If you’re looking at this page, it’s likely that a friend has recommended volunteering abroad to you after recounting their own amazing experiences of volunteering in Asia. Maybe you’ve been looking to contribute to a cause and make your travel experience meaningful.
Perhaps you’ve just finished college or university and you’re looking to go on a self-discovery journey before starting the 9-5 grind. Or maybe you just want to learn and step outside your comfort zone.
Understand Why You Want to Volunteer
If you identify with any of the above, you’ve come to the right place. It won’t be possible to cover every single thing in detail, but this article aims to help you choose the best organisation to volunteer with, based on a few key criteria.
Before diving into the deep stuff, determine for how long you’re willing to be away from home and how far you’re willing to travel. Asia is an obvious choice for many because it’s affordable and has a rich culture ripe for exploring, with multiple benefits. The cost of living is not as high, compared to many other regions, and the standards of living are rapidly improving. Don’t get fooled by common volunteering stereotypes.
When selecting an organisation, it’s important to really understand why you want to volunteer otherwise you risk wasting both the organisation’s time and yours. Once you know your why, you can find a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or non-profit as it’s otherwise known, that speaks to you.
It’s vital for you to spend some time thinking about this because among the reputable and recognised NGOs, there are none that are better than the other. They are all doing their best and championing their respective causes every day.
Having said that, there are certain key criteria that can help give you the assurance that you’re picking a legitimate organisation and it comes down to these few: professionalism, recognition, reviews, transparency and on-site training. These points will be covered in further detail below.
What Drives You the Most?
But first, let’s go over the basics: once you’ve identified the why, your next question would be: what type of volunteer work can I do? Answering this really depends on your why, which is best cleared up before you even start your online search.
Ask yourself what you’re passionate about, list out a few if there are too many and narrow your search as you go along. Match this with your why to get an ideal answer.
For example, maybe you’ve been disturbed by recent climate change disasters which has driven your desire to help those who have been affected. In this case, you could volunteer for an organisation that deals with environmental issues.
If disaster relief is not directly related to your interests, you can then search instead for animal welfare volunteer programmes — it might provide a good fit for you.
To help you make a decision that will truly resonate and make your time and money worthwhile, it would help to get educated about the cause you’re interested in and it’s most pressing issues. You also need to make sure that at the end of the day, your work matters!
Avoid Trendy Volunteering
If you’re not sure about what cause you want to support, don’t worry — this is more common than you think. With so many urgent humanitarian challenges in this day and age, it can be overwhelming to decide how to help. Maybe you feel like you want to help with ALL causes, or maybe you feel like giving up and taking a vacation instead!
Take a deep breathe and check out volunteer programmes that need urgent help. You can’t go wrong with education because it is a key factor in lifting people out of poverty. Googling ‘education non-profits Asia’ can be a big step in the right direction.
Volunteering is a very personal thing — everybody has different and deeply personal reasons about why they choose a particular cause. Nobody really has the right or wrong answer; your could ask dozens of people and end up more confused rather than enlightened.
At the end of the day, go with your gut and avoid doing something just because it is trendy or blindly following your friends. Don’t tag along on someone else’s adventure if it isn’t for you just because they decided it was the right thing for them.
You Can Help and Have Fun
Some things to consider when selecting a volunteer programme is taking advantage of your free time on weekends, your off days and public holidays. One of the best open secrets about volunteering abroad is the chance to visit new places and explore the city and countryside, or even other nearby countries.
Are there any places you’ve always wanted to visit? Choosing Asia works well because you can travel for cheap around the region and tick off that bucket list item while contributing to a cause. Check out in advance what kind of historical, cultural or tourist sites you can visit in and around the region where you’ll be volunteering.
Volunteer programmes will almost definitely bring you to places outside of the traditional tourist route; places you probably wouldn’t have thought to even go!
Another sweet bonus of volunteer programmes (which can range from a month, up to six months, or more) is truly getting to know the locals and building firm friendships that can often last a lifetime; an opportunity you wouldn’t have as a regular tourist or a short-term visitor.
Also, some organisations offer perks such as free language classes or cultural trips with a native guide. Malaysia, for example, has a very rich and diverse culture. You never know until you ask, so add this to your list of questions that you can direct to the organisation liaison.
Bonus Tip: Get to know your host country by watching movies or documentaries based in the area you’re headed to. Listen to music in the native language and try out their local cuisine, perhaps with a friend or acquaintance who has experienced your host country before.
It would also help to research the culture and customs of your host country as it is important to be respectful. Dressing appropriately in your host country and making the effort to learn key phrases in the local language can go a long way.
Now For the Practical Stuff
When making a decision, find out if you are required to have industry experience for the volunteer programme. It’s important to know what you have to offer and see if your current skills match what they’re looking for. Some organisations will list out precise areas where they require assistance.
Inversely, ask yourself if you will be able to gain experience in your field by volunteering for this particular organisation. Perhaps you’re volunteering because you want to practice certain skills that your industry requires. In this case, you’d want to find a volunteer programme that will allow you to develop these competencies.
For example, if you are considering becoming a teacher, choose an organisation that will allow you to practice teaching, educating or training. If you are keen to develop your artistic ability, choose a volunteer programme that will require you to paint, draw or work on murals for the most part.
Depending on how you spend your time at your selected volunteer programme, keep in mind that volunteering has the potential to be a stepping stone to other opportunities, possibly even a full-time job.
Just because you’re not getting paid doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your job seriously. The battle between money vs. meaning is always going to be there. But the possibilities are endless if you put your heart and soul into volunteering.
How Legit Is Your Selected Volunteer Programme?
As mentioned above, you can gauge how legitimate an organisation is based on several factors, one of them being their online platforms.
Pay attention to their website — it’s a huge indicator of whether or not they’re legitimate. A professional organisation will have an updated and secure website which is informative and easy to navigate.
The website content, including the featured images, says a lot about their work values and ethos. Their history, vision and project details should all be spelt out and convenient to find on the website. The contact details should also be easily accessible.
The website will ideally contain information about where the organisation’s funds go and if not, it is your right to make this part of your query. As a volunteer, you would want to know that you’re working for an organisation that incorporates the needs of the local community and offers a clear view of how they spend their money.
It is important that a majority of the organisation’s proceeds go back into sustainable volunteer programmes. You can identify this by looking for impact or progress reports of their projects, which should also be on the website or blog.
Bonus points for organisations that are active on social media. It is a great sign if your selected organisation has a presence on social media or an up-to-date blog. This shows they are putting in extra effort to be a part of the global community by reaching out to international volunteers.
Doing a background check on your targeted organisation to gauge their scale of recognition does pay off. Check to see if they are affiliated with any international bodies and verify that they have a solid reputation in the volunteer community.
Also, check if the volunteer programme of your choice has been recognised on a national or regional level. You can do this by searching under ‘News’ in Google to see if they’ve been mentioned by the media or if they’ve been accredited by any external local bodies.
It helps to be reassured by noting if the organisation works with local partners who can bolster their contributions for long-term, sustainable success.
Watch Out For Red Flags
Your best bet at getting a feel of what kind of people work at the organisation is through e-mails and text communication. Your queries should be responded to in a timely and professional manner.
If at any time, your communication with the organisation makes you uncomfortable, it may be time to look into another volunteer programme. Red flags to look out for are things like dodging your questions, ignoring important queries or discriminatory, negative or unfriendly overtones.
In this day and age, Google is your best friend. Organisations with a proven track record will have reviews online from previous volunteers and some may even connect you with past volunteers who can chat with you about their experience and help you make an informed decision.
Be wary of overly general or positive reviews written in unnatural English with a lot of mistakes and errors — these could be paid reviews. Genuine organisations will have a range of honest reviews, with both positive and negative feedback and should be dated fairly recently.
While the Internet is helpful, what’s even better is the good ol’ fashioned way of word of mouth. If you know someone personally who has said good things about the organisation of your choice, that’s a great indicator. Word of mouth works for a reason.
Do You Have All the Facts?
As mentioned above, take note of how transparent the organisation is, especially when it’s related to cost, organisational culture and the state of its accommodation. Very often, you will find that NGOs and nonprofits do provide accommodation at none or little cost but don’t expect a luxury setting, especially if you’re posted in a remote area.
There can be unexpected or extra costs that you should prepare for such as bedding or airport transfers, but the organisation should be upfront about these fees.
Some NGOs have a certain amount of disarray in their organisational structure due to a lack of resources. However, do be cautious of volunteer programmes that can’t offer details on the structure and expectations of your job scope.
Be sure to also ask about safety issues; after all, you’re in a foreign country alone, so your safety should always come first. If you are posted to a remote area, there is a possibility of your safety being compromised.
The organisation should be transparent about any risks involved and if you need to take extra precautions in your area.
Will You Be Taken Care Of?
Another thing to investigate is if the organisation offers on-site training. If this is your first volunteer programme abroad, or if you’ve never worked anywhere else, it would be best to choose an organisation that provides training.
Furthermore, it’s a good sign if the organisation does offer formal guidance as it is another indicator of their professionalism. An organisation with integrity would standardise their processes in order to accurately measure their impact on local communities.
Keep in mind the goals of the volunteer programme (that should by now, align with your purpose or objectives); it is about impacting real people in real communities so that they can thrive. A good, legitimate volunteer programme should provide guidance via sound policies.
A reputable organisation would also provide proper support and training throughout the duration of your volunteer programme. Again, it is imperative that you do your research and ask the right questions to determine if you will receive quality training and mentorship from experienced staff.
The Price of Volunteer Programmes
We bet you’re thinking: Yes, I am keen on helping people, but how much is it going to cost me? The general response to that is: Some NGOs will charge you for their volunteer programmes and some will not. Your job is to be sure to do thorough research before committing. The most common costs associated with volunteering abroad are:
- Visa fees
- Vaccines and Immunisations
- Travel insurance
Some NGOs will provide visas, flights, meals and housing, but certainly not all, so do read the fine print. Meals and accommodation make up the bulk of your daily expenses so if you prefer to save cost, find an organisation which will bear these expenses.
Be sure to also check the terms and conditions that might apply in exchange for these ‘freebies’. Some organisations will stipulate a number of months that you’ll need to commit to or the need to fulfil a certain number of programmes/projects in order for you to enjoy these benefits.
If they are making you pay for volunteering, find out where the money is going to. If it’s not transparent, there may be something wrong. Read more about voluntourism – the business of helping others.
Some Ways to Save Money
If the volunteer programme you’ve chosen doesn’t cover the cost of flights, don’t panic and assume you have to fork out a huge sum of money. Plan in advance and make use of online deals. One tip would be to activate the alert on Google flights to your desired destination; you can even choose how often you want to receive the alerts — there is a daily option if you’re running out of time.
This prevents you from wasting time checking airfares that are not discounted. Be patient; only book your ticket once you’ve got a confirmation email from your host organisation.
Also, it doesn’t hurt to think about ways you could save money while volunteering. For example, does it make sense to cook at home and bring your own lunch? Or is it cheaper if you buy food instead?
In countries like Malaysia, for example, food is cheaply available literally 24/7. Whether that food is good for your waistline is another issue! If you have special dietary considerations, you might want to bring along some essentials from home with you but be sure to check what you’re allowed to bring into your host country.
Will you be taking a ride-hailing app to work every day or will you be able to find reasonably-priced accommodation close to your workplace? The important thing is to find out what is possible and live within your means. Very often, volunteers go crazy because everything is so cheap in Asia and burn up their savings within months. Do budget wisely and save some money for eye-opening travelling, entertainment and street food!
For more information on other aspects of volunteering abroad, you can check out the following articles:
- 7 Reasons You Should Volunteer With SOLS 24/7
- 7 Things You Should Know Before Volunteering
- How to Prepare to Volunteer in Asia
- Top 13 Organisations to Volunteer With in Malaysia