VOFAIR – a new volunteering standard for the voluntourism industry?

VOFAIR volunteering standard logo
Will VOFAIR become an important volunteering standard?

VOFAIR is a new initiative aiming to provide an independent and fair volunteering standard through certification of projects. I spoke with Paulina Rakowska, a Polish national living in Chile and now also the founder and managing director of VOFAIR, a few weeks before the official launch of the website. She told me

  • how VOFAIR intends to fund its operations,
  • what their minimum duration for volunteering in orphanages is,
  • where commercial volunteer sending organisations fit in and
  • why VOFAIR stopped the certification processes of several projects.

Unlike most other volunteering/voluntourism standards, guidelines or certification initiatives, such as British Fair Trade Volunteering or German QUIFD, VOFAIR hasn’t been launched by volunteering sending organisations in the North, but by some motivated individuals living in the South who want to provide orientation, especially to young people looking for reliable and worthwhile volunteering projects. (A beta version is accessible through a link in the lower right hand corner of VOFAIR’s homepage.)

After the interview, I will also share some of my thoughts about this initiative.

Vofair Paulina Rakowska
Paulina Rakowska, founder and managing director of VOFAIR

Frank Seidel, Adieu-Ark-B Marketing: Paulina please tell us what VOFAIR is and how you had the idea to create it.

Paulina Rakowska, VOFAIR: The vision of VOFAIR (short for volunteering fairly) is to bring and assure transparency to the world of international volunteering through certifying grassroots volunteering projects. We are starting in South America where we are based and hope to be able to expand worldwide. My first contact with volunteering in the developing world was in 2008 when I went to Africa on an educational trip with my university which also included some volunteering. Later I planned to volunteer on a small grassroots project in Bolivia linked to solar cooking stoves, but eventually that didn’t work out. The process brought me to Chile in 2011 and I started looking around at what volunteering possibilities existed in Chile and elsewhere in South America. I found that on one hand it is very difficult to find volunteering projects if you can’t afford the very high fees of volunteering agencies, and that on the other hand many grassroots NGOs who work with volunteers don’t have the marketing knowledge and budgets to reach potential volunteers. Many other travellers, friends and volunteers I met confirmed that they had exactly the same problem, sometimes paired with negative volunteering experiences through sending organisations. Because I wanted to change this, I applied three times to Start-Up Chile and eventually on the third try in October 2012 I got the funds to launch VOFAIR.


Frank: Certifications have been discussed in the voluntourism industry for quite a while. Why did you decide to start a new certification initiative instead of hooking up on existing ones?

Paulina: The main difference with other certifications is that they all check on the sending organisations, whereas we will directly certify grassroots projects, not intermediaries. This being said, we are actually in touch with the German certification initiative QUIFD with whom we might cooperate in the future. For example we suggested that we could verify for QUIFD what the sending organisations do on the ground. We see ourselves as complementary to what they do. We are also in touch with the Polish initiative Dobry Wolontariat who do about the same thing as us. It is true that we came up with the same idea on two sides of the world and we will try to cooperate.


Frank: When you say ‘we certify grassroots projects‘ what exactly do you mean?

Paulina: We certify specific projects that involve international volunteers, as opposed to entire local NGOs or even international volunteer sending organisations. So if a local NGO that works with abandoned children has different projects where they involve international volunteers, for example one project to create a website and another project which consists of teaching hygiene to the kids, we will do the certification process two times. Both projects require completely different recruitment processes, completely different volunteer skills and also different minimum requirements. If the work includes contact with sensitive persons for example, like the kids in the second project, we require a minimum duration of 6 months for the volunteer placement. It is possible that we will give certification to one of the projects, but not to the second, even if they are run by the same NGO. The certification will be delivered for the duration of the project or, if the project is open-end, for a maximum of one year.


Frank: What are the certification criteria?

Paulina: We have six certification criteria.

  1. The project brings change.
  2. The volunteer does not cause damage nor is exposed to unnecessary risks.
  3. All paid accompanying services are priced fairly.
  4. Appropriate recruitment process is assured.
  5. The hosting organisation is open for improvement.
  6. The hosting organisation has not and does not break the law.

We will reveal the exact certification criteria when our website goes live. (Editor’s note: You can enter your e-mail address on VOFAIR’s homepage to get notified of the launch.) Our verification survey and its 59 questions have been established by a social development professional.


Frank: You are often referring to NGOs. Do you mean by this that only not-for-profit organisations can apply? What about projects that work with for-profit sending organisations in Europe or North America?

Paulina: To answer the first question: Local for-profit organisations and social projects also have the chance to apply, just like not-for-profit charities or foundations. What is very important to us though is that potential volunteers can directly get in contact with the local host organisation and agree directly with them on the terms of their volunteering placement. So to answer the second question: If the local project has the possibility to autonomously accept volunteers, it is fine for us if the same project is also promoted through the marketing materials of a sending organisation. This agency might even use our logo in their own marketing material, but of course only for this specific project. But if a potential volunteer is obliged to book through the sending organisation, which normally implies a much higher fee, we won’t certify such a program. We might make exceptions though for non-profit sending organisations that require a really very low, we would say fair price.


Frank: So the price of the volunteering project plays an important role in the certification process. One of your criteria is “All paid accompanying services are priced fairly.”? What do you consider to be “priced fairly”?

Paulina: We will give more detailed information on this when we will officially launch, but as of now I can tell you that we will very much consider the local market value. As accompanying services we consider locally provided services like accommodation, food, local transportation, airport pick up and so on, and we will verify if the price for the volunteering experience fairly represents the local market value. As we are based in South America and are currently concentrating on South American projects, this is something that we can do quite easily. Please keep in mind that we are targeting the local grassroots projects with our certification, not the sending organisations, so at this point we do not intend to evaluate if the prices of volunteer sending organisations are fair or not.


Frank: What about projects that are using volunteering as part of their business model? A number of conservation projects for example ask for quite substantial prices because they fund not only the accompanying services you mentioned through this, but also their entire existence: salaries, infrastructure etc. Instead of relying on other forms of income, like traditional tourism, they have decided to use volunteering as a major revenue stream.

Paulina: If the organisation is funded only through volunteering, it does look suspicious and I don’t think that this is a sustainable model. But it also depends on the transparency of the organisation and therefore we will consider each case individually. If the volunteers know where their money goes, higher prices are acceptable. For example, we certified a turtle project where volunteering costs €400, which I find very high, but we recognised that the turtle egg incubators that were paid for through the volunteer contributions are actually quite expensive and that therefore the price was justified.


Frank: It’s quite easy though to put an Excel sheet or a pie chart together with numbers that make sense and that seem acceptable to a potential volunteer and to you as auditors. How do you make sure that the organisation’s numbers are trustworthy? Do you look at accounts?

Paulina: I admit that it’s a challenge, but that’s why we have the verification process that includes on-site visits, our survey, as well as a mirror survey amongst ex-volunteers. If we see any kind of discrepancy, we will go back to the organisation and ask for explanations. If we come into a situation where we feel that it is necessary to audit accounts, we would at the current stage rather put the certification process on hold. Hopefully, VO-FAIR will have the necessary resources in the future to extend the certification to such financial audits as well, but for the time being we prefer to start small and to only certify projects where we can say hand on the heart, that they are fair. And if a potential volunteer wants to see our surveys, on-site visit documentation etc., she will be able to send us an e-mail request through our website and we will send her all the documents. Again: we are really focusing on transparency.


The VOFAIR team
The VOFAIR team

Frank: What business model will you use to sustain this initiative? I understand that the initial funding came through the Chilean start-up program. How will you continue?

Paulina: Yes, we got $40,000 as seed funding from Start-Up Chile. The business model revolves around the website that we will launch in a few weeks. It will list all the certified projects with project descriptions, contact details of the host organisation and also pictures and videos of the projects that we take ourselves during our on-site visits. Getting certification and being listed is free for the organisations that run the projects at the current stage. The visitors on the other hand will have to pay a monthly fee of $5-10 to access the database. This fee mainly aims to pay for website hosting and some travel fees. Beyond this and our initial funding, we are exploring different revenue options. We are preparing a crowd funding campaign, and we are trying to get more governmental funding, but in the future we will also consider charging the organisations who want to get certification, or maybe even charging sending organisations that want to get their partner projects certified.

We are actually inspired by the Lean Startup movement (Editor’s note: if you want to know more about the Lean Startup movement, let me know in the comments and I might expand on this in future blog posts. I also refer a little bit to it in my comments below.) and therefore we will be testing if different revenue streams are accepted by the market or not.

We also apply the Lean Startup principles to the verification process. We are very open if people tell us “You should check this criteria or add that criteria.” In our current stage, we cannot verify everything, but we hope to expand and verify more. What we currently have is what we consider as the minimum. We obviously also need to consider efficiency and cost aspects. If other people and experts want to help us make VOFAIR better, we are very open for cooperation.


Frank: Tell me more about the certification process?

Paulina: If a hosting organisation applies for certification, we first send them a questionnaire. We ask about their vision and mission, as well as the objectives of the project for which they want to become certified. We also ask the organisations to provide us with a list of 10-15 ex-volunteers, the more the better. We then directly e-mail these contacts our ex-volunteer survey. The applying NGO will not see the answers that we receive. If it is a new project and the applicant cannot provide us with ex-volunteer contacts, we ask for three personal references of the project’s volunteer coordinator and one of these references must be a beneficiary of the project. Only if the information provided by the host organisation is confirmed by the ex-volunteers, we will proceed with the certification process.


Frank: There is a lot of debate about how reliable opinions or reviews by ex-volunteers are if they are provided by the volunteering organisation. Obviously a hosting organisation won’t give you contact details of ex-volunteers who have been unhappy. What’s your opinion?

Paulina: We recognise that this is a difficult question. That’s why we ask not only for one but several references. Secondly, we won’t publish the references, so there is less incentive for the authors to not describe the reality. That’s different from sites like Tripadvisor where people might be concerned that something negative comes out of it. Of course, this is not a perfect process and if someone has a better solution, we will be very happy to learn about it.


Frank: Can you describe a case in which you have stopped the certification process at this first step? Has there been a case where the reality as described by the host organisation didn’t match the references’ feedback?

Paulina: There have been a number of cases where host organisations didn’t send the survey back. There was a strong initial interest, like a straw fire, but no follow up, and that’s obviously an alarming sign. If the organisation doesn’t answer our e-mails, why would they answer e-mails of potential volunteers? We also had for example an orphanage that would accept volunteers for less than 6 months, and our psychological advisors strongly advise against such practice. A few so called “animal protection” projects also were rejected, because they were hardly more than a type of zoo, with no intention to release the animals into the wild. But so far, we have not suspended the certification process because the descriptions of the hosting organisation and ex-volunteers didn’t match. There was one case where we had to go back to the organisation and ask for clarification because the ex-volunteer reported a different price, but the organisation was able to clarify (local volunteers paid another price) and we proceeded with the certification process. Let’s also keep in mind that for the time being the number of certified projects is relatively small.


Frank: How many projects have you certified already? Where are they located and how fast do you intend to develop?

Paulina: Our optimistic projections are that we will certify about 50 projects till May 2013 from Ecuador, Chile and hopefully Venezuela, and then about double this till the end of the year, but of course this depends on the quality of the projects. We certainly don’t want to certify a project only to increase our numbers. We also have interest from Costa-Rica, Bolivia, Honduras, Peru, Argentina and Columbia. The challenge we have today is that we need to optimise our travel expenses and we need to wait till we can group the demands of several projects in order to do the on-site visits.


Frank: That would be step 2 of your certification process. Tell us more about this on-site visit and if you have decided not to proceed with certification after such a visit.

Paulina: A member of the VOFAIR core team or somebody trained by us will visit the project and gather evidence in order to ascertain whether the answers from the surveys match the realities of volunteering in the field. We also already have one person who will visit some projects as a volunteer, comparable to a mystery shopper, and provide information before the survey.

There is one case where I am currently consulting with our psychologist about the hygiene conditions we found and where we have yet to make a decision.


Frank: Thank you Paulina for being so open about how VOFAIR works. I wish you all the best for your endeavour.


My thoughts regarding VOFAIR

There are two things that I really like about VOFAIR. Both might be important assets to help this certification have some positive impact for the communities.

Firstly, it concentrates on the project where the volunteering is actually done and not on the way the project is marketed. I think that starting with the project can help to stay focused on the volunteer’s impact, and not to be distracted by what a sending organisation might consider appropriate or necessary for its marketing.

Secondly, I am a fan of the Lean Startup movement and seeing its principles applied to the volunteering world is a welcome change. In a nutshell lean methodology has three principles: build – measure -learn. As an organisation you confront your vision about your product as soon as possible with the reality of your market (famously referred to as “getting out of the building”), because you recognise that many of your hypothesis about what will work and what the market wants will turn out to be wrong anyway. Therefore you concentrate on building a Minimum Viable Product and show it to your customers. VOFAIR seems to be aware that their certification is not perfect and for the time being they are concentrating on South America “only” (it’s still a whole continent isn’t it), but now they are getting out of their building and soon they will be getting real life feedback from host organisations, volunteers and the industry to enhance their model. In many aspects this seems to be better than endless committee meetings where all participants need to find the lowest common denominator.

I have my doubts regarding the business model though. In my opinion VOFAIR relies too heavily on public funding, which in times of diminishing public budgets doesn’t seem to be sustainable.

I am also perplexed when I see that earning a living or, put differently, making a profit with organising volunteering projects creates suspicion. At the end of the day somebody needs to pay the bills and charities and public funding will be less and less capable of doing so. Public-private partnerships are a very trendy topic in all parts of international development, and for-profit companies are more and more courted as donors, so why are organisations who say “We want to be independent from donors, private or public.” often considered so negatively? If projects in the developing world build their business model on volunteering as a revenue stream, it might raise additional questions for a certification body like VOFAIR, but at the same time these projects might be amongst the most sustainable.

What do you think? Does VOFAIR have a good chance of succeeding? Please use the comments to share your opinion.

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