Voluntouring and Volunteering Scams in Nepal

Paid Voluntouring and Volunteering Scams in Nepal

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Paying to Volunteer - Scam or Legitimate Social Program?
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My life changed for the better when I deserted corporate America to pursue my true passions of travel, writing and photography but over the past few years I’ve often felt there was still a piece of the puzzle missing. There was something more I was meant to do; I just wasn’t sure what it was. And then I arrived in Nepal.

As my three week visit stretched to three months, I became acutely aware that behind the veneer of beauty lay excruciating poverty. Here was a place where I could do some good, I thought. I began researching NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and learned it was quite simple to create and register one in Nepal. Combining an NGO with a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in the U.S., which would allow people to make tax deductible donations, seemed the perfect way to help Nepal and satisfy my desire to give back.

As I toured the country I broached the subject of NGO’s and volunteering with everyone I met. My first inkling that all was not as it seemed came from a guide in Chitwan National Park. Morally opposed to riding elephants, I instead opted for a walk through a nearby village to learn more about the local Tharu people. My guide, who lived in the village, warned, “Maybe 75% of orphanages are not real.”

He told me about a group of Polish tourists that had established an online relationship with an orphanage prior to traveling to Nepal. Upon arrival, they hired my guide to help purchase bulk food and supplies, in addition to a cash donation they planned to make. Although he warned of potential fraud, the Poles insisted that this particular orphanage was legitimate. Several weeks later, long after the donors had returned home, my guide stuffed his pockets with chocolates and returned to the orphanage. As the children clamored around him, fighting for candy, he quizzed them. What had they been given to eat over the past few weeks? Had they received new clothes? School supplies? None of the children had new clothes or supplies and they had been fed only dahl bhat (rice and lentil bean stew), as usual. He later learned that all the fresh foodstuffs and a good deal of the bulk non-perishables had been sold off, with the cash distributed among the orphanage owners.

My guide explained that many orphanages solicit funds through websites that feature photos of destitute children and inspiring stories of rescues made possible by donations. Yet in truth, many of these same orphanages are non-existent. In the rare instance that donors travel to Nepal to meet their sponsor children, the owners of the “orphanage” collect children and put them on display for a night or two in a local home.

At this point in our walking tour he pointed to a decrepit house next to a brand new three-story concrete building painted in a trio of turquoise hues. The sign on the chain link fence surrounding the two structures declared that a new orphanage would soon open.

“I assume that’s one of the good ones?” I asked.

“No, the owner built the orphanage with money from donations but now that it is finished, he is turning it into a hotel.”

Two days later I boarded a bus with a slew of Brits who had come to Nepal to volunteer. After a weekend tour of Chitwan, they were headed back to Pokhara, where they were helping out at local orphanages and teaching English in government schools. After extensive research on the Internet, each of them had booked their trip through Personal Overseas Development (POD), a UK firm that facilitates volunteering opportunities around the world. Valerie Jamiason of Newcastle paid 750 British Pounds ($1087 U.S. dollars at the time) for an eight-week stint. Her package included pick-up at the Kathmandu airport ( I was picked up for free by my hotel), one night’s stay at a Kathmandu budget hotel (~$10), her bus ticket to Pokhara (~$6), and eight weeks stay at the Castle Guest House in Pokhara at what Val was told was POD’s special rate of $6 per night, for a total of $352.

Reinforcing prepositions with the students

Val reinforcing prepositions with the students

Volunteer Michael Anfield reviews homework

Volunteer Michael Anfield reviews homework

POD does not require volunteers to have any prior teaching experience and they are given no orientation upon arrival. With no formal turnover process, fresh arrivals have no idea what the children have been taught previously and each new group is left to decide for themselves what to teach their classes. Tom, who had opted for a summer of volunteering prior to entering university as a pre-med student, focused on teaching his students how to tell time.

Kids study English manual at Annapurna School

Kids study English manual at Annapurna School

Can’t view the YouTube video of volunteers teaching English at the Annapurna Primary School in Pokhara, Nepal? Click here.

Annapurna Primary School in Pokhara

Annapurna Primary School in Pokhara

Two of my volunteer friends invited me to visit Annapurna Primary School with them one day. As I wedged into a miniature desk at the rear of the classroom, Val established a modicum of order among the raucous pack and began drilling the students. She placed a chalkboard eraser on the floor and in her thick Newcastle brogue instructed:

“Repeat after me. The duster (DOH stah) is next to the desk.”
“The duster is on the desk.”
“The duster is in the desk.”
“The duster is under the desk.”

Meanwhile, Michael reviewed homework assignments, explaining errors in his very proper Londoner accent.

Volunteer Val Jamiason drills English prepositions

Volunteer Val Jamiason drills English prepositions

Though the raggedly clad kids had level one English workbooks, the school administrator told me in broken English that they were lacking even the most essential supplies: pencils, erasers, and lined pads were all in short supply and since there were no funds for lunches, the students went hungry. As for assistance from POD, I was told that only the teachers were provided; not one cent of the fees they charge volunteers is donated to the schools and orphanages that welcome their volunteers. With no supplies, scant oversight, no training and rapid turnover in teachers who speak in varying accents and don’t even use the same words, it is questionable whether the children are receiving any true benefit from the program.

Erin Elliott of Alberta, Canada (left) and Rebeca Limmer of Tanzania, Australia (right)

Erin Elliott of Alberta, Canada (left) and Rebeca Limmer of Tanzania, Australia (right)

Yet POD may be the best of the bunch. Erin Elliott of Alberta, Canada and Rebeca Limmer of Tanzania, Australia both signed on with Global Visions International (GVI). The girls discovered GVI while searching the Internet for volunteering opportunities. Erin paid $3,200 in Canadian dollars (about $3,250 USD) for a six-week program billed as an “adventure/volunteering” program that guaranteed four weeks of volunteering activity. She searched the Internet for a tour company because, as an inexperienced solo female traveler, she felt incapable of making arrangements on her own. “My main goal was to volunteer, but when I saw that GVI combined volunteering with a visit to Everest Base Camp it was very attractive.”

To her dismay, she found the program focused more on adventure than philanthropic efforts. Worse, upon arrival in Kathmandu she learned that GVI had turned over the operation of her tour to Himalayan Encounters, a company previously unknown to her; they began by failing to pick her up at the airport as promised. Later in the trip, after trekking in Bandipur, she was dumped on the roadside by her jeep driver, who told her to wait while he transported other participants to Chitwan National Park. Knowing no one and not sure where she was, Erin spent the next three hours in the home of a villager kind enough to take her in.

Although Rebecca was picked up at the airport after only an hour’s wait, she also found the program to be incredibly disorganized. “I got here and really wanted to do volunteer work but the adventure part of the trip kept being extended. My contact was supposed to be a river rafting leader but I could never find him.” Rebecca was ultimately placed at the Trisuli Center in Bandare, a small village halfway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, where she taught in two schools. At one, the wall of a temporary structure collapsed when a student leaned against it. Ten feet away, piles of feces surrounded a “rank, revolting squat toilet that was filled to the brim.” She was given no teaching instructions or lesson plan and took her only cue from departing volunteers who shared what they had been teaching.

Erin taught English to grades three and five at a government school in Bandipur. Initially, she was put up at the Old Inn, which she learned was owned by Himalayan Encounters, for $55 per night. Later she moved to a home stay and paid a more modest 300 Nepali Rupees per night (slightly more than $3 USD). On her first day of school the principal handed her a piece of chalk and commanded, “OK, now teach.” He also issued her a cane for corporal punishment. “One day a man came into my class and gave the most violent pop quiz I’ve ever seen. If a student answered wrong, or too slowly, he got a chop on the head.” Himalayan Encounter’s website states: “We can also truthfully speak of real commitment to carbon-neutral policies within Nepal, to real evidence of ‘responsible tourism,’ sustainable practices and what we describe as ‘Tourism in the Community and the Community in Tourism;’” however if Erin and Rebecca’s experiences are representative, the agencies with which they arrange volunteer opportunities are neither ethical nor responsible, and it might not bee to harsh to call them volunteering scams.

Neither of the girls saw evidence that any of the money they paid GVI had been funneled back into the schools. Textbooks were so old that the currency of France was still shown as Francs and the grammar throughout the books was consistently incorrect. Students did not even have pencils and volunteers were regularly asked to pay for supplies out of their own pockets. Other Himalayan Encounters volunteers told Rebecca they had been encouraged to contact their families and press them to make donations. Yet, Erin pointed out that a good deal of construction was underway at the Old Inn, including installation of a new fireplace.

When Erin pressed Himalayan Encounters to divulge the extent of their charitable donations, she was told that a portion of all fees were donated to Prisoner Assistance Nepal, an organization that helps children whose parents are in jail, but when she contacted PAN they denied having received any such support. Rebecca was told that Himalayan Encounters supports ten disabled people at a time, each for nine months, by providing housing and food while they are taught English and trained in computer skills at their in-house training center in Pokhara.

I popped into Himalayan Encounters’ offices unannounced one afternoon, ostensibly to inquire about volunteering opportunities. I was offered placement as an English teacher at several schools or the opportunity to help out at an orphanage, and for much less money that the typical volunteer was charged, since I would be dealing with them directly rather than booking through GVI. I explained that I had no formal training as a teacher and wasn’t particularly good with children, but had extensive computer skills; could I perhaps teach at their computer training center? The half-dozen PC’s near the entrance were dark and had been so for some time; the program was shut down due to lack of teachers who were willing to make long-term commitments.

Two weeks later I met Anton and Johnny at a Pokhara coffee shop. The two young Frenchmen had volunteered through Service Volunteer International (SVI) and paid a fee to help build facilities for an orphanage in Sarangkot, near Pokhara, but found no organized program when they arrived. Rather than deserting the orphanage, which was desperately in need of assistance, they slept on the floor by night and dug an organic garden by day; they were also convinced that none of the money they paid ever reached the orphanage. (Service Volunteer International should not be confused with Service Volontaire International, which also goes by the acronym SVI and is a non-profit volunteer organization based in Belgium that is working to educate travelers about the scams so prevalent in the burgeoning “voluntouring” industry).

Insisting that charity had become “big business” in Nepal, my Nepali friends repeatedly told me that the majority of orphanages and NGO’s were scams designed to line the pockets of greedy businessmen, however some do seem to be supporting a large number of orphans, including three orphanages in Pokhara: SOS Bahini, Rainbow House, and Namaste Children’s House. In the case of Namaste, which is owned and operated by a local restaurateur, I was told by a trustworthy Nepali that 150 orphans are bussed each day to a private school where they are receiving a quality education. I was also told that the owner has grown rich through donations and drives a brand new SUV, something that is rare in Pokhara.

To some degree, expenditures are necessary. Buses are needed to transport the children back and forth to school, to pick up and deliver supplies; and the end result, helping orphans, is laudable. Having never lived in abject poverty, I am hesitant to judge but it does seem that volunteering, voluntouring, NGO’s and charity organizations are the fast track to wealth for any Nepali who has the resources to set one up. As a result, my initial plan to start an NGO is on hold. I will undoubtedly do something to help in Nepal, but not until I can identify truly worthwhile causes.

Underground Guide to International Volunteering

Underground Guide to International Volunteering

Note: The Internet is rife with companies offering volunteering and voluntouring packages, priced from hundreds to thousands of dollars per week. While it is difficult to know which firms are trustworthy, those that disclose specifics about the funds they donate and provide contact information to confirm their charitable works are more likely to be legitimate. Additionally, Kirsty Henderson, who writes the travel blog Nerdy Nomad, another travel blogger who has been volunteering for many years, offers an eBook, The Underground Guide to International Volunteering that includes lists and rankings for various firms, as well as links to websites devoted to oversight of the industry. It is well worth the purchase price of $ 14; I have read and highly recommend it to anyone considering booking a paid volunteering or voluntouring holiday (I do receive a small commission if you click on the above link and purchase this book, but please be assured that I would not recommend it unless I thought it was of very high quality).

To be continued…next, one man who created his own volunteer opportunity without paying a penny:

Series NavigationStreet Kids in Nepal Drum Their Way to Self Esteem

110 Comments on “Paid Voluntouring and Volunteering Scams in Nepal

  1. Hello,
    Thank you for an interesting article. As someone who has been “duped” into helping an orphanage I know that what you are saying is true. Sometimes. Now I manage an NGO in my own country that started its own NGO in Nepal through a local friend and we run our own children’s home…thus we don’t have to worry about scams or fraud.
    However, you often mention “a trustworthy” Nepali telling you this or that. Exactly what do you mean by that? How do you know that they are trustworthy?


    • Hi Andreas: I have a long history with Nepal, and over the years I have made great Nepali friends. A few years ago, I was “adopted” by my Yogi and his family and ever since, when I visit Nepal I live with them. Because of these long term relationships, I have people I can trust to tell me the truth.

  2. I spent three months in Pokhara last year volunteering in schools through GVI. I have nearly 40 years teaching experience and although I struggled too with some of the issues in your blog, ultimately I left feeling I had made a difference and that the children benefitted from our visits. The money was visibly spend providing fresh fruit, art materials etc for the younger children and chicken once a week for the street kids. An outdoor classroom and library, recycling bins and incinerator were all completed at a local school while I was there.

  3. Hi Diane

    Are you based in the UK?

    Hi Sanjib Adhikariji,
    Not sure how relevant your comments are to this article. Do you work for Nepal planet?
    Are you involved in any volunteering programs, if yes, please check my comments.


  4. Dear Barbara,
    A very good article. Also a note of thanks for helping those in Nepal as you have mentioned in your blog.
    I am originally from Nepal currently resident in the UK and very interested to help in any way I can. I have been to these places and seen the situation and aware of all these scammers who want to make quick and easy money with no true intentions of helping.
    This has always deterred us from doing anything in this respect but after reading your article, I see some hope.
    Is there a possibility to start an organisation in the UK to facilitate volunteering opportunities in Nepal with all its profits going to these needy institutions?
    Not quite sure how/ what this may require but I am sure there must be something that can be done which we can discuss further.

    Best regards

    • Hi Raja: Thanks for your comment. I encourage you to pursue such an idea, but I am not able to participate due to traveling schedules.

    • Hi Raja
      I was in Pokhara for 3 months last year and started a library in a school in Pame . I have been sending books out via Better World Books and buying good second hand books from charity shops. I currently have 15 kgs of books ready to be shipped but wondered if you know of any charities that would help with postage, nearly £90!! Now a pensioner I have limited resources but plenty of time!
      Thank you

  5. Ok – there are always scams in the world. What is really needed from you, since you seem to know, is to share which organizations run legitimate agencies. I want to help and so do others. Some are parents of young people with a sense of social responsibility. That would be very much appreciated. Thanks. dj

    • Hi DJ: I wish I could help, but I can only write with which I have personal experience, and so far, I have not run across any that I feel I can legitimately recommend.

  6. Hi Barbara,

    My name is Gemma and I am the Placement Manager at PoD Volunteer (www.podvolunteer.org). It is a very interesting blog which highlights many of the issues surrounding volunteering overseas. As a not for profit organisation, PoD Volunteer is aware of the potential negative impacts of volunteering and actively promotes responsible volunteering overseas. I just wanted to get in touch to let you know that there are a few inaccuracies about PoD in the blog post.

    We require all our volunteers in Nepal to have a criminal record check and have teaching experience or qualifications before joining the team in Nepal. On arrival in Pokhara PoD volunteers receive induction training from our Volunteer Manager (who lives in Pokhara), placement introduction and a tour of the local area. There are volunteer placement handover notes in the volunteer resource room in the guesthouse which volunteers can access and are encouraged to contribute to at the end of their placements.

    The PoD Charity funds schools lunches and resources at Annapurna Primary school as well as supporting a street children’s centre and other local projects.

    PoD Volunteer has over 11 years’ experience arranging volunteer placements overseas and we have supported the placements in Pokhara since 2007. We only work with a selection of hand-picked projects and offer thorough details to volunteers before they sign up for a specific project so that volunteers can prepare appropriately before starting their volunteer placement.

    It is very important that volunteers thoroughly research before selecting a volunteer placement and it is great that you making travellers aware of the aspects to question before signing up to a volunteer project.

    Please do get in touch with us at [email protected] if you or any readers have any questions.

    Kind regards,


    • Hi Gemma: You may not remember, but we met a few years ago when I was researching my stories about volunteering/voluntouring. At the time, I had made friends with a group who were working with PoD. As I say in my article, PoD is probably one of the better options, however at the time you indicated that PoD was not making enough money to provide financial assistance to the organizations where it placed volunteers. Many of the volunteers who had participated in your program did not feel that the students had benefited much from their presence, and at the time they told me that there was no organized structure for lesson plans, no turnover, and little to no oversight. Yet your comment seems to indicate otherwise. Has the situation changed substantially since I wrote the story?

      • Hi Barbara,

        Thanks for your reply. At PoD Volunteer we are continuously monitoring and assessing our volunteer projects to make positive developments. PoD is a non-profit organisation but we financially support the schools and centres that we work with via PoD Charity grants. For many years there has been detailed placement documents and volunteer handover notes in our volunteer resource room however we now we ensure that all volunteers are made of aware of these during their volunteer induction.

        Kind regards,


  7. This is one example of how a single article can mislead hundreds of people.

    How you can generalize all organizations in Nepal are bad by talking and meeting with just about 10 local people? You can not say if one is wrong, all are wrong. There are hundreds of honest people and social workers has been doing great works in local level but their stories are never being covered.

    You mentioned that you want to do philanthropic works in Nepal. Have you donated a single text book to school? Have you tipped your any single rupees to your guide? It is easy to criticize others. Is not it?

    ‘The underground guide to volunteering’ (by NerdyNomad ) has claimed that they will donate some revenue collected fom selling of pdf book. Why they do not publish any information on how much copy they sold and how much money donated to charity yet? It is very clear to understand the purpose this article.

    After reading your Nepal related all articles, I feel like there are also some people who loves poor countries becoming more poorer. If they want poor countries being developed, why they are not constructive to promote development in developing countries? Spreading negative thoughts among supporters and social workers makes poor country more poorer.

    Since 5 decades, Nepali were surrounded by negative and frustrating thoughts. This is decade for nation building. Everyone need to be positive and open minded. Negative articles or blog posts like this may get better comments and social networks sharing but never uplift living standard of local people. There are people who do nothing but criticize others who want to do something. You have rights to look negative side but my suggestion here – please look and analyze positive side also.

    Every governments, every organizations, every people are not 100% perfect, there can be some weakness. Everyone have to accept this reality. The best way to improve weakness is to provide constructive guidance and positive inspiration which your article lacks.

    • Dear Sewak: I did not say that all organizations are bad. I wrote about the ones I know that are corrupt to inform others of the abuses, and to alert travelers that they need to investigate thoroughly before they decide which organization to work with. As for whether I do philanthropic work in Nepal, the answer is yes. I help others to set goals and then to accomplish those goals, in a way that allows them to become self-sustaining, rather that just handing out money, which trains people to keep their hands out, rather than taking charge of their own destiny.

    • Hello Sewak.. You know, I know and Barabara knows and everyone knows.. very few Nepalese would put money from their pockets to help children especially on a bigger scale… and yes orphanages are there to make money in Nepal.. orphanages houses are built with the donations and are owned by orphanage owners.. and any other resources as well..

      Thank You Barbara.. I keep sharing your posts on my company’s facebook page because they are very informative.. I was thinking about starting an orphanage but now I decided not to do so because I now know how bad they can be so I think I will instead open a not for profit company that will teach English language to guides, porters and waiters and so on in lakeside at subsidised prices.. that might be free of all this rubbish hehe

      • Hi Ajit: Thanks for your comment. I definitely appreciate the support because I have been criticized a lot for my position on volunteering. Fortunately, the mainstream view is now starting to come around to mine. I’ll be in Pokhara in a few weeks!

    • Susan, you might look into things like Help Exchange or WOOFING, where you can get free room and board in exchange for work on an organic farm.

      • Hello Barbara,
        Thank you for such a mind opening post. After reading all the comments, I started making inquiries to the organization which I was interested to go under- physiotherapy internship with Internship Nepal. There is an ‘application fees’ of USD 200 to be paid as stated on the website. On inquiry of what is this application fee is for, this is the reply I received- ‘Internship Nepal have to pay 200 dollar to the hospital where you are going to work. It is a part of the donation to the hospital which is compulsory to pay’. Now, this leaves me with more confusion as donation is voluntary. Fees to the hospital is usually done separately with a minimal amount from where I come from- Malaysia. Would appreciate any feedback from anyone who is from the medical line and has been through this. Dear Barbara, I would appreciate if you can provide me with any information (if you have any) of any place where I can volunteer for physiotherapy. Thanks loads!

  8. This is exactly why I started http://www.worldwideorphanages.com in 2007 after searching for an orphanage to “volunteer” at in Tibet or China, and only finding agencies with fees, fees and fees that could have fed an entire orphanage for a year since they mainly eat rice!

    Barbara, it is so odd how our lives have parelled. I had several businesses, kids all grew up, and I needed to begin a second life so I started traveling 6 months out of the year in 2007!!!!!!!!!!! I can’t believe we didn’t cross paths! Anyway, also interesting is that I started blogging in Tibet, which was my first big three month trip but then I didn’t stick to it as you did. As a writer, however, I have picked up some seriously crazy stories, with interviews, and photos, of course along the way, which SOMEDAY I intend to write. The problem is I found I was having too much FUN to be dedicated to writing. Unlike my previous life that was all work and little play, I found myself engaged in cultures, with local people, and with travelers and just couldn’t find the time to spare for blogging. I’m sort of sorry now, but then again, no regrets. I am so excited about running across your blog while planning my next big three month trip to Peru and Ecuador, and your border crossing blog really is super helpful. I’ll be a reader of yours, I signed up. Thanks a million for being faithful to the task of blogging your experiences because it is so so helpful for independent travelers to get this wonderful information. Thanks again, Marilyn http://www.marilynmorningstar.com

    • Hi Marilyn: Thanks so much for your comment, and for signing up to receive emails with my new posts. You certainly hit the nail on the head when you talked about the time it takes to write a blog. People have no idea what’s involved. Just sorting through my 200-300 photos per day takes a couple of hours. Then there’s the 100 emails I get each day, and doing all my social media work; all that before I do one bit of research and write a single word. Many times, I exist on two or three hours of sleep a night. But, I love what I do, and that’s what keeps me going.

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