Where to Volunteer in Nepal? Maybe nowhere …

Collecting water in Nepal
Collecting water in Nepal
So you want to help out in Nepal by Volunteering …


Want to volunteer in Nepal? Choose carefully and with knowledge

If tourism is Nepal’s number one profitable industry then the tightly bound world of volunteering and NGO’s (Non Government Organisations) must surely come a close second. They are of course closely linked to tourism and rather unfortunately often times merged into one.

Post 2015 Earthquake and Nepal has become a hotbed of volunteering which has had both good and bad results.

Prepare yourself for some realities that many people don’t like to acknowledge. People who are trying to help others often don’t see the harm they are participating in when volunteering.

They are helping people – how could anyone speak badly about them?

They are among many duped by countless volunteer job listings that include:

Teach children in Nepal – Assist Orphans – Medical Internships – Monastery Volunteer Opportunities – Local Family Stays – Medical Volunteers in Nepal – Teaching Buddhist Monks – Practice Buddhism – Volunteer Programs in Nepal – Orphanage Work in Nepal – Teaching English in Nepal – Once in a Lifetime Opportunities as a Volunteer in Nepal – Help Nepal by Volunteering – the list goes on …

What people are often shocked to learn is that many of the above positions are pay positions. Meaning you will have to pay money to participate or volunteer in them.

Paying to volunteer. It’s a profitable industry that’s thriving in Nepal.

A little background into volunteering in Nepal

Back in the early days of The Longest Way Home I wrote a piece about NGO’s in Developing countries. Aside from some typos what I wrote then still stands today. Do give it a read.

Bottom line:

Nepal is a developing country that’s also a premier tourist destination which has led to a tinder box of trouble in attaining true sustainable development.

Cash stuck Nepal has many human rights issues, health issues, education issues, racial issues, sexual / domestic abuse issues and this list goes on. There is however no shortage of volunteers wanting to help out. And no shortage of people willing to cash in on these well-meaning people.

People are often paying thousands of USD dollars or Euros to “volunteer” in Nepal (and elsewhere). Tasks range from shoveling mud to housekeeping to teaching classes.

On the flip side of things there are also people with ulterior motives for wanting to volunteer overseas. College graduates looking to boost up their resumes for example. Mixed in with the adventure of Nepal it looks great. Shame they are often under qualified and only adding to the profitability of the many sham organisations in Nepal.

Before I offer up any solutions and if you are not convinced yet then do read just these three true life examples of volunteering in Nepal gone wrong.

Names and nationalities have been changed to protect people. Nonetheless the events certainly took place. I bore witness to them and many others.

Five years of rebuilding a Nepalese Orphanage that never was

Orphanage in Nepal
Orphanages in Nepal are not always what they seem …

Mark only told me the facts when we hopped off the bus after an hour bumping along Kathmandu Valleys dirt roads. I’m not sure why he didn’t tell me when we were on the bus. I think he wasn’t sure if I would have jumped out early.

Now we stood on the side of the road waiting for the Nepalese man in charge of an orphanage Mark had been funding for the past five years. Mark paced nervously up and down. Though it could equally be anger. It was hard to tell considering what I’d just heard.

Like many Mark had first come to Nepal as a tourist. During his travels, like so many, he was moved by the poverty that so many people face in Nepal. Moreover the children in Nepal. So many displaced by war, tribal customs and socio-economic reasoning.

He offered to help at an orphanage. And returned the next year with clothes, school books and toys. It wasn’t enough. A plan was put in motion and Mark returned to France and fund-raised through his family, friends and employer to raise enough cash to build a new orphanage. He returned with the cash and land for the orphanage was bought.

At the end of year three Mark’s now twice yearly trips to Nepal started to see progress as building began on the orphanage. A few weeks after a return to France Mark received an email. There had been a landslide and the building had been destroyed. Fundraising had to start again in earnest.

Mark returned to see the progress of the orphanage once the rebuild had begun. New foundations had been put in place but it was taking time and more money was needed. Meanwhile more funds were continuously needed for the children’s temporary abode. Mark returned to France to begin a new fundraising campaign.

It was during monsoon season that Mark got another email informing him that a freak mudslide had knocked the new nearly completed building over.

Mark wasn’t stupid. He knew something wasn’t right. He’d met with an engineer and the builders many times on his trips to Nepal. It was only when the orphanage owner wasn’t there one day that a worker let something else slip. And that’s why we were there that day.

We visited the new orphanage site. The building had indeed literally slipped down a forested slope. It would need a complete rebuild for a third time. The true tragedy was revealed when we reached the children’s current accommodation. The home of the  man running the orphanage.

It was a slick operation that Mark had planned well. The owner was sent on an errand. Meanwhile Mark obtained proof from a safe of the children’s parenthood. Of the 16 children only 3 were technically orphans. All the others were relatives of this man.

Whatever about disappearing funds from collapsing buildings there was now proof that all that fundraising was going straight into a family’s bank account rather than to an “Orphanage”.

The Francophile who taught English

Marie, a French girl just out of college after completing her business degree, spent USD$7,000  for 6 weeks in Nepal teaching English to Nepalese children via an NGO in France. Her accommodation was a monastery which included local meals.

In other words she was living in a single room with a shared cold water shower eating local Dal Bhat twice a day. Keep in mind a basic private room in Kathmandu can cost as little as USD $5 per night. And meals from $2+.

There was no curriculum for the classes. The previous volunteer had left some books but they had “disappeared”. The French girl managed to buy some school books from Pilgrims in Thamel. They weren’t very good but were better than nothing.

Marie spent 4 hours a day teaching the alphabet to eight-year old’s who had no interest. There was no other supervision.

After complaining to the NGO about the standards she was told that she could leave early is she wished. But, she’d have to get her own plane ticket back. Marie already had a return ticket but the NGO refused to change the date for her.

To add insult to injury the Monastery was also accepting free volunteers separate to the NGO pay volunteers.

Rather than dwell on leaving Marie joined up with another “teacher” who was also appalled at the money they’d paid and what they had to work with. They threatened to call the papers back home. This was met with a lot of hostility. Not just from the NGO manager but also an Italian volunteer who had taken it upon themselves to try and help the NGO better “manage” their organisation.

Young monks in Kathmandu
A young monks future might be better if they had Nepalese teachers who stayed longer than 4 weeks …

The Italian had no background in education. Heart in the right place but clueless on lesson management or childcare.

It all ended with a very loud verbal exchange in public during a meeting between all parties. The flight money was refunded to Marie and the other volunteer. The organisation has offices in several locations around the world and is still running.

A monk that was fathering an orphanage

Claudia was a volunteer at a small orphanage run by a monk and a housekeeper. Her job was to help teach the children at a nursery level. It worked well the first few weeks but Claudia soon found herself helping the housekeeper around the house more than actually teaching the children directly.

A few more weeks passed and Claudia’s complaints were met with great understanding. The “real” problem was that they didn’t have any funds to hire more staff or even feed the children properly. Claudia began to enlist her friends help back home in fundraising for the orphanage. Everyone chipped in and a few months later they held a small party to celebrate.

The party was meant to be for the children but it seemed mainly adults had shown up. Friends of the monk and the housekeeper who didn’t speak English. Claudia had been learning Nepalese and did her best to converse with the guests. Her main conversation was asking why no one had brought any children to the party?

By chance one of the people Claudia met was the housekeepers sister who spoke only a little English. Claudia was delighted to meet her at last after hearing that the housekeepers relatives lived far away. It turned out this would be the downfall of the party.

The housekeeper’s sister didn’t live all that far away. She actually confessed to not liking her sister’s husband that much. Claudia never knew the housekeeper was married. Thinking she was helping Claudia suggested that the two sisters could meet up at the orphanage as she’d never seen her husband there.

The housekeepers sister looked confused and explained that the man was nearly always there. It turned out the husband she was referring to was indeed the monk.

It gets a bit sketchy after that with the monk claiming he wasn’t a full monk and that not all the children were his. Some were from distant relatives. Either-way, Claudia fled the scene heartbroken to know she had been duped.

Placing blame on specific NGO’s in Nepal

While I could name the above NGO’s, agencies and companies, including a lot more, I don’t want this article to be about individuals. That’s easy to do. What I want is to give people thinking of volunteering in Nepal a clearer understanding of what’s gone wrong with what, in essence, is a great thing – simply wanting to help someone. 

Volunteering with a good heart is not the answer

I’ve never paid money to volunteer and never will. I’ve worked as both a paid volunteer and as paid member of staff for an international development organisation. Throughout the world I’ve seen volunteers, NGO’s and development agencies work to help people in need.

Unfortunately the majority of what I’ve seen in Nepal has been seriously lacking in standards.

Even in the most deprived of situations I’ve met volunteers who’ve paid to volunteer and think “they’ve done their bit” and it’s helped.

Sadly the reality is they’ve done their bit for themselves, got a feel good factor, a story and gone home not realizing anything else.

It’s very hard to get someone to understand that simply packing up clothes into a suitcase and flying to a needy community in a foreign country to hand them out can do more harm than good. It’s simply encouraging a community to always look for handouts rather than developing into something self-sufficient.

But try explaining that to a mother who fly’s halfway across the world to help “the poor Nepalese orphans”. Let alone try explaining that to someone who’s also spent time and money fundraising for the trip and indeed the orphanage. Let alone explaining that to someone who’s seen and spoken with the wonderful people running the organisation that’s helping the orphanage.

It’s a minefield of human emotion and human need.

Sadly in Nepal many good-hearted people are being taken in by random NGO’s with not so transparent accounting practices or morals.

In 2011 the then Nepalese government, under international pressure, stopped the adoption of children in Nepal to foreign couples due to corruption (BBC: source).

Yet while the adoption of children to overseas homes may have stopped orphanages in Nepal continue to be having a “boom” in terms of growth and pay to volunteer practices.

Volunteer in Nepal and come away feeling you’ve done a great thing

How do you explain to people who’ve not only gone to all the trouble fund-raising, flying out to a country and then staying several months helping out that they’ve been taken in?

Volunteers are often shocked at what they see on the ground in Nepal. Children in rags eating plain rice from metal bowls once a day. They hand out new clothes, help bathe the children and teach the local helpers about proper nutrition.

School book in Nepal
Bringing foreign school books in to Nepal is only as good as they last – how about printing Nepalese school books in Nepal?

The volunteers can’t help but get a feel good factor from all this – who can blame them?

This is before we even get to the college students looking for international experience for the betterment of their career outlooks by volunteering for “worthy” causes.

Believe me when I write that there are organisations here that are well skilled in tugging all the right emotional / guilt strings to get what they want from people – money. And then make you feel like you’ve done a great deed.

Things to keep in mind before volunteering in Nepal

If you are thinking about volunteering in Nepal what should you do to prevent doing more harm than good?

Firstly be honest with yourself: are you qualified to volunteer? Why are you flying around the world to teach English when you don’t have a qualification to do so? And why are you paying for this privilege?

You’ve no qualifications so you are going to Nepal to help build houses or shovel mud after a landslide? Did it occur to you that there’s no shortage of unqualified local cheap labor in Nepal who can do this too?

Want to help clothe kids at an orphanage? Bringing over crates of clothes from home seems a little excessive considering the vast number of local tailors and factories making clothes in Nepal.

Paying to volunteer? Why? Where is your money going? Are you sure it’s for housing and feeding you? A private room in a basic guesthouse is USD$5. What percentage is for the children? Do the math before going.

Where does all this pay to volunteer in Nepal money go?

It astounds me to read many brochures and websites offering pay to volunteer positions in Nepal. Many will advertise that “your money” will stay in Nepal and not a foreign country! Sounds good. Until you break down their own dodgy publicity.

Let’s breakdown a 4 week volunteer placement teaching English in Nepal that charges USD$500.

  1. 25% of your money will go to your accommodation and food in a home-stay.
  2. 25% goes to community development.
  3. 50% goes to your airport pickup, a tour around Kathmandu and a lift to your placement.

At the outset the money is not much. But look at where it’s going. Is there any going to the school? No.

Who owns the homestay? What are the “community developments”? Why are you paying them for a one day tour of Kathmandu?

100% of this $500 can easily be siphoned off into someones business profits rather than for the “school”.

Probing into this a little further: Start to ask questions about what the community development money is being used for and you’ll probably get a spiel about “a community well” or  “a health centre”.  Those are also the pretty standard replies that will have been said to many others for the past few years.

On the other hand ask for a notarized copy of the organisations accounts for the past year and you’ll probably never hear back from them again.

Supporters will claim how can a small NGO afford and accountant? I reply by saying not to pay for a “board of directors” expenses would be a good start.

Lastly is this a registered school? Or is it simply such a “private” school that it’s not registered on the national curriculum or examinations board?

What’s gone wrong with volunteering in Nepal

Nepal is heavily dependent on foreign aid. The national Government still can’t form a constitution and local authorities are running riot on plundering anything profitable. NGO’s applying for grants can offer up to 50% commissions on many projects.

Indeed one official has said that between 60-90% of aid funds are misused.

All of the above nearly leads me to apologize for bursting peoples bubble on the feel good factor of volunteering in Nepal.

But I won’t. I’ve experienced enough to realize that bursting bubbles is sometimes the kick people need to instill a better longer lasting ideal.

Moreover it means that the people in need will be more likely to get the sustainable help they actually need rather than “feel good” help.

Are all voluntary organisations bad in Nepal?

No. But the vast majority are hideously unqualified to run as NGO’s. Both from a financial standpoint and from an educational/experience stand point. From for profit organisations, tax exempt companies to well-meaning but clueless people to outright fraudsters.

Volunteering in Nepal is a very profitable and money draining industry.

There are however a few internationally recognized organisations with strong reputations working in development throughout Nepal.

There are also some people trying to create some form of transparency within Aid organisations in Nepal.

Longstanding reputable organisations include: 

Heritage based volunteer based organizations in Nepal:

While not perfect by any means the above organisations are held accountable in many regards. They are also committed to something I believe in when it comes to volunteering and aid in developing nations – Sustainable Development. 

Don’t just go to a country to do a job. Go to a country and teach someone how to do it themselves.

NGO’s in Nepal need to be internationally regulated

There is no accountability mechanism for NGOs operating in Nepal. This is a serious international problem that is highlighted by U4’s reports on corruption within NGO’s.

Examples include:

  • The creation of fictitious NGO’s
  • Double-dipping, or seeking or accepting funds from more than one donor
  • Financial irregularities
  • Ghost employees, participants
  • Bribes

NGO’s need to be regulated. As much as I hate the idea of an international licensing system the situation in places like Nepal would surely benefit from it.

Accountability, transparent finances, qualified staffing, set goals and sustainability must all be adhered to at a set standard. That doesn’t mean forcing all NGO’s to live up to international doctrines. Every country is different. Even the regions with in it. But at the end of the day transparency can attest to many things.

Forget licensing fees. Just a simple set of transparent regulations that are not charged nor funded by the NGO’s but through an international grant from a body like the UNHCR would surely do.

One year after the earthquake in Nepal and volunteering without such regulation has led to some long-lasting negative results that no one was expecting. And still all essential regulations are not in place.

Nepalese water business
Remember the first photograph? At the end of the day the only people who can help Nepal progress are the Nepalese themselves – sustainable development works!

Should you volunteer in Nepal?

Yes by all means. However my advice is to think carefully first. Reread everything above. Ask yourself about what can you offer and what are you qualified in that can help?

Maybe you will find you can help a lot more at home than out in the field? Lobbying the UN or a government ministry for NGO regulation for example.

Contact the big organisations I listed above and ask them about what they are doing and what they are looking for? You’ll find that they are generally looking for people with specific skills and qualifications for long-term placements.

Lastly for those that are still not convinced. Or heard it through the grapevine that a “certain” organisation is doing a great job and is looking for help. Ask for accounts. Ask for documentation that shows curriculum’s, sustainability and completed projects.

And, perhaps most importantly. Ask yourself this question very honestly: Are you volunteering to help someone or to help yourself?

The answer doesn’t have to be the former but being honest about it will be the first best step in helping someone else you’ll ever take.

This is an additional feature article about volunteering in Nepal

(Due to a high amount of “promotional” comments all links to “volunteer” org’s will be moderated with links removed)

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36 Replies to “Where to Volunteer in Nepal? Maybe nowhere …”

  1. I learned a lot from this .Thanks . I plan to volunteer somewhere after my Masters . Hoping an international like UNHCR will consider me.

  2. Appreciate your honesty. It’s just amazing to see so many agencies looking for volunteers only to charge more than a hotel at the end.

  3. We volunteered a few years ago in an orphanage outside of Kathmandu. Everyone was very nice and everything was provided for us. Yes we paid. Looking back I do think we paid too much.

    Reading this makes me wonder a lot of things. How much was true and how much was a charade. Hopefully we did help, someone somehow.

    1. I know a lot of volunteers who had a fight with their NGO. It’s because expectation VS reality thing. One shouldn’t expect too much here in Nepal. As for the entire money being drained out, a volunteer shouldn’t rely on one single person or an organization. He should do some cross checks. Obviously, there will be some bad examples but one cannot sum up and say it’s entirely wrong out here.

      1. We did as many checks as we could. There’s only so much you can do online. I think the idea of an internationally recognized certificate is a good one.

      1. I think if the children we taught remember our lessons then we did some good. I don’t think the organization improved though.

    2. Karen,all above mentioned lines are all true. I am from Nepal. We have been talking about the transparency of all NGO’s/INGO’s or any international agencies. You’ll wonder,few international agencies have the crooks even. Do Keep volunteering,keep serving humanity but do make sure the money paid is worth the service. Please,don’t pay money blindly. Thanks

  4. I am so sad to see people trying to profit over others who have no choice.

  5. Fascinating read. I hate to think about all the wrong doing that’s happening when really people are trying to help. The world is becoming a bad place.

  6. No one likes to read this. So good on you for writing it. I’ve heard people coming back from Asia go on for ages about how they helped the “poor people”.

    I just look at them and nod. Yea, you spent 3 weeks in Cambodia helping a village by teaching the kids english … So they can go out and beg to english tourists for money. Well done.

    How about volunteering for Government offices? Can that happen? It should.

  7. Some sobering thoughts to read here. Not sure I qualify for the UN. Is there nothing else I can do?

    1. It all boils down to “what can you do?”. If you don’t think you qualify for the UN then ask them what they are looking for and get the qualification / experience they require!! Ditto the other orgs.

  8. The proliferation of sham volunteering (inevitably as an off-spin of the tourist market) bugs me a lot, having worked in NGOs and coming from a fairly sophisticated developing country (South Africa). Like you, I am personally repelled by the idea of paying to volunteer, although I’ve come to see other aspects / nuances to this (let’s face it: it costs to support / equip / feed / accommodate a volunteer; and there’s a huge market of willing volunteers). As you point out, there ARE NGOs that do credible work. In South Africa such organisations were instrumental and credible agents in the anti-apartheid struggle; and in extending human rights and access to justice or taking on AIDS in the post-democratic era. But even the best-run NGOs display systemic inefficiency and other problems.
    Of more concern to me are the very many genuine non-funded community-based organisations, that are set-up by hard-working, energetic, committed young people that want to give-back within their own stressed communities, and run within a very insecure regulatory and asset base. They rarely have access to savvy web marketing, or the large NGOs that stand marked by their 4WD vehicles; and often offer youth development skills support – culture, performance art, sport, etc. – in addition to literacy and educational services. These type of organisations often could use even relatively unskilled travellers (but with real skills coming from their middle-class urban upbringings), but would also rarely be able to support the food and accommodation needs of such volunteers.
    You can be sure though that you won’t find these organisations advertising for volunteers; you have to find them, and that’s part of your adventure as a traveller. You’ll come back with a very rich experience. But a 3-week volunteer? Nah. That’s fake.

    1. Fully agree with everything you wrote.

      I’ve come across some non-funded community based orgs too. I’ve seen some good and some teetering on the brink of swinging the other way. Like you said they could often really benefit from people with skills spending a significant amount of time with them. But again as you said, they are well hidden. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

      1. hi Dave,
        as i went through your article i found somehow truth about the situation u have described but i don’t think it is good idea to blame entire NGO’s only coz u been cheated by burglar on the name of NGO. The task you have done for Nepal is most appreciable its our pleasure to have a person like you who have got time to think about Nepalese people.
        don’t let your helping hand to be pushed away we and the whole world is in need of person like you..

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  10. It’s a tough pill to swallow. The idea of a monk who’s fathering children and then running a for profit business on them. Just sickening.

    Opening things like this up is a tough thing to do. Thank you for letting us looking into what’s going on over there!

    1. Thanks Katie it’s not something many people want to read or admit too. Hopefully if someone who does want to volunteer in Nepal comes across this then they might approach things a little differently in choosing where to volunteer.

  11. Why don’t you invest in Nepal? Not “volunteer”. It will help you and Nepalis too. Google Bjorn Soderberg, and CloudFactory to see some examples.

      1. Yes, it does take time. I would rather this be a close second than the “volunteering”. This is hard, but a better solution. Did you find time to google those? There may be more examples like those.

        CloudFactory was started after training few Nepali guys on Ruby on Rails, and is a crowd-sourcing start-up. It gives employment to many Nepali youth with basic computer skills and earn a considerably good salary. Anybody who can use Facebook can work for CloudFactory.

        1. I believe VSO often provide some funding with their placements for sustainable projects. They have conditions, mainly to do with community development etc, but for long-term sustainability those projects work well.

  12. Great blog post. Well-written, informative and thought-provoking. Appreciate the links to resources.

  13. Dave,

    I am wondering what made you so bitter you went ahead and wrote this blog.’Where to Volunteer in Nepal? Maybe nowhere …’ that’s awful and you know that. You know a lie cannot last long and only the good will survive for long.

    The reason behind sprawling of volunteer organizations is due to the accessibility of internet. Make a blog and you are chairman of NGO, just like the one you mentioned in your blog.

    Summing up the whole fraternity by judging a single example is the worst thing to do. “Maybe nowhere…” what does that mean? you mean to say that all organisation are crooks? maybe the blog is a result of rejection.

    1. Baba,

      I’m not seeing any bitterness in this? What I am seeing is the start of a troll comment though.

      No singular organisation has been named in this article in a purely negative light. Likewise “Maybe nowhere …” Means “Maybe” + “Nowhere”. Maybe look at all the in’s and out’s before volunteering as an example. It is not your interpretation.
      So in regards to your last line have a reread again and see where I mention I’ve worked in several sides of volunteering

    2. This blog post is not bitter it is written by someone that is not scared to state the truth. And also a man not in denial , most volunteers will not open their eyes and be honest that they got ripped off.

      Put this aside the point that needs to be realised – Nearly all volunteers ARE NOT qualified to be in the position – do you qualify in your country do do what you do volunteering in Nepal? Do you pass all the requirements by laws in your country to work with the children?? The children do not need unqualified people on a weekly basis.So why are you doing it ? Mostly as described above, to have a feel good story and a tick on your resume.Just because you speak English does not mean you know how to teach it ESPECIALLY when it is your 2nd language.

      I am foreign living in Nepal contributing to the economy and hear these stories everyday, and when you go on to explain anything you described in your blog, the 3 week visitor gets defensive and goes on to tell us that what would we know in our 8 yr life here they know much more in their 3 weeks.

      So please come visit , leave your naivety at the airport and enjoy the country.And if you want some clue to what is going on…. ask a fulltime expat not nepalis and not other visiting foreigners. Namaste

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  15. This is a very informative post, one that is really hard to accept. I for one find it difficult to understand how people promoting helping those in need are actually taking advantage of others. You have provided so much information here to help us do our homework, thank you so much.

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