Advice for international volunteers

Many Canadians travel abroad as volunteers to improve the lives of people in developing countries and enrich their own lives. In most cases, all goes well.  Nonetheless, a few Canadians volunteering abroad have been jailed, threatened, deported, had their money and possessions stolen, and worse.

Keep these suggestions in mind as you plan your volunteer placement abroad:

Find the right placement

You will probably have to pay the organization fees, including plane tickets, lodging, and other expenses for your volunteer placement, so always use a reputable agency or non-government organization. Do not trust web-based volunteer agencies unless you have done your due diligence and have verified the information yourself.

If the organization through which you are interested in volunteering has a website, read through the entire site and look for any kind of association, such as accreditations or memberships that this organization may have with another group. Note particularly whether there are industry-related associations. If you are not familiar with any of the associated organizations or groups, check their web links or other references.

Check the profiles of the people involved in the organization: sponsors, management, staff and contact persons.

Search for the organization online and check all of the web references. See if they present the same message or image as portrayed on the organization’s website. Ask yourself:

If necessary, contact the references you found while researching the organization and ask them for a profile of the organization you are researching.

Check out the work carried out by the organization with the representatives of the country where you will be volunteering in Canada or the Canadian embassy in the country.

When you are finished researching the organization, discuss your choice with several people you trust. Even if they may not have experience related to the organization’s activities, they may have the knowledge and experience to determine whether the organization is credible and whether it would be a good fit for you.

Once you have decided on an organization, you should have a clear understanding of its mandate and a signed contract, even though you are volunteering. This does not need to be a formal document, but something in writing that spells out the provision of the work clearly in case a dispute arises.

Do your homework

Don’t forget to read up on your destination country in our Travel Advice and Advisories. Always check with the nearest embassy or consulate of the country where you plan to volunteer to see whether you will require a special visa for volunteers or missionaries. 

Study the culture of the country you will be visiting before you go. Talk to others who have volunteered there and read travel blogs by volunteers abroad, online expat forums and magazine or newspaper articles about the country and its culture.  

Stay safe

Always buy travel medical insurance. If you cannot afford private medical insurance, don’t leave home. Don’t gamble with your life.

Register with Registration of Canadians Abroad. It is free, quick, protected and will keep you in touch with Canada in a crisis or an emergency. Follow the information on the Twitter or Facebook channels.

When you are in your placement abroad, don’t go out at night unless you are with a trusted group. Don’t drink or eat anything unless you are 100% sure of its origin. Pay attention to what is going on around you and what you are doing. 

If you are a woman, remain in control of your life and your situation. If conditions become too uncomfortable, leave—it is not an admission of failure. Your life is worth much more than a volunteer placement.

Stay in touch with family and friends at home. They worry even if you don’t.

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