Volunteer Scams: when good volunteer programs go bad

I am often asked about volunteer scams and whether a given volunteer program is “legit” or not
and I can understand the question because volunteers organising a placement are right to be concerned about where they are headed. However the word ‘scam’ which is sometimes used with reference to some volunteer programs is taking things a bit far, true volunteer scams are rare in South and Central America…

Let me expand on my definition of scam in this context; an example of a volunteer scam is when a volunteer program somehow extracts some money from you (e.g. a upfront fee to reserve a place) then, when you fly-in, you find well, nothing. The organisation doesn’t exist, you have lost your money and funnily enough they are no longer responding to your emails. A pretty clear-cut scam.

What I want to write about in this post are the far more frequently occurring “low-level scams” (can’t think of a better term) that are unfortunately much less easy to identify, it’s what happens when good volunteer programs go bad.

Grass-roots volunteer organisations are usually started with the very best of intentions, initially run on idealism & enthusiasm – and a wing and a prayer. Local program directors are initially somewhat surprised that gringos are even interested in working with them and this is how a lot of great volunteer organisations start, locally run with occasional volunteer involvement.
Fast forward a ~year or so and with the program better-known & growing and the workload increasing, pragmatism replaces idealism and the founders start to encounter the difficulties of running a volunteer-staffed organisation with minimal resources… Reality sinks in and this is where things can go wrong; With the organisation now established and fee-paying volunteers arriving in numbers (and this issue only occurs in organisations that charge fees) it’s very easy for an organisation to lose its way; program directors take their foot of the gas and sometimes (in a worse case situation) become lazy and corrupted: There have been instances of directors taking a cut of volunteer fees and allowing a program to stumble-on, when it’s just a shadow of its former self, simply as a means of bringing in volunteer revenue. This is the most frequently occurring type of low-level “scam” that prospective volunteers should be aware of.

Interestingly, organisations that are rotten in this way can still do good work, which is why it’s common for some ex-volunteers to speak highly of a given organisation when others see the bigger picture and condemn it, so the word ‘scam’ doesn’t really apply here.
It’s difficult for websites like this one to pick up on what’s happening for the same reason, the organisation may have been recommended by some of the first wave of volunteers; it may take months for me to find out that things have subsequently gone pear-shaped.

I want to stress that allowing a volunteer organisation to drift in this way isn’t a South American thing, it’s a human thing and it’s just as likely to happen in London as it is in Lima. But the thing is that if you’re reading this, you are more likely to be volunteering in Lima…  And establishing that your chosen volunteer organisation has gone off track isn’t an easy thing to do when you’re on the other side of the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible and speaking (listening) to former volunteers about their experience with the organisation (and checking the scams and warnings section of the FAQ) is the best advice I can give to establish if a volunteer organisation is both legit and a good fit for you.

Your Volunteer Application: Don’t come across as a weirdo

I’ve had a couple of stints as Volunteer Coordinator for 2 organisations in Ecuador (2007) & Bolivia (2012) and in those roles I dealt with applications from lots of potential volunteers. This post is about a little known but important part of the Volunteer Coordinators (VC) role: Filtering-out unsuitable volunteer applicants.

There are 3 types of volunteer application that trigger the ‘unsuitable’ warning bells for a VC:

  • Time wasters
  • Too needy
  • Too weird

Time wasters are the most annoying, but the easiest to spot. They send cookie-cutter emails which are non-descript / generic, to *any* number of volunteer programs, but don’t end up volunteering with any of them:
Hi this is Janet Doe from the University of xxxxxxx, I’m really interested in volunteering with you, can you send me more information? […]

And this is my first piece of advice: taylor your emails to be specific to the organisation you are applying for. This means that you need to read their website and (usually) refer to it in your email:
Hi Mundo Foundation, This is Janet Doe from the University of xxxxxxx, I’m really interested in working with your organisation this summer, I see from your website that you have English teaching roles, would I be able to work with you for ~3 months between June and August this year? […] I have experience teaching […] I’ve travelled independently before […] I know the role requires intermediate Spanish, I’m currently taking Spanish classes […]
What you are showing here is that you’ve seen the website and know what the requirements of the role are, you may be young (at Uni) but you have some relevant experience and you’re working on your language skills. This is a good introductory email. Be careful not to spoil it by asking a question that is already covered on the organisation’s website.

The second type of unsuitable application are those in the “To needy” category, these are usually inexperienced guys, who ask questions. Lots of questions, e.g. about travel, visas, accommodation, bus timetables, prices and just about anything else you care to mention. In general I don’t mind dealing with ‘rookies’, in fact I’ve seen some of them make great volunteers, but you should be independent as a volunteer; so do your own research for your travel & visa issues. The VC requires you to be self-sufficient and an asset to the organisation, not someone constantly knocking on the door with one issue after another.
You’re an independent volunteer, right?

The last category is the weird and wonderful. As a VC you’ll know it when you see it: e.g. “can I bring my dog?” or people who write 800 word introductory emails. Don’t make silly jokes on your application or come across as opinionated, a know-all or wildly over-enthusiastic. These are all red flags for a VC. Your personality should still come through, but with the attributes of competence, reliability and someone who will fit-in to the organisation.

Unsuitable volunteer applications will be ignored by most volunteer programs, i.e. no acknowledgement, no feedback, no response. Why? because VC’s don’t want a game of email ping-pong with a disgruntled  volunteer explaining the reasons why his application was rejected. This is not ideal, but we are talking about grass-roots volunteer organisations that are run on a shoe-string, 1st world assumptions don’t apply here.

All volunteer organisations are all different, some are run like western companies, you’ll have a job description, you’ll send your cv, supply references, have a Skype interview, even sign a contract. Others will invite you to work with them starting the following day, based on a single email.

I used to advise volunteer applicants not to send a cv when applying for a volunteer position, unless the organisation specifically asks for it; that was until I received a great single page cv from a German girl who applied to the organisation I was working for in Bolivia. The single page cv included her picture and it had an overview of her education & experience as it pertained to volunteering, e.g. College/University, Travel, Languages, Hobbies, Interests, relevant work experience, etc. Just a couple of screenfull’s of well-written information;  a really good idea and much better than the rather wordy (boring) 3-4 page business cv’s that sometimes came through with volunteer applications.

Why you should be volunteering with *Mothers* not Children

I saw a very interesting youtube interview with Emma Redfoot (Credit: Lainie Liberti from  www.raisingmiro.com). Amongst other things, Emma, who is researching Volunteer Tourism in Cusco, Peru, was discussing the areas that volunteers preferred to work in, compared to those areas that are in most need:

ER: “The group that most people (volunteers) want to work with is with kids, especially young kids, however *single mothers* are absolutely the group than needs the most support: 24% of Cusco is impoverished and of that group 75% are single mothers. Very often, single mothers are seen as an economic burden by their families, who are unwilling to support them, they are then drawn to large cities like Cusco, that have seen rapid growth in recent years. As a demographic, single mothers generally work 7 days per week, in poorly paid jobs, they are transient, have no social circles and lack any kind of ‘support structure’ that could help in bringing up their children.”

Rather chillingly Emma adds:
“A lot of single mothers become pregnant due to rape which is a huge problem in Peru, one thing about Peru that is absolutely stunning is that for women aged 18 or over, rape is called *seduction*. Women don’t think of it as being rape so much unless they become pregnant.”

“Familial rape is also a significant problem, one of the organisations I like and support is Casa De Mantay, a centre for women who have been raped and become pregnant. Most of the women in the Casa had been raped by family members.”

Watch the full interview here:

Casa De Mantay (aka: La Casa de Acogida Mantay) :

Other organisations that work with single mothers:

Backpacking tips (what _to_ bring)

Picture the scene; An idyllic seafront village on the north coast of Peru, near Trujillo; A walk along the beach followed by wonderful fresh-fish supper; Settling down for the night I was completely chilled and at peace with the world. Well, until about 04:50am …

At that point one of the fishermen staying next-door woke up and started cracking *hilarious* jokes that had his compadres rolling in the isles.
And that was the point at which I decided that earplugs would be part of my backpacking kit for all future trips. Since then, I’ve found ‘plugs to be very useful in coping with snorers, overnight-bus journeys, late-night revellers returning to dorm rooms after a night on the town, etc. etc.

On a similar theme, here’s some more general backpacking kit that I like:
Starting with the earplugs: I like Macks, (macksearplugs.com) which are effectively a blob of gum that covers the outer ear. You have to wash your ear before use, but the big advantage is that you can sleep with the side of your head on the pillow without feeling the plug pulling your ear – unlike other earplugs which put slight pressure on the eardrum when sleeping.


Duct Tape (or Duck Tape), which is usually silver/grey in colour, is very useful for quick, waterproof and robust backpacker repairs on the road, e.g. fixing holes in window fly-screens, hanging points for mosquito nets, temporary repairs of backpacks, boots, clothing, and holding a myriad of other backpacker kit together. Duct tape rolls are quite large (see picture), but you can roll 2-3m of tape onto a pencil if you want to bring a smaller amount. Don’t leave home without it.

Water purification tablets. I like Micropur, available from Boots in the UK, it’s active ingredients are Silver Chloride (antimicrobial agent) and Troclosene Sodium (releases Chlorine). Micropur tablets are cheap, lightweight, effective and a great back-up option if you’re on walkabout. You dissolve a tablet in a litre of clear water (i.e. taken from a local water source) and leave for 30 minutes. I’ve used Micropur on water taken from mountain streams – although the instructions say not to do that. They’re a good option for those people who don’t want to leave a trail of plastic water bottles in developing countries. Water treated with Micropur tablets – and this applies to other brands as well – has a slight after taste, but it’s nothing you can’t handle.

Antibacterial or Antiseptic wet wipes; Hygiene is pretty important on the road, whether it be hand-washing before meals, using (the often eye-popping) third world public loos, or cleaning minor cuts and grazes. A bumper pack of wet wipes (other brands are also good) – get them in a resealable pack, are an essential part of my kit.

Platypus water bottle, made from soft ‘collapsible’ plastic, they are stronger than they look, easy to drink out of and only take up the space they need. They work well with water purification tablets because the bottles are transparent and you can see the tablets dissolve. My platypus is almost 10 years old, hence the Duct tape in the mid-section to  prevent the plastic creasing (see picture). A similar, cheaper bottle is now made by Evernew amongst others.

Anything to add? Tell me your backpacking tips or favourite piece of travel kit:

What not to buy …

I’m always banging on about how I’ve a backpacked around South America – and various other places – but the truth is that I don’t actually do much backpacking… Backpacking is where you disappear into the mountains, *living* out of your ‘pack, i.e. carrying a sleeping bag, tent, food etc. and walking 10-15 miles a day.

My version of  ‘backpacking’ is nowhere near as hardcore, I grab my pack from the airport luggage carousel, put it in the back of a taxi to the hostel, the next morning I walk a few blocks to the Bus station and onto my next stop…  The longest I have ever walked with a full kit backpack is about 4+ miles when, in a fit of peak, I walked into town from Nouadhibou railway station (Mauritania) rather than pay a massively inflated taxi fare.

Which brings me onto the first thing that you shouldn’t buy: A top-end backpack.
An expensive pack will usually have an aluminium frame to balance the weight and thick padding to sit in just the right spots on the users’ shoulders & back, great for high mileage hikers, but a complete waste of money if your pack spends most of it’s life strapped to the roof of a bus.

My first ever backpack was purchased second-hand from a local army surplus store for £10. For my 2011 Africa trip (3 months), I bought a 65 litre olive-green military pack from ebay, a snip at £29.

My other questionable purchase ‘pet-hate’ is high-end walking boots and/or Jacket – for pretty much the same reasons – unless hiking is a core part of your trip (in which case you’ll probably already have your own kit?) your existing shoes/boots/trainers will be fine for general travel use which includes an occasional lengthy trek into the hills.

Prepping for independent travel will usually require you to splurge some cash, my advice is to bring your old, well-worn clothing/kit away with you and avoid buying expensive items that won’t see much use once you’ve returned home.

Why I love ‘Open-Jaw’ tickets

Open-Jaw flights (tickets) are great option for independent travellers:
An Open-Jaw (OJ) airline ticket allows you to fly out to one destination but return home from another, giving you the freedom to plan a route without having to worry about returning to your point of arrival.

On my last big trip to South America I had an OJ ticket; I flew out to Ecuador (Quito)
then travelled overland to Brazil, via the southern tip of Argentina. A great trip, which took just over 4 months. My return flight to London was from Rio De Janeiro.

OJ tickets can also work well for shorter trips; e.g. a three week trip, flying out to Lima Peru and returning home from La Paz, Bolivia would be a good, whistle-stop introduction to South America.

Because of the vagaries of overland travel, you should buy your OJ ticket with a flexible return date, flexible in this context, means giving a nominal return date when you purchase the ticket, but having the ability to change that date, for free, with a phone call to the airline when you’re out on the road. This flexibility has limits however, an OJ ticket will have a maximum stay, e.g. 6 months, requiring you to return home within that period. The longer the maximum stay on the ticket, the more expensive the ticket will be, so choose carefully.

An Open-Jaw ticket with a long maximum stay gives you the freedom to take a lengthy diversion or extend a volunteer stint en route, the flexibility works both ways though, allowing you to bale-out of your trip early if required; a friend of mine injured his knee sand-dune surfing near Pisco in Peru, although not seriously injured, he opted to bring forward his departure date, take a local internal flight direct to his departure point (Buenos Aires) and jump on a plane home.

For those people travelling from Europe, I’d recommend flying to South America (SA) on a European airline such as KLM or Iberia, as opposed to flying on US-based airline. Why? because when flying with a European airline your stop-over will be in Europe,
e.g. KLM flights stop in Amsterdam, Iberia stops in Madrid. So with European airlines there is a short flight followed by a long flight when travelling to SA: In my case, London to Amsterdam, duration 1h 30m, then Amsterdam to (say) Lima, duration 15 hours.
I find it much easier on the brain and the body to have a short and a long flight, rather than two medium length flights of ~6-7 hour duration, which is what happens when you fly with an American airline via the USA.  I find the stop-over between mid-length flights – when you literally don’t know what day it is – to be purgatory 😉

Welcome to the Blog!

Welcome to the volunteersouthamerica.net Blog! It’s a bit basic and I’ll be adding some bells and whistles to these pages in due course, but for now, thanks for dropping by.

I kept a blog on a 2011 trip to West Africa and enjoyed the process more than I expected, I’ve long wanted to develop the volunteersouthamerica.net brand (sorry) and a couple of nudges from friends have got me to this point.

I’m planning to blog on independent travel & volunteering and I’m hopeful that some of my listed grass-roots volunteer programs will want to guest-post and talk about what they’re up to. We’ll see.