Evaluating an Overseas Volunteer Program in Thailand, Southeast Asia or Anywhere

karen refugeesIn Southeast Asia, there are many worthwhile charitable causes that need volunteers.  There are many needs.  But all too often, I hear from people that have had problems and complain about intern or volunteer abroad programs after they have returned from doing their work.  They always say the same things:  “I had a great time, learned a lot, met a whole bunch of wonderful people, but it could have been a lot less expensive for me.”  Yes, it costs money to volunteer.  You have to spend money first to get here, and then the organization you volunteered for may charge for housing, food and other necessities.  They call these payments “donations.”  For some, it is quite small and for others it can be quite a bit of money out of your pocket.

It has to be recognized that no matter how benevolent the cause, a charitable organization needs to generate income for it to continue.  The leaders of the NGO are educated people that want to be paid comparable to what they would earn back home in a university or in government or in the private sector.  While it is a “non-profit” it must still financially support the employees of the organization plus cover the general expenses that any business would have.

Income to a Charitable organization comes primarily from three sources:

  1. Donations and grants from organizations, businesses and foundations. That might be in the form of donations from a church or Rotary Club or a fund drive.  Or it might be in the form of a gift from a corporation. Most larger companies have a budget for donations to worthy causes and an officer in the corporation evaluating different groups asking for money.   Or this may be a grant from one of the many foundations set up from estates that donate to worthy causes.  As long as the NGO has a recognized (by the IRS) with non-profit status, donations can be the major source of income for these charitable groups.
  2. The activity itself can generate income.  Maybe the NGO is involved in getting recipients to make furniture in an effort to rehabilitate them and train them for jobs.  It could be a little manufacturing shop or a retail store (think Goodwill) or farms or ay number of things.  Maybe the workers are on a very low wage or even unpaid.
  3. Volunteers pay to help in the program.  There are plenty of folks wanting to do good things; to “give back” to the world after having a good life in America.  These charitable organizations want the help, but they also want these volunteers to not be a financial drain for them.  As an example, here is a Link (Pennies for Papa) to a well-known charity in the hills north of Chiang Mai that charges volunteers about USD $2000 to volunteer for 3 months.  Understand, this is a location where a typical rent for the room they are offering would be about USD $150 per month and food is very cheap.

If you are a potential volunteer in Southeast Asia, your heart is probably in the right place.  It is also important that you look at the volunteer opportunity through very clear glasses and understand how the system works.  (Reality check here).  Before investing any money into the project, you should do some very level-headed evaluation of exactly who you are going to work for once you are “volunteering’ and how much it will cost you.

Before deciding to donate your money and your time, put on your “Skeptics Hat” and make that charitable organization prove to you beyond a doubt that this is what you want to do at a price you are willing to pay.  Do not give up your hard earned assets and future labors to any organization you are uncertain about.

There are charitable organizations that you can volunteer with that do not charge a fee.  Some will provide room and food (albeit, not luxurious in any way) and may even offer other benefits, like a little money to cover some of the volunteer’s expenses.  These groups, however, usually require a commitment of a longer time — like 3 months or 6 months or even a year —  and volunteers need to have some usable skills (like teaching or medical work).  It takes a little more research to find trusted groups that do not charge money (“donations”), but it can be done.

Now here is another piece of information that may a bit of shocker to the would-be volunteer you may pay “donation” money upfront (which never includes airfare — that’s for you to do on your own), and then when you finally arrive after the grueling trip to the closest airport, the people you gave the money to are not the ones waiting for you.  Maybe it is the principal at a school or the manager of the health clinic or guardian at the dormitory housing for “rescued wayward souls” .  The people you gave the money to are often in fact “middle men” that collect your donation for volunteering, take their cut and have the actual facility providing the services (a separate organization) pick you up at the airport and work with you during your time of assignment.  The actual facility, not the organization you paid your donation money to, are the ones that arranged for your home stay or room somewhere, made arrangements for your food and other necessities and organized the work you are doing.  The organization you paid is there to recruit volunteers and collect money.

After talking with the people you are working with over a period of time, you might find that you could have saved yourself several hundreds of dollars in donation money if you could have dealt directly with them and not the middle man organization.  The cut for the middle man can be between 20% and 50% of your “donation”.

Then, if you are staying with a local family in a homestay situation, you ask the family how much they are getting to house and feed you, it is likely that it is only a small portion of what you paid.  This can be infuriating.  When you complete your volunteer work, you may feel that you contributed good works to worthy cause, but you also may feel like you were ripped off.

You must do some research — and it is easily available — before you let your hard earned money out the door.  Here are my suggestions:

Look at the organizations website and learn everything you can about the organization.  Find out if they are actually doing the work or if they are working as middle men for other agencies.  Using the contact form on the site, ask some hard-hitting questions about what they do.

Get specific details from the organization about where you will be housed during your assignment. Not just a statement they will house you, but where, and what the conditions will be — Will it be with a family and, if so, what are their names? Will you have your own room? Will there be locks on the windows and doors? Will it be within walking distance of the volunteering assignment? How available is electricity and hot water?

Get information on how the organization will support you during arrival and departure. Will there be someone at the airport from the organization to help you through the immigration and customs process? Will the organization provide transport from the airport to its location?

Get detailed information about the nearest health care facilities, and how the organization will or will not help to get you to such if needed.  Get information on the language.  It’s great if you are already fluent in the Thai language, but if not, are there translators for you?   How many are there that speak English?

Understand the visa requirements.  To do volunteer work in Thailand, you cannot just show up at the door.  You must file — or the organization must file on your behalf — for a business visa.  It is illegal to work — even if it is for no income — without the proper visa.  Thailand does not want millions of volunteers displacing their citizens of their jobs that support the family.  Other countries are similar to Thailand.  Research this before you commit.

Will the NGO supply you with a visa, or is that something you have to do on your own — maybe working with the consulate in your home country.  These are extremely important questions.

Understand the country.  For instance, there are medical workers in America that are convinced the US has the best medical care in the world (this is debatable) and believe they will be warmly welcomed at any medical hospital in Thailand where they can offer their medical expertise and have a great vacation.  The reality is that Thailand has its own superb medical system (some say much better than what is in the US), their own medical schools, nursing schools and medical technician training.  There may be some volunteer needs in extremely remote areas or in refugee camps, but this is limited.  Other countries (perhaps Laos and Cambodia) may volunteer opportunities.  The point is that a potential volunteer has to research the situation in the country they are thinking about volunteering in.  Perhaps their services are frankly not needed.

Thailand is a more modern country than many Americans imagine.  Really.

Research local news stories about the organization (thank God for the internet).  You may find some unsavory info about the organization.  Last year about this same time, a well known Chiang Mai charity that earned lot of donations was indicted for massive fraud (Grey Men, see a   Link Here). 

Check out review websites that evaluate volunteer programs.  But be a Skeptic here as well.   There are organizations that can easily “seed” positive reviews.  There are people paid to write good reviews (you can get a job doing this on Elance and other job sites).  On the review site, see if the charity has been verified and has several reviews on other sites.  If all the positive reviews are done around the same time, be more skeptical.  If all the reviews are 5-star, be skeptical (most people don’t write positive reviews if something was alright, but will write if something is not).

If the charity is not even listed, be skeptical as well and ask the charity why they are not listed.

Abroad Reviews - evaluations from people that have volunteered.  Good site. I trust this site the most.

Go Overseas – reviews of volunteer programs by participants.  Lots of reviews. 

Volunteer Forever – almost all the charities listed have reviews that are 5-star or have no review at all yet.  Put on the skeptic hat on this site.

Idealist – gives you a listing of international groups looking for volunteers, with some comments and questions from those that sign up (free) to the site.  Click  the Volunteer Opportunities  tab and type in the country you are looking to volunteer.

Actually Trip Advisors is a great review site for hotels, tourist venues, restaurants, etc., and they also have a couple of reviews about some volunteering organizations.  Here is a sample:  Trip Advisor volunteer review.  This site is a little difficult to maneuver to find reviews and questions/answers about volunteering, but if you type in the search Volunteer Thailand (or whatever other country you are looking at), you will get a lot of worthwhile reviews.

Not a review site, but a good one to find volunteer opportunities that do not cost money in Thailand:

Volunteer Work in Thailand – a long list of organizations in Thailand that are looking for volunteers.  Many offer free accommodations and sometimes other benefits as well.

Volunteering can be rewarding in so many ways, but please go into this with your eyes wide open.  Get all the advice you can from school, friends, parents and forums.

Here are some horror stories from people that “volunteered” and paid big money to charities that turned out to be scams:  Fake orphanages. Bogus animal sanctuaries. And crooks growing rich on Western gullibility… why do-gooding gap year holidays may be a horrifyingly callous con – The Daily Mail – 11 September 2013

Your comments and further suggestions are appreciated.

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4 thoughts on “Evaluating an Overseas Volunteer Program in Thailand, Southeast Asia or Anywhere

  1. Hi Harry, I’m not sure which organization you are talking about but for the most part, I don’t think that the majority of the organizations will steal your money. That is because if they did steal, it would immediately find it’s way on the internet. Just make sure to go with a company that has had several volunteers before and you should be fine. Check out this for example: http://www.leaveurmarkindia.blogspot.com and the website: http://www.leaveurmark.com and you can find good information on former volunteers so you know it’s not a “scam”. As for raising the money, you have to work and get donations maybe from your uni, your family and friends, etc.

    • Thanks. Appreciate your input. But my name ain’t Harry. I am sure that if there are testimonials on the website for the volunteering company it has to be trusted. But then maybe if it were on a review site not written by the company it could be even more valuable.

      • Have checked online pretty carefully and there are a lot of independent reviews of Leave Ur Mark. All the reviews were good, so it looks like this is a good volunteer placement company. – expat

  2. Pingback: Volunteering without paying Big Money | American Expat in Chiang Mai

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