International Volunteer Programs Association

A Cross-Cultural Solutions Volunteer Food Bank

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I’m always writing about how important it is for volunteers to have information they can trust. As I’ve discussed before, there are many organizations that organize and vet opportunities but sometimes it can be difficult to tell how they choose the programs they feature. Do they have a financial incentive? Are they only featuring programs that agree to exchange online traffic? The average volunteer may find herself frustrated by the lack of straightforwardness and transparency. Sometimes it’s necessary to dig rather deeply to uncover the motives of an organization. Most of us simply don’t have the time, energy, technical expertise, or team of crack private investigators to do that kind of digging. This is where rating programs and associations with high standards can really help separate the legitimate opportunities from the rest.

United Planet: A Community Beyond Borders

Thai Class with United Planet Volunteer

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Ever since I first started learning about the role of the Internet in international volunteer culture, I’ve been waiting to find an organization that makes the most of online communities. The potential of the Internet for bringing people together is boundless, and yet, many organizations use it simplistically—to advertise their service and nothing else. There is nothing wrong with this—many organizations focus their energies elsewhere, on projects in-country—but I’ve been surprised by the lack of a full embrace. I guess what I’ve been looking for is focus: focus on Internet communications to bridge the gaps between people, to unite us all on a neutral playing field. Of course, the Internet isn’t neutral—it’s only accessible to people with a baseline of privilege—but it’s a start.

Openmind Projects

DePaul University Student Volunteer

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As someone with a limited budget and an unlimited imagination, I’m always attracted to low-cost volunteer experiences with organizations that still hold themselves to top-of-the-line standards. There aren’t a ton of organizations that do both and understandably so. It costs money to be idealistic. I feel so jaded just writing that. I’m reminded of my college freshman self, that girl who was so determined never to get paid for her art. Back in those days I was making a very popular podcast with thousands of viewers, but I refused any kind of compensation. I was making it for the right reasons! I wasn’t about to sell out! I think a lot of the volunteer organizations that share that idealism fail. They fail because they can’t support their staff, they can’t fund new projects, and they can’t invest in marketing or publicity. On the opposite extreme are the greedy organizations—the groups that charge exorbitant fees and pocket most of them. They may look professional and flashy, and for good reason: they’ve got plenty of money. Clearly there is a happy medium here, an organization that remembers the details but doesn’t sweat the luxury.

Volunteer Vacations with the Washington Trails Association

Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake

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My husband and I fell in love in a Washington forest. We’re both avid hikers and we met beneath the trees, I was searching for mushrooms in the leaf litter, he was peering up into the treetops, and we collided, our tin cooking pots clanking in the silent forest. We’ve been hiking together ever since, in the redwood forests of California, the evergreen forests of Maine, and the lush maple and oak forests of our native New York. But Washington will always have our hearts. This is why the volunteer opportunities with the Washington Trails Association jumped out at me. They offer volunteers the opportunity to spend their days on the trails, clearing brush, repairing tread, improving drainage, and even logging out fallen trees with a crosscut saw. To a forest lover like me, this sounds like an ideal opportunity for relaxation, meditation, exercise, adventure, and fun.

Blue Ventures: Discovery Through Research

Blue Ventures Malaysia Project

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There is a close relationship between environmental conservation work and helping people. In many cases, like that of the Galapagos Islands, the restoration of habitats and rebuilding of populations leads to an increase in ecotourism that benefits a local region economically. In other cases, conservation directly impacts a community’s ability to find food, to farm, and to enjoy their own backyards. Conservation also has a watershed effect… literally. As habitats are cleaned up, the entire ecosystem improves, and that includes fresh water sources. Polluted bodies of fresh water harm humans just as much as they harm animals. If a community is located on the seashore, deep sea conservation efforts often have an immediate effect on the shallow fishery. More healthy fish means more food for humans, and it means a healthier economy to boot. The food chain is a complex system. When it is disrupted at any point, that disruption has a domino effect down the chain in both directions. Conservation projects teach us that humans are part of that chain. We suffer when it is disrupted too.