Voluntourism has grown more popular in recent years. It makes sense: with the news cycle covering a world that seems riddled with bad news, enacting positive change has become more important than ever — indeed, voluntourism is now a billion-dollar industry. But sometimes, organized voluntourism projects are not as legitimate as they’d lead you to believe. Some are designed to scam you out of your money, while others have good intentions but inadvertently cause harm to the community they’re meant to be serving. To help you avoid these shortcomings, we’ve compiled a quick checklist to run through before booking.

Volunteers at IHG Hong Kong
Photo by Zach Houghton

Have Direct Contact with Your Host Organization

Though volunteer placement providers such as IVHQ, Greenheart Travel, and Volunteering Solutions will speak to your host organization on your behalf, the general rule of thumb is that you should be able to personally contact the local project or initiative you’re hoping to work with. Legitimate volunteering programs are easy to get hold of and learn about: if you can’t seem to find your host organization’s name and address, the names and phone numbers of the local staff, and other basic information such as their mandate and mission statement, then you should consider other projects and organizations.

All of these companies will not only have vetted and visited the organizations they work with, but will provide you with further information about them should you request it. That said, if you’re looking for operations with particularly good track records, Global Vision and Global Volunteers International have both received accolades for their work, with the former given special consultative status by the United Nations.

Two children doing schoolwork in a Balinese classroom.Know Where Your Money is Going

When choosing a host organization, financial transparency is a must. Whether funding the salaries of local employees, your own living expenses, or the project at large, reputable projects and initiatives should be able to tell you how your money is being used. Some organizations will have this information available on their websites — if yours doesn’t, don’t hesitate to contact them and ask.

In the same vein, mandatory flight and/or visa packages should be met with skepticism. Do a quick search of Google Flights, Skyscanner or Kayak, and check to make sure that the price you’re being quoted isn’t significantly higher than what comes up in the search results. If it is, someone is profiting off of that markup, and it’s probably not the local projects. The same goes for visas: do your research regarding what visa you’ll need and what it will cost before potentially overpaying your host organization to take care of the paperwork for you.

A passport on a table.Ensure that Guidance for Visas and Other Logistics are Provided

Just as you should be wary of organizations with mandatory packages, those that are totally silent on the subject of visas and other important logistics should also be met with caution. This is especially true of programs that require a time commitment of over three months, or that ask you to work as a full-time volunteer. Some countries require even unpaid workers to have work visas, while others will grant tourist visas for anywhere between 90 and 180 days.

It’s always important to do your own research, but good volunteer organizations should be able to ensure that the duration of your stay will be legal. If your host organization does not provide information regarding country entry requirements, such as visa or medical information, then be sure to ask. If no one is able to provide you with straight answers, it might be time to look into other options.

A man and a group of children making the peace signs.Check Qualifications

Reputable programs will also list the required qualifications of their volunteers, and some will even require background checks and/or your CV. Police or Child Safety Checks should be mandatory with every project that requires volunteers to work with children.

It’s imperative to read the qualifications listed and consider the kind of work you’ll be doing. According to travel writer Bill Fink, bringing in foreigners to work on easy construction projects can be a drain on local resources and actually exacerbate unemployment rates. A Nepalese relief group’s director is of a similar opinion, asking that “unless you’re a doctor, an electrician, or have some specialized skill we can’t find here, please just stay home. Not only are you not helping, you’re a drain on local resources.”

Conversely, voluntourism in other contexts works beautifully. SEE Turtles’s director, Brad Nahill, told Yahoo that volunteers have been extremely helpful in their abilities to perform basic tasks such as counting and measuring turtles. Without this, he says, many sea turtle conservation projects would cease to exist. Similarly, GiveADayGlobal’s one-day voluntourism program, according to director Kerry Rodgers, is just as much about raising awareness as it is providing a service. Voluntourism also sped up the recovery from Hurricane Maria exponentially.

If no qualifications are listed for a particular project, be sure to dig a little deeper. Ask your host organization what you’ll be required to do. If it’s a non-specialized job, consider if you’re truly the best fit — it might be worth looking into something you’re better qualified for, or simply asking why the position hasn’t been filled by locals. Depending on the answer, you may decide to look into something else.

Note: Your own motivations matter just as much as those of your host. If you’re looking to experience a culture and see a country, it might be better to just go on vacation — you can donate to local organizations and support the local economy just as easily as a tourist!

Travel entrepreneurs discuss draw business plans on a map.Research, Research, Research

Though pretty obvious, the most important step to prevent being scammed is doing your research. Consult other travelers, read reviews, and dig into the motivations and projects of your host organization. Do they have a good reputation in their community? Have they actually accomplished what they’ve set out to do? Have these things positively impacted the people they’re trying to help? Has this positive impact been long-term? Learning the answers to these questions will give you key insights into the people you want to work with and prevent you from being scammed.

To learn more about voluntourism, click here.