I have been a volunteer in one capacity or another outside of the United States since 1998, and so I thought I would take the time to offer personal insight into the world of charitable giving. This is by no means an official guide, nor an exhaustive study, but only my personal experiences in the countries of Nepal, Cameroon and Mexico – advice I have been given or lessons learned the hard way, and the rewarding results when things have gone as planned, or at least not been completely derailed.
My first overseas volunteer trip was in 1998 to Nepal as part of a nursing delegation. There were 10 of us nurses from the United States traveling to Kathmandu, Nepal to hold discussions with the medical and nursing staff of the neurology and neurosurgery departments of two hospitals there – one a university hospital and one a public hospital.
Our discussions centered on the way each country cared for these patients, comparing and contrasting our methods. During the discussions, charitable donation was also discussed, and one of the first things mentioned was that donors need to know what is perceived by the recipient to be their needs.
Many facilities or donors might be purchasing new equipment and desire to get rid of their old equipment, or may be looking for tax breaks which will result from their donations. You are only placing a burden on the recipient by sending things they cannot use or do not need.
If you discover that you are able to donate something that actually is useful to them, then you must find a way to deliver the goods. What we were told in Nepal was that the safest way to make sure they actually receive the goods is to ship them to the American Embassy, and then they could be securely delivered.
Nepal was a one-time experience, but for several years I was involved in volunteering in Cameroon and since 2012 in Mexico, where I now live, and I can tell you that there is nothing like “eyes on the ground” to help determine how you can help and the best way to go about it.
Nothing can compare to trustworthy local people to explain the realities of their lives to help guide you, but oftentimes you will need to navigate different personalities and opinions to attempt to discover the realities. Having volunteered at a medical clinic I saw the need for living quarters for volunteers and interns, and also the need for a new service vehicle. While trying to negotiate for a vehicle, I was running into difficulty with the person who took over the clinic after the head doctor became incapacitated with a stroke. This person was demanding a brand-new and very expensive vehicle, much more luxurious than what was actually needed.
In the meantime, the staff and I had worked together to rent a large domicile to house volunteers and interns, and I was paying the rent. The best way to transfer the money at that time was through Western Union, with two trustworthy staff members collecting the money using a password that only we knew.
Unfortunately, the new head of the clinic was stealing from it, abusing the interns and volunteers and being that the clinic was supported by international donors, it collapsed when word got out and the donors pulled the funding. So one unfortunate lesson here is that sometimes you cannot save the world, even with the best intentions and greatest efforts, but on the other hand, there are many success stories.
Aside from direct monetary donations, it is best to research where the needed “things” might best be obtained. When insulin and syringes were needed at a clinic, with research and discussing it with the locals, it was decided that I would bring in syringes but money would be donated for the insulin. Insulin was available in the country, and purchasing it within the country would alleviate the problem of proper storage and temperature of the medicine in transporting it from one country to another. So one lesson learned is to discover if what is needed is already available in the host country and maybe just cheaper and more practical to donate money specifically for that purpose (books in the native language is also a good example).
Distributing medicine against intestinal worms in Cameroon. The medicine was bought in Cameroon with money donated from the United States.
And this leads into another aspect – bringing in donations by hand in your luggage vs. shipping it from one country to another. Many countries will charge the recipient for shipments received, even if they are charitable donations, so this needs to be discussed ahead of time with the recipients.
My first volunteer trip to Mexico was to work in the vision clinic with a Canadian optometry group. They brought their eyeglasses and examination equipment, but I was asked to bring in the dark plastic eye shields to cover the patients’ eyes after their pupils are dilated.
I said “sure” and next thing I knew the post office delivered an immense box to my porch containing 2000 eye shields. Well – I was able to fit 1000 of them into two suitcases and an extra cardboard box to bring with me when I flew down. And – I was stopped at Mexican customs. It took a while to explain to them and have them understand that I was not bringing them down to sell, but they were donations. So that is one thing to keep in mind, and something that I was not expecting. For the next trip on which I did not go, I was able to send the extra 1000 to other volunteers to bring with them, and everything worked out in the end.
Vision clinic – partnership of Project Amigo and Canadian optometrists
These duties were turned over to the local Lions Club after 2013
In the case of something that can not practically fit in a suitcase or hand-carry, there is always shipping, and here is where different methods and issues with customs are important considerations, which were my latest lessons learned.
During one trip to Mexico, I visited the school of nursing at the University of Colima, having already become good friends with Magda, one of the nurses. As I toured the university, there was a basic life support class going on in one of the open areas, and students were practicing the CPR technique on each other (of course, not actually doing full chest compressions). Turns out there was a need for CPR mannequins.
Students “practicing” CPR on each other because of lack of mannequins
A few years later, I became aware of a facility in the U.S. that was purchasing new mannequins and getting rid of their old ones. While the old ones were not state-of-the-art, they were sufficient for the needs of the U. of Colima, and so I inquired about obtaining them.
I was told that I could have them for free, as they would otherwise just be tossed in the garbage, and so I informed my contacts in Mexico. Over the course of maybe a year I tried to connect the people in Mexico with the person in charge in the U.S., but opportunities kept getting missed and meetings never happened, and so, being very frustrated and discovering that the mannequins were still needed in Mexico and available in the U.S. I decided to collect them and ship them myself during my next visit to the U.S.
First, I looked up shipping costs and found out that it would cost about $400 USD for 50 pounds of freight through FedEx, then I informed the people in Mexico and questioned what they would be willing to pay, as I could not shoulder an exorbitant cost on my own to donate equipment.
Then I went to pick up the mannequins and was shocked to find that, instead of the torso-only mannequins that I was used to as a CPR instructor, these were full-body mannequins – adults and infants, each adult weighing about 42 pounds (mannequin, carrying case and included equipment).
I wasn’t sure what to do and was discussing it with a staff member, when she told me of a service called Shipnex, which ships internationally as a third party – you pay them, print out a label and then your package is shipped through FedEx or DHL, and it costs about 1/3 what FedEx or DHL costs. What a relief!!!
So I took 2 full-body adults, one infant, suitcase carrying cases and miscellaneous equipment, paid Shipnex and sent them on their way with DHL, with an expected arrival a week after shipping. Problem solved, right? Well, it turns out, no.
After about 2 weeks, I was messaged by my Mexican counterpart, asking where the shipment was. I checked online with Shipnex, which said “in transit” and gave them a call. They then gave me a phone number and tracking number for DHL – and then I discovered that the shipment was being held by customs, and suddenly knew what that meant.
I informed the Mexicans, they called customs and argued that it was a charitable donation of old mannequins to be used for teaching, but it didn’t matter. And so they had to pay customs to release the mannequins. Fortunately, they were able to pay and now possess 1 infant and 2 adult mannequins, but this is something that I hadn’t planned for and needs to be considered for anyone considering donations in the future.
So, finally, while this post contains many cautions and precautions, it is ultimately spiritually satisfying when a donation is successfully received and you know it will make a positive difference in so many lives, from new eyeglasses for the visually impaired, much-needed medicine, funds to purchase books and now mannequins on which the nursing, medical and first-aid students can practice their life-saving skills.
Students practicing on their “new” mannequins.