Ethical Gap Year Programs

Photo: Courtesy of Enroute Gap Year Consulting

How to Find an Ethical Volunteer Project

By Julia Levine Rogers

Volunteering – both internationally and domestically – is one of the most popular gap year activities. Many gap year students choose to volunteer for at least part of their gap year.

It’s admirable that so many students want to give back. Volunteering is an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture, learn a language and broaden your horizons. But not all volunteer programs are created equal. It’s important that you do the homework to find a socially responsible organization in order to maximize the positive impact you’ll have on the community you serve.

If you are paying a program fee, traveling to a project site and investing your heart into a volunteer project, you want to make sure that the work you are doing is sustainable and necessary. In some instances, volunteer projects do more harm than good. I want to give you a few tips on how to identify an ethical volunteer organization. These tips are adapted from the website ethicalvolunteering.org, where you can find more information on finding a socially responsible organization.

1. Know why your project exists. When looking into an organization, make sure you know exactly what the project is doing. Is the organization itself running it or are they placing you with a partner organization? Strong programs have been created with locals and/or local partner organizations that know the needs of the community.

2. Know who’s taking care of you. Depending on the answer to question one, you might have a representative from the organization or a representative from the partner organization looking after you. Make sure they speak English, they are experienced working with international volunteers, and that you know how often they will be checking in with you.

3. Beware of flashing dollars. If you go to the website of an organization and you automatically see the project prices, that is not a good sign. You want to volunteer with an organization that places volunteers where they are needed, not where they need to fill empty spots.

4. Require Pre-Departure, In-Country and Return Support. Look for an organization that provides exceptional support to you before you leave, while you are volunteering, and upon your return home. A good organization will hold pre-departure briefings (either in-person or on the phone/skype) and send materials to help prepare you for your trip. Make sure the organization has a reliable, on-site director that will support you while you are on the ground and is available 24/7 should needs arise.

5. Require Airport Pick-Up and Orientation. You should never have to get yourself to your project site abroad. An organization should always arrange for you to be met at the airport by a representative of the program and taken safely to your accommodation or orientation. In-country orientation is very important – it helps you feel comfortable and confident in your new surroundings. Ask the organization what the in-country orientation entails; at the very least it should include language training, a health and safety briefing, a seminar on cultural norms, project orientation and a tour of your new area.

6. Identify how your money is spent. Know the breakdown of your program fee, and how it is used by the organization. Keep in mind that programs that are inexpensive can be doing just as much good as very expensive programs that spend a lot of money on overhead costs such as international offices and marketing. However, sometimes program fees may be higher because an organization provides its volunteers good support, which is well worth the money.

7. Be mindful of working with vulnerable children. Many organizations run programs that work with orphans. Unless you are willing to make a long-term commitment (6 months-1 year), working with orphans for short periods can sometimes be very damaging to their well-being. They can develop attachment disorders from volunteers coming and going so often. Teaching, or working with children in a non-care giving capacity, is safer for the children.

8. Know the goals and timeframe of your project. Strong projects will have goals that volunteers help achieve. Programs that plan strategically in their communities are more likely to be working towards sustainable, worthwhile objectives.

9. Ask for help if needed. Enlist a trusted adult, parent or gap year adviser to help you through the search process. They can help you identify reliable volunteer programs. For more information on working with ethical organizations, visiting ethicalvolunteering.org or The International Center for Responsible Tourism (http://icrtcic.wordpress.com/).

Julia Levine Rogers is a professional gap year advisor and director of EnRoute Consulting in Stowe, Vermont. Visit www.enroutegapyear.com for more information.