Looking back to when I decided to switch from a career in the for-profit sector to one in the non-profit, it all started with a volunteer experience in Cambodia. It was certainly a big gamble. I knew very little of the country other than what I saw as a tourist, and I had no friends living in the country that I could ask for advice. When I Googled “non-profit volunteer Cambodia”, what came up was an endless list of organisations that all looked equally good. I realise now how lucky I was when I landed on a renowned NGO for whom I still currently serve as a board member.
This is the reason I sympathise with all the volunteers whose horror stories you end up reading in newspapers. Some of them were financially exploited, and some were participating in volunteering activities that did more harm than good. I could have been one of them!
Based on my own experience, here are some thoughts and suggestions on how to avoid potential scams if you end up deciding to volunteer in Cambodia or anywhere else abroad.
Exercising due diligence
Cambodia has one of highest numbers of non-profit organisations per capita in the world—unofficial numbers say there are about 3.500 registered. The search for the right one might be overwhelming, but exercising due diligence is necessary to avoid a scam. Here are a few things to look out for when browsing the website of a non-profit organisation:
- Forget about the nice pictures and immediately search for the annual report. All serious non-profits, regardless of their size, should publish a document explaining programs, performance and achievements of the past year.
- Read carefully the financial section of the annual report. Learn about their sources of income, the annual budget, and how and where the funds have been invested.
- Verify who the board members are. In a non-profit, the board plays a key role on organisational values and ethics, and how the organisation is run. Read about their background or find out more about them on social media.
Rules on recruiting volunteers
The stricter the rules are about bringing volunteers on board, the more likely you are about to work for an ethical and caring organisation. For example, organisations assisting minors should ask volunteers to provide a criminal record check. However cumbersome this may be, it is in fact a sign of responsibility to protect the children that are under the care of the organisation. Others organisations may ask volunteers to read their code of conduct and sign a document indicating that they understand and take responsibility for any wrongdoing. Don’t be rattled by the red tape; be appreciative of it instead.
Principle of reciprocation
Think it through. Would you like to be taught English by an unqualified teacher? Would you be comfortable with receiving medical care by an inexperienced student? Would you be okay with your children being guided and photographed by strangers at school? Would you welcome a group of tourists to come uninvited to your home? I image the answer would be “no”. This is a simple rule of thumb to adopt in any volunteering role: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Look for organisations who agree with this principle and treat beneficiaries with dignity and respect.
Is it really volunteering, or fundraising in disguise?
This is somewhat of an ‘elephant in the room’: some organisations may recruit individuals for “volunteering”, while it is in fact fundraising in disguise. Organisations are often in need of funds, and sometimes they allow people to come visit and perform tasks for a donation. Alternatively, organisations may simply hope that visitors will become donors or ambassadors who will spread the word about the organisation when they go back to their home country. This is not a real scam, but rather something you should be aware of. Ask the NGO to clarify what is really expected from you (a donation or an extra pair of hands?) and question the actual value that is added to the cause by what you are offering.
Get in touch with previous volunteers
Speak to people who have already been there before you. Ask the NGO to put you in touch with previous volunteers and ask them as many questions as possible. Even if this is second hand information, it might give you a sense of what the organisation is about as seen from the inside.
Ask for professional advice
Lastly, if you have no time to do the research described above, why not ask for professional advice? There are very reputable volunteer placing agencies who can help you select and screen for the right volunteering project. At Professionals doing good, we are very happy to use our expertise to help you find a life-changing and ethical volunteering experience in Cambodia. To find out more, contact us.