My volunteer travels in Nepal started with sightseeing around the Kathmandu Valley. I loved this part. Sightseeing gave my me a jump-start of sorts into the Nepali Buddhist culture into which my cousin and I were immersing ourselves for two months. We toured Kathmandu for a few days and we took a crash-course in Nepali language.
After those orientation days, the plan was to head into the Kathmandu Valley to our volunteer placements at two Buddhist monasteries in a little village in a rural part of the valley. It’s about this point that we saw the cracks in volunteer placement company we used used. Volunteering in Nepal was a long-time goal for my cousin in particular, and we had used a middleman for ease and for local knowledge. Turns out that doesn’t always work out so well!
Update: This article was gently critical when I first posted about VSSN Nepal, and it was a story, not a review of the company. Basically the story recounted the joys with the monks and our placement, but also a few of the issues we’d had. Unfortunately, they didn’t like my feedback. It got nasty via email. In good faith, I can’t recommend VSSN (Volunteer Service and Support Nepal) to future volunteers.
Here’s the deal, I don’t like to dwell on the bad, so bear with me. After sharing on ALA that I liked neither the money trail nor the facilitation aspect of VSSN Nepal, I left it at that and wrote about what I did like about volunteering. I wrote several positive posts about my volunteering time in the country. A year after I left Nepal, however, various people representing the company and using VSSN email addresses started an aggressive email and commenting campaign on my website, forcing me to close the comment and eventually block IP addresses because of the hate and vitriol. Nasty things were said by both sides and eventually the founder stopped whoever was initiating the issues.
My goal was never to annihilate their business, so even after the heated and nasty exchanges, I left this blog post how it was back in 2008 — gently critical but no mention of the more recent issues. Then, three years later and after no changes or contact from me, someone representing the volunteer organization sent me a series of snarky, aggressive, and attacking emails.
VSSN Nepal was frustrated by my criticism, I get it. But their approach showcased a lack of professionalism, which was my initial assessment and primary critique. At the height of the email attacks, I got nasty and ended up cussing in all caps in response. It was not my finest moment. After stressing over what to do, I left this post on my website. They are unprofessional. I offered to forget all of this and take down this blog post in exchange for an honest and professional apology; I was called a liar and Matrika told me he would never apologize for the very real issues that cropped up in our program, and he never explained why his uncle’s orphanage received a donation on my behalf instead of the monastery.
I give up. The company consistently tried to make me feel like I was a bad person for sharing my personal volunteer experience on my website. My VSSN review boils down to this: They are unprofessional and they have never accounted for why zero percent of my volunteer fee went to the monastery that hosted me. That’s what sticks out most in the years since I volunteered; my presence was a burden to the very people I aimed to support. I thought they were receiving money to cover my food, but the placement company didn’t share that fee with them.
Below are a few other issues if you care to continue, and I also share tips for what to ask before you volunteer with a company. At the end of the day, I loved teaching the young monks English in Nepal. For years now, I continue to support the monastery and I follow the progress of the students. And I also loved my time traveling across Nepal.
So, read on, or skip to the volunteer experience posts. At the end of this post I share information on ideas for arranging independent volunteer experiences
What Went Wrong? My VSSN Nepal Review
The rest of this blog is a recap of what went right and wrong with our organization, it’s a review of Volunteer Service and Support Nepal (VSSN). This represents my personal experience with the company, no more, no less. VSSN Nepal denied that anything went wrong with our program, but out of the seven other volunteers I met during my month, scarcely one person was completely satisfied with their experience.
The good? I loved my language lessons and the two sisters who taught me basic Nepali — they were sweet women and they took me sightseeing around Kathmandu, gave some history, and a fun few days of orientation. The women are locals, and demonstrate that VSSN is supporting the local community through employment.
The bad? The facilitation side of our VSSN volunteer program went into the gutter the moment the cab dropped us off in the small town of Pharping. To my mind, facilitation on the ground is a key reason to pay the fee.
Pharping is a small Newari village with not a whole lot going on — which is lovely, really. The pace of life slowed once we left Kathmandu city. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries dot the hillside around town. It is quaint, quiet, cool; a respite from the bustle of Kathmandu.The owner of VSSN, Matrika, came with us for the hour-long trip to Pharping. He settled us into our rooms — clean and serviceable — and shared information about our placement at the two monasteries where my cousin and I would spend nearly four weeks teaching. After a bit of soup and tea, Matrika told us that while he was returning to Kathmandu, a new, third person would arrive in the morning to escort us to our two monasteries (my cousin at one, and me at another).
At this point, we had learned that two other women (another American and a South African) were already staying at the guesthouse and that each of the girls were placed at the two different monasteries: Manjushri Di-Chen Learning Center and Arya Tara.
We had two choices at this point, one of us would walk for 45 minutes to the girls monastery, Arya Tara, and teach English to the young nuns. The other would work at the boys monastery, Manjushri Di-Chen, a short walk up a steep hill. My cousin chose the nuns and I opted for the monks; then we said our adieus to Matrika.
Volunteer Placement Confusion
That night, we ate dinner with the two other women, Cara and Louise, and they gave us the scoop on the situation — the girl’s monastery was on holiday for three weeks and the boys’ monastery already had two English teacher volunteers for the small handful of classes.
Louise was concerned with the situation because there was no need for me at the boys’ monastery. In fact, the facilitator at my monastery, Lobsang, hadn’t been informed that I was arriving. Helen was similarly confused: If the monastery is on vacation for three of the four weeks we are here, what will she do every day?Then the women at the guesthouse shared that they felt trapped in the village with few food options. We were forced to eat at the monastery since the town offered just one sporadically open restaurant. And they were weary of the food. My approach to travel is to maintain respect and even bend my vegetarianism if culturally necessary. The program description explained that three complete meals every day were included. Even under generous assumptions, that did not pan out. The women had been eating from a single pot of lentils (unseasoned and simply boiled), for a week. By comparison, friends who were also volunteering through VSSN but living at a local homestay said the local families used the food stipend — which goes a very long way in a country as poor as Nepal — to prepare local vegetables, offer fruit a few times a week, and add a tad variety.
I went to bed that night confused about what was going to happen the next day. After we finished our breakfast, my cousin and I anticipated meeting Barbajuan, the owner of the guesthouse and a relative of Matrika. Matrika had indicated that this man would escort us to the monasteries and help ensure the placement went smoothly.
Instead, Amrit, a lovable and truly sweet man running the guesthouse (and a friend to this day) followed Barbajuan’s orders and instructed my cousin and me to tag along behind Louise and Cara to our respective monasteries.
Louise and Cara were awesome throughout everything; it was not their job to act as our tour guides for the day, but they both played an integral role in helping us figure out how to make a good experience out of the situation for the following four weeks. Lobsang, the man running my monastery, was kind and helpful when I showed up, even though he was also confused about my presence.
As a stop-gap for the situation, he instructed me to shadow Louise for the week-and-a-half left that she had for volunteering. Once Louise left, I would take over her classes. My cousin was equally unexpected and even less unnecessary at her monastery. She and Cara and decided to walk to their monasteries every day anyhow and play with the handful of girls who did not go home for break; they taught them Spanish, Latin salsa, and other fun games and dances.
Both of us made the absolute best out of the situation but it was not ideal for anyone. I addressed many grievances with Matrika as soon as they cropped up. Matrika responded positively to our polite request for food diversity, or even just access to the kitchen, which we weren’t allowed to use. And the food got better. He told us he couldn’t change the situation at the monasteries, but didn’t apologize that they were on break and also full of other volunteers.
As a placement organization, he dropped the ball by not communicating our arrival to either monastery.
The thing is, I had an open volunteer time-frame. My yearlong round the world trip meant that if he had informed me and my cousin of the situation, we would have simply volunteered three weeks later. We had planned to trek in the Himalayas and also explore other parts of Nepal, so we were beyond flexible on the timing. We could have avoided this situation Matrika and VSSN had maintained open communication channels. VSSN didn’t have it figured out; they were disorganized and they had no record of our past emails, past communiqués, aor our submitted application detailing when we planned to volunteer. They had simply forgotten about us until we arrived, then tossed us into a rural village.
In the years since volunteering in Nepal, I have volunteered in many other places — Guatemala, Mexico, Thailand — and in each case, things like this happen. But they usually happen because I volunteer independently. When my plans fall through, I roll with it. But when I pay money for someone smooth those rough edges, there’s at least a small expectation that some facilitation will occur.
So What Can You Do To Volunteer in Nepal?
My time at the monastery ended on a positive note because of the interactions with the children. It’s hard to go wrong once you actually get to volunteering. VSSN had little to do with what I loved about my experience. Since then, I’ve learned that going through a third party isn’t always necessary. My monastery has a website and it allows volunteers to book their time through them directly (there is a contact email on their site, please navigate there and contact them directly).
I loved teaching English at the monastery and I highly recommend this place to volunteers looking to teach English in Nepal, particularly since you can live right at the monastery while you volunteer. My cousin’s woman’s monastery, Arya Tara is less connected online, so it’s hard to volunteer there. But she had a fantastic time with the nuns even though she was not able to formally teach them; she did mini-lessons every day and formed some tight bonds with many of the girls.
More recently, a traveler emailed me asking to share her story about arranging a DIY volunteer experience teaching monks in Nepal — she details how she managed it and how it all worked out.
If you’re willing to brave some of the details yourself then consider the advantages of booking directly with the monastery! I loved every moment teaching my young monks. There is a lot of need in Nepal, especially in the wake of the earthquake, so it would behoove those interested to really research where your skills best fit. Sometimes tourism is the best answer, but other times you can find great-fit volunteer experiences too.
This entire experience was my first lesson in the importance of thorough research; volunteer organizations charge anywhere from $500 to $2500 to arrange programs. In some cases this is necessary because of remote locations and specific types of volunteering — medical volunteering costs more. In other circumstances, if you know what type of volunteering you want to do it pays to read other travel blogs and stories from other RTW travelers. Do your homework and it’s possible to avoid using a middleman.
So, Should You Use VSSN to Volunteer in Nepal?
It was my sheer lack of knowledge that put me in my predicament. Even though we emailed past VSSN volunteers and received positive reviews, it was just an unlucky set of events. For a little perspective, at the time that I’m writing this, the amount of money I could have saved by going through the monastery directly is about US $510. The monastery charged roughly $150+ a month for housing and three meals a day; VSSN Nepal was significantly more than that.
Even all of the confusion wouldn’t have prompted me to share the issues online, but it galled me to learn (on my last day) that VSSN did not donate any of my volunteering fee to my monastery. The monastery fed me lunch every single day and received no food stipend from my donation, despite language on the website and from Matrika indicating that $100 of my fee would go toward the local project hosting me. Instead, I’m told that he donated my fee to his uncle’s orphanage a few towns over, which I never visited. I cannot know their intentions with that aboutface on the donation, but I do know it’s murky ethically.
If you are going to use VSSN — because they are nice enough people and they do offer some facilitation — I simply suggest that you account for the fact that they don’t spread your volunteer fee into the local areas. Once on the ground, you have the opportunity to infuse money directly into rural communities. This is the most powerful form of support possible for volunteers. Consider the fee that you pay VSSN is only for facilitation on getting to the placement — donate to your organization independently of Matrika and his company. It’s the only way that you will truly know that your presence at the — hospital, school, monastery, etc — isn’t negatively impacting its financial stability.
Quick Tips: Things to Know Before You Volunteer
Additional Research Links
- Should You Even Volunteer? How to Know When It’s Not a Good Idea
- Travel Insurance Review for International Volunteers (Picking the Right Plan)
- Understanding The Developing World
- The Psychology & Ethics of International Volunteering
- How to Get Started Independently Volunteering
- Check for local recommendations in the latest guidebook
Questions to Ask Your Volunteer Company
- The paper trail. Honest organizations will fully itemize their annual expenses and clearly tell you how much of your fee is going to the volunteer project itself. Volunteering is about service, so I encourage you to find a non-profit, not a for-profit company whenever possible, unless you can volunteer directly with the school, monastery, or project.
- What is included in the volunteer fee. Ask questions about your lodging, the type of food (western or local).
- Point of contact. Who will be your contact person and can you get in touch with them at all times.
- How many in-country details are provided? If it’s independent, will they help you get to the volunteer site? (In many cases, yes!).
- Endorsements and accreditation. Find out if the NGO or organization has proven itself to any of the standards organizations.
- Email past volunteers and Google the organization. They will never give you the email address of someone like me, who had a negative experience, so use the internet to research thoroughly. One negative review can be a fluke, but look around. Ask volunteers about their daily lives at the placement and what didn’t meet their expectations.
- Is the company working with your placement? The best volunteer projects are community-led and the organization has a close relationship with the placement schools, monasteries, and hospitals to be sure the volunteers are needed and working on worthwhile projects. Some for-profit companies are only interested in the volunteer fees, not helping volunteers work toward the good and betterment of a community
- A complete list of questions to ask your volunteer or placement company.
So much good luck! Consider checking out Grassroots Volunteering; I launched this database to counter the issues and lack of transparency in international volunteering. This site is free and open-source; it’s the culmination of hundreds of travelers from around the world submitting volunteer projects they’ve found on their wanders. It’s a database of low-cost independent volunteering opportunities all over the world. :)