I spent about a third of 2016 volunteering in Honduras. This was not my first experience volunteering abroad – my first few times out of the country were volunteer trips with my school and I was finishing up my first month of 3 volunteering in Nicaragua when I flew home in 2015.
For me, volunteering abroad was a long-term investment. It was about making a trackable impact by offering assistance and skills in an appropriate setting. It wasn’t voluntourism – a week or two spent in a country “helping” as part of a vacation” but rather the next step in my life.
Finding a reputable volunteer organization was critical and not something that could be done in a day. At the beginning of my search, I had several non-negotiable criteria:
I wanted to be in Central America. This was for a few reasons, the primary one being that Central America has my heart and I just want to be anywhere in Central America for as long as I can. The fact that it is the cheapest place for me to travel outside of the United States was a bonus.
I wanted to work with kids. I like animals but not enough to volunteer with them for hours every day, I have no medical training, and I’ve been working with kids since I graduated high school. I think the greatest impact we can have on someone is in their childhood and literacy is a crucial skill so it made sense for me to combine the two.
I wanted an organization that worked closely with the community. There are so many “organizations” that take advantage of volunteers and do more harm than good in the community. Many have the “savior’s attitude” where they believe the community cannot survive without them, even though the community has no say in the organization. I wanted to make sure I was with an organization that was actually making a positive impact and the only way to do that is to work with the community, based on their actual needs.
Coming up with those non-negotiables was the first step to finding the organization and once I had those, my search was quickly narrowed down to a few organizations.
I used Grassroots Volunteering. Grassroots Volunteering is an excellent website that vets NGOs for you. They find organizations with low cost or free volunteering that are real, actual organizations. By selecting my volunteer interests, I was able to find a few legitimate organizations without scouring the web for hours.
I carefully researched each organizations. I selected 3 or 4 organizations from the Grassroots search and researched each one by reading through their website and searching reviews. How much did they charge? What was included in that? How long has the organization been around? What is a day in the volunteer life like? What do past volunteers say about the organization? What is the minimum volunteering requirement?
I emailed the ones I really, really liked. After researching, my search was narrowed down to two different organizations – one in Honduras and one in Nicaragua. I emailed both organizations with a few questions to help me get a better sense of where I belonged. The tone and warmth with which I was responded to was actually the deciding factor in which organization I went with.
I emailed past volunteers. You’re always taking a risk with this one because obviously the organization isn’t going to give you the emails of volunteers who had a bad experience but by asking questions like “What was the hardest part of volunteering abroad?” I was able to get the better sense of where I wanted to be.
Ultimately, I ended up volunteering with the Honduras Child Alliance in El Porvenir, Honduras based on the fact that they do work closely with the community and have programs that supplement the education the kids are already receiving. As soon as I Skyped with the director, I knew instantly that was where I needed to be and it’s a decision I never regretted.
I can’t say if I will or will not volunteer abroad in the future but if I do, I’ll use this same process to choose my volunteer organization.