Where in Nepal is John Doe?
By Will Harper, Director – Projects Abroad USA
Kathmandu? Annapurna? Chitwan? But I am getting ahead of myself …..
The concept of self funded volunteer work, i.e. paying to volunteer, was much more novel when
I was a volunteer in 2003 and when I first started working in the international volunteer field five
years ago. With more people familiar with the concept and the numbers of Americans traveling
abroad to volunteer increasing every year, the debate has now shifted to understanding the cost
difference and value of different programs.
Mimicking this volunteer increase is the significant growth of the international volunteer field
over the last couple of years with organizations of all stripes. This is a good thing. It has pushed
established programs to improve their projects and it has increased the number of Americans
traveling to developing countries to volunteer. I am a firm believer that the more people that
live and work in local communities overseas on sustainable projects the better. But a trend I
have noticed is that, all too often, prospective volunteers think that they are comparing apples
to apples. Many people think subconsciously that different organizations offer the same level
of support, staff back up and focus on developing sustainable projects, and increasingly choose
their organization on price alone.
What triggered this observation was a call several weeks ago from a very worried Mom in
Minnesota. Her son, let’s call him “John”, had left for Nepal a month ago and she had not any
word from him since. Unfortunately John hadn’t told his Mom with whom he was volunteering
or where he would be staying. She on the other hand was not very internet savvy or adept at
email. It was a perfect storm of non-communication! She gave the Projects Abroad office in
New York a call after she found our brochure in John’s room. After she explained the situation
I looked at our internal database system and saw that her son was not volunteering with us as he
never applied. I explained that if he was a volunteer with us we would have his application on
file, would know when he arrived, have periodic updates on him from our staff in Kathmandu
and we would be able to pass on a message. But it appeared that he was working with another
organization. My heart went out to this Mom, especially as someone who similarly left my own
mother out of the loop for a couple of weeks when I was volunteering in Romania. Through
the amazing power of the internet I found out that her son was indeed in Nepal with another
organization that didn’t have a US office or any easy way to get in touch with them other
than through the internet. I called her back and explained what I found and how to make an
international call, which she was very thankful for.
Long story short, there were a lot of things John could have done to assuage his poor Mom. But
it is important to consider that this could have been averted if he went with a comprehensive
organization like those associated with the IVPA or BBC with a proper support system (both project and
volunteer) in place. Local staff would be checking up on him, his Mom could call
a US office to relay her concerns and there would be an emergency number that John and his
Mom could call if there was ever a need. As the field of international volunteering grows, it will
be more and more important that prospective volunteers understand the value and structure of
What are your thoughts?