Volunteering abroad can be a powerful way to give back in the world. It can also be incredibly challenging. — and we’re not even talking about the volunteer abroad experience itself.

Sometimes, the hardest part of volunteering abroad is finding which organization to support, and ensuring that your efforts are having an actual impact.

We’ve teamed up with our friends at GivingWay, a free online platform for ethical volunteering opportunities, to get their advice about the industry and what you should look for when seeking a meaningful volunteer experience. Here’s what Aviv Hochbaum, Head of Community at GivingWay, has to say — we hope you find it useful.

By the way, GivingWay is one of our first small business partners and we are thrilled to share their words with you. Thanks for supporting Wanderful, guys (read full disclosure statement here)!

1. What should one look for when seeking out an ethical volunteer experience?

One of the main reasons most people choose to volunteer abroad is to help local communities, so it is important to look at ethical indicators of an organization: is the organization concerned with the future of the community and not just on providing volunteers with a “fun experience” or a “great photo op”? What are the living conditions of animals and the background of the people who work with them? What is the need for the project and how is it helping the community?

The best indicator of an ethical volunteer experience is when the project is driven, defined and managed by the local community itself.

2. What are the red flags of a volunteer organization (both “on the ground” or a third-party agency)?

As far as placement agents go, be wary of agents that do not disclose information about the nonprofit or do not allow direct communication with the nonprofit’s contact person.

As for nonprofits (or “on the ground” organizations), we recommend making sure you are provided with clear legal registration and specific information about the projects the nonprofit runs, and that there is documentation of past events and a good online/social presence.

Finally, for both placement agents and nonprofits, the organization in question should be clear on where all the money paid by the volunteer is going.

3. Which brings us to: How much should you pay to volunteer abroad? 

The main focus should actually be who you should pay to volunteer, rather than how much. Volunteer placement agencies often charge a very heavy fee from volunteers (and sometimes even from nonprofits) to act as matchmakers between respective sides, but ideally, all your fees should be going directly to the nonprofit you’re working with.

When volunteering directly with a nonprofit, the amount a volunteer should pay varies greatly from one organization to the next. Some organizations have fewer resources than others to be able to cover a volunteer’s stay, so they may charge a greater fee.

A general rule of thumb is to find out exactly what the volunteer fee covers. Some fees are used to cover the volunteer’s direct expenses — food, electricity, accommodation. Some organizations add more to the fee so that they can offer travel/touristic opportunities in their communities. Others will explain that a part of the fee is also used as a donation for the organization. Knowing this information is crucial to making an informed decision.

4. How should you prepare for an overseas volunteer experience? 

Make sure to learn as much as possible about both the destination and the nonprofit organization you will soon be offering your skills to. The organization may be able to provide you with a very good amount of information (sometimes they may even have prepared volunteer kits) to read and learn from before you arrive.

Also make sure you understand exactly what type of project you will be participating in. If possible, have at least one Skype call (The more the better!) with the organization and ask all the questions you can think of.

If you can, ask for the contact information of past volunteers and reach out to them as well. Past volunteers are the perfect source for tips and advice about the volunteering experience itself.

5. What can volunteers do during their experience to make it even more meaningful? 

A responsible volunteering experience can become that much more meaningful when coupled with an overall responsible travel experience. When heading out for a responsible volunteering journey, some things to keep in mind can be choosing to stay with local hostels or homestays, traveling through CBT (community-based tourism) rather than major travel companies, and buying gifts from fair trade and local shops.

Additionally, truly allowing yourself to be fully immersed within the local community and culture will deepen your experience. Ask questions, hear stories, and see how the local community members live. You are a guest in their home, after all.

6. What are the types of opportunities you can engage in if you don’t speak a second language?

If you don’t speak a second language, the best volunteering opportunities are those related to animal care or environmental conservation projects. Otherwise, you can always travel and volunteer in countries that speak the same language as your native tongue!

7. What exactly is GivingWay?

GivingWay is a free online social marketplace that directly connects volunteers and nonprofit organizations around the world. With over 500 active organizations from more than 70 countries worldwide, there is a rich variety of organizations and volunteer opportunities on our platform that range in type of work (teaching both children and adults, healthcare, women empowerment, childcare, administrative work, fundraising, animal care, conservation projects) and duration.

GivingWay wants even the most remote of nonprofit organizations to be found by suitable volunteers with skillsets that match their actual needs, so they enable prospective volunteers to deal directly with the organizations. By cutting out agents and agent fees and allowing volunteers and nonprofits to have direct and open dialogues, the chances of maximizing impact to all involved are much higher.

8. How does GivingWay help facilitate long-term relationships with organizations, even after a volunteer has left?

As an online social platform, GivingWay enables the two sides to continue to communicate directly through a very simple and easy-to-use online messaging system, through which the volunteer can continue to get updated with the organization’s ongoing projects and news. Additionally, volunteers can offer online assistance with various tasks which the organization has requested, so they can stay involved even after they return home.

9. How does GivingWay ensure the promotion of responsible and ethical volunteering opportunities?

All nonprofits on the GivingWay platform are local grassroots organizations, so volunteers can communicate directly with local communities to learn about their projects and the type of help they need.

Accordingly, GivingWay does not promote any volunteer companies or placement agencies – only the actual nonprofits that require assistance from volunteers. Additionally, GivingWay has a zero tolerance policy on orphanage volunteering.

Finally, through various resources and educational content GivingWay has created a hub in which volunteers can share information and learn from the experiences of others in order to make volunteering abroad as impactful as possible for everyone involved.

To sign up and search volunteer opportunities, visit givingway.com!

Have you ever volunteered abroad? Tell us about your experience in the comments!