the local culture is SO vastly different than home that even just by John acting how he thinks is ‘normal’ came off really insulting to those in the community. John chalks it off to language barrier and leaves thinking he did the community and the children a service. He still feels great! John will tell all his friends about his time spent there teaching the underprivileged kids but as time goes on he will probably never think “Hey, what ever happened to them? I wonder how the community is now? Did my presence have lasting positive effects or was it just a week of  feel goodin’ for me?” John goes home after six months of traveling and tells stories of all the wonderful experiences he had abroad. The stories of his time volunteering get thrown in the same pot as stories about beach parties and club nights (and his poor luck with the ladies). Through all of that John also learned that as much as he’s glad to have helped the less fortunate little ones abroad… it’s not his thing. Time to make some decisions about university John. Early Educator Teaching Pediatrician Hmmm, well at least he knows what he doesn’t want…?


The UGLY: ME, ME, ME. Shortsighted. Superficial Band-Aids rather than deep tissue fixes. Prescriptive rather than preventative (forward focus). Centripetal rather than centrifugal initiatives. Volunteer $$$ leaves community rather than $$$ supporting the local economy. Reinforces stereotypes. Changes FB profiles, not LIVES.

& Now this… :S   Joe Volunteer has just finished his Undergrad and wants to go to Med School. Unfortunately, his results on the MCAT were…well, let’s just say less than great and there is no way he will be getting accepted for the upcoming year. Getting in to Med School is highly competitive and while Joe will have to write the MCAT again, he also knows that his application would look much more attractive if he had some real life experience under his belt. At this point, he has at least a year until a possible acceptance so Joe decides to go experience hunting. Getting medical experience at home is also a very competitive prospect and is tied up in hoop jumping. Hmmm, Joe feels stuck. Until he comes across a volunteering company that will set him up in a medical clinic abroad. EUREKA! “Sign me up!” Joe says. Although there was some paperwork and waiver signing, Joe never had to complete any type of formal interview or prove any specific credentials before he was sending this organization a chunk of $$$. When he arrives in Country X a week later, he is surprised by  just how different the culture is. He arrives at his new living quarters (a hostel owned by the organization) and gets right to meeting his new housemates. He starts his placement the next day… Day 1: Gets a tour around the facility Day 2: Gets taught how to/draws blood for the first time! (Joes’s thinking ‘whoo hoo! this will look great on my Med School App!’ Day 3: Stands in on a procedure (Even better!) Day 4: Assists on a procedure (OMG! I would never be able to do this at home! THIS IS SO GREAT!) Day 5: The clinic can’t do much of what it had on schedule because they are CRITICALLY low on supplies (What Joe should be thinking, ‘Where has all my $$$ gone? There’s no way getting picked up at the airport & staying in a hostel owned by the Organization ate up all that cash’) You get the idea. Unfortunately this is a reality of the growing tourism industry circling around volunteering. Joe is in this for himself. The Organization is in it for the $$$. And nobody is asking the critical questions like, “What does the COMMUNITY want? What do they need the MOST? Are we HELPING or HURTING? Side note: The example of Joe is an even more conflated issue when we think about the structure of education and how young students feel that much PRESSURE to gain experience or make their applications look good that they don’t even REALIZE that it is a CRAZY thing to do. Going to another country as an untrained volunteer and performing procedures you won’t be able to until you’ve completed another 4 years of HIGHER education is a CRAZY THING TO DO. Not to mention the impressions it gives as to the WORTH & VALUE of others.

To learn more about the GOOD from the BAD (from the UGLY) in volunteering, read local Vancouverite Emily Chan’s Story.