Volunteer on Your Gap Year
So you’re interested in volunteering on your gap year. Maybe you want to work with injured tigers in India, orphaned children in Peru or you want to build a school in the Congo? These are all worthwhile projects and doing any of them could result in the double win of you having an amazing, rewarding time whilst also benefiting the community you’re working in. Just looking for volunteering placements is exciting, but don't get carried away and eagerly sign up for the first project that looks like your dream experience!
There are many mistakes you can make when approaching volunteering, and gapyear.com has put together this guide to help you avoid them. We’re not going to tell you what kind of placement you want to do, but we can help you avoid getting ripped off, exploited or booking with the wrong company. So before you dive in at the volunteering deep end, take a few minutes to read our guide on what to consider, what questions to ask, and what important things you should think about before you yourself onto a volunteering placement.
Finding the Right Volunteering Organisation
The obvious place to start is working out which volunteer companies and placements look most worthwhile, most ethical, most fun and the best value. But how do you work this out?
What should you look at first?
The initial thing you should be looking out for when browsing placements is how ethical the volunteering organisation appears. Whereas many people will happily hand over their cash to a holiday company and not worry who is behind the organisation, how it runs and where their money is going, choosing a volunteer company should work very differently.
But how can you tell a good organisation from a bad one? You obviously can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can gage a lot from first impressions. Look at the pictures and words the organisation uses to tell you about their placements and partners. What do these images tell you about the relationship the organisation has with its developing communities? What words do they use? Does the tone feel patronising? You should maybe be wary of companies that only use pictures of children and rather than young western volunteers working alongside adults from that community, or that generally portray the host communities in a child-like way, like people who need help.
Language is also really important. Look for positive, encouraging words describing the placement and community. Be wary of companies that describe the place you’ll be going as a somewhere of ‘poverty and need’, and if any organisation claims you’ll be ‘changing the world’, you should probably move on instantly!
How important is the size of the volunteer organisation?
There is nothing wrong with big organisations, but bigger isn’t always better. Some of the best volunteer organisations are very small but have excellent, well established relationships with the projects and communities they work with. You shouldn’t necessarily be put off choosing a company you’ve never heard of. Choose your placement based on substance, not reputation.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter if the volunteer organisation is a commercial enterprise or a not-for-profit charity organisation. People might argue the latter can claim the moral high ground, but as long as the organisation is run ethically, openly and benefits both volunteer and the community are sent to, you shouldn't be worried about trying to choose a more ‘worthy’ organisation over a commercial one.
Does the organisation match your skills to the project?
Volunteering should not be about 'having a go' at things you’d never be able to do back home. A developing community in Africa or Asia is not the place to experiment or play at something you’re under-qualified, under-experienced, under-skilled and unprepared to do.
If you are interested in teaching, for example, but have no teaching qualifications, below average general English qualifications and no experience in leading, working with or managing children or teenagers, be cautious about a company that seems prepared to put you straight in front of a class. Of course, you may start a project as a classroom assistant and end up as a teacher through merit or circumstance, but being out of your depth from the start is unhealthy.
Instead, be more receptive to volunteer companies that look like they want to match people up to an appropriate placement, based on your skills, experience and personality.
How does the organisation select its volunteers?
Do you feel like the company you are thinking of going with want to get to know you, or are they just interested in your credit card details? If it’s the latter then alarm bells should be ringing in the back of your mind. Good volunteering companies want to send the right people to the right placements. At the very least, they should want to know about your background, your experience, your skills, your personality and your preferences.
Some companies may even require an interview with you to make sure you are the right person to send to their projects. It's not essential, but this can be a great indicator that they really care about both you and the placement, and that they don’t want to send someone out to a project that will just want to be back home after a week.
How will you be treated before and after the placement?
A prepared volunteer is a better volunteer. If a company claim they will offer you training, guidance or will keep in contact with you prior to you heading off, it’s usually a good sign that they are an ethical body, committed to providing quality placements. Similarly, if the organisation say they will be interested in your experience after you return, and may want you to complete surveys, write reports or talk to other potential volunteers after your placement is done, the signs are very positive. If all they want is your money, it doesn’t mean that they’re evil, but it doesn’t give the impression that they care as much about you as they could.
Questions for the Volunteering Organisation
By this stage you will probably have narrowed your options down to a shortlist of volunteer organisations and their placements. This is the point where you want to be doing some research and asking questions directly rather than just in your head. But what do you need to ask them?
Where does all the money go?
If you’ve even had a casual glance at the cost of a volunteer placement, you’ll have noticed they usually cost significant amounts of money. You should care where this money goes once it’s left your bank account. Anyone you choose to volunteer with should have no issues about honestly explaining what it spends your fee on. How much goes on admin cost and overheads? How much is spent on each individual volunteer for transport, food, accommodation and training? How much of it is invested into host communities and projects? These are all vital questions, and you should certainly make sure you find out the answers.
But don't be put off a placement just because it seems pricey. The most important question of of all is, of course: is the placement good value? Like anything you buy, a placement could be expensive and poor value, cheap and good value, or vice versa. The price tag is only ever part of what you should consider.
Can the organisation tell you what you’ll be doing day-to-day?
A good company will be able to tell you what you’ll be doing and how long you’ll be working for. This sounds fairly obvious, but there are plenty of volunteers who have been left tired and unhappy because they’ve had to work more than they were expecting to. Working less can be as equally unsatisfying. Make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for.
Does the organisation work with a local partner organisation?
An ideal volunteer programme will work with the local community, not enforce itself upon it. Find out who the local partner is. Do they have someone who works on the day-to-day project? That perhaps even manages it? These are important questions not just from an ethical perspective, but a personal one. You’ll have a much more rewarding time feeling like you’re working with the local community rather than working on them.
What are the environmental and ethical policies?
The best volunteer organisations are committed to necessary, accountable and sustainable projects. Make sure you find out how long a company has worked in the area you might be going to and make sure they have a long-term commitment to the people, project and area. You don’t want to, for example, care for children for six months with no idea on what happens to them after you leave.
How much power to local people and partners have? Are they merely workers or do they have influence over the decisions and direction of the project?
Try and find out what the context is behind construction projects; the new school, bridge, hospital or whatever else you might be building: Is it needed? What problem will it solve? Who will actually use it? How much are you personally paying for? Make sure you are not taking work away from local people by volunteering.
And then there’s the environment. What procedures have the company got in place to protect the local environment? What is the company’s environmental record? What are their achievements, if any?
Can the organisation give you precise contact details for your chosen programme?
Broadly speaking, there are two main ways for a volunteer organisation to operate. First, they can build a relationship with a host organisation, identify local needs they can meet, arrange placements and projects and then fill the vacancies. Alternatively, they can wait for travellers to sign up (and pay), then find relevant placements. Can you guess which is the better approach?
A good company with well-run placements should be able to let you know a long way in advance where you will be going and what you will be doing. If they cannot, or will not, give you these details then be very wary of the quality of the project. Badly arranged placements can be disorganised, leaving both volunteers and local hosts with unsatisfying experiences.
What support will you receive?
We spoke earlier about training and support before and after the placement, but what about once you’re over there getting on with it? Who’s looking out for you? Are you on your own? While you might feel more independent with no one to fall back on, good organisations will often have a local contact on hand should you run into difficulties.
This person is potentially vital. While most placements will pass without a hitch, should you have any issues over how much you’re enjoying the project, what you’re getting out of it or what you’re offering of value, these contacts can be incredibly useful. Needless to say, if you have more serious problems involving healthcare or the legal system, having access to a person on the ground nearby can be invaluable. If a company offers no support, it may be a sign that they are less committed to the safety and wellbeing of their volunteers.
Questions for Yourself
Volunteer organisations are not the only people you should ask questions of before you sign up for a placement. The most important person to question is, arguably, you.
First of all, you need to think about why you really want to do a volunteer placement. If you genuinely want to make a difference somewhere and develop yourself at the same time, it's a brilliant thing to do. If your main motivation is to impress people with your CV or convince everyone that you're a worthy person, you might be getting into this with for the wrong reasons.
There are lots of other personal questions you need to ask yourself, too. Are you ready to accept responsibility not only for your own health, safety and development, but that of the people, animals and environment you will be working with? Are you willing to learn and adapt to the working and social culture of your host community? Are you prepared to put others first? Are you ready to be mature, professional and committed to a potentially hard few weeks or months of volunteering?
Additionally there are some more work-specific questions to mull over. Below are a some of the questions you should think about when looking at the most popular volunteering options.
Contributing to someone's education is a fantastic thing, but do think over a few areas to make sure it's the right type of volunteering for you. If you’re off to a school in Africa, for example, are you a teacher? If so, great, there’s a good chance that your skills will be put to very good use; especially if you’re staying for a while. If you’re not a teacher, then do you have a TEFL qualification? This will at least have given you a basic grasp of how to go about making English more accessible to non-native speakers. If you’re not a teacher, and you don’t have a TEFL qualification, are your levels of English at an acceptable level? Just having a GCSE Grade C in English Language may not be enough to stand you in good stead.
On a very basic level, are you an engaging, positive person with some experience or idea of how to work with children and teenagers? If a class’s last teacher was someone who taught them well, had excellent understanding of English and generally put life and soul into their education, and you come along feeling under-skilled, under-experienced and under-prepared, it will generally be more damaging than helpful.
Do you know much about animals, and have a particular interest in their welfare? Conservation can be tough, and often dirty. You might start at 7am and finish at 6pm, having spent the entire day cleaning enclosures, shovelling poo and feeding creatures that are trying to bite you. If that sounds too much like hard work, it might be that volunteering with animals isn’t for you.
Of course all placements differ, and some might involve nothing more than cuddling cute koalas all day and then tucking them in bed at night. But by and large, much conservation work involves a lot of physical effort. It’s often rewarding, but you have to be willing to put in the hours of sweat.
Are you prepared to get all the necessary vaccines you need? Remember that wild animals are wild, so if you were thinking of getting away with having the bare minimum vaccinations you would be advised to think again, particularly regarding rabies.
Do some research into what the project conducts animal welfare. Does the organisation claim they only rehabilitate elephants, but you find out they do tourist treks on the side? Do they claim to be a temporary shelter for animals but are actually engaged in a breeding program to create an attraction? Do they drug the animals to allow people to pet them? Make sure you are comfortable with the ethical behaviour of the project.
Finally, are you prepared to do the ‘grunt’ work while more qualified people carry out the more ‘glamorous’ tasks? Often you will be there as an essentially unskilled worker, so make sure the time you spend there is on activities which will benefit the project long-term. That could be cleaning enclosures, gardening, feeding and data collection while the ‘real’ conservationists get on with the other work. Remember you are a volunteer and therefore all your contributions should be in the long term interest of the project.
Sport coaching is growing in popularity. But before you sign up for a sport placement think about a few things. What coaching or activity leadership experience or skills do you have? What do you think you'll be able to do? How does that fit with how intensive or relaxed the volunteer placement is? Will you be over-stretched? Will you be bored?
It's important to be honest with your own abilities and comfort zone with sport coaching. If you sign up and everyone else has coaching badges or solid experience, you might feel out of your depth. Inexperience or being unqualified isn't a reason not to get involved with sport projects, however make sure you understand what the placement will involve and how well set you are to add value to that.
Advice from Volunteers
You've heard what we have to say, but what about other people that are experienced hands at volunteering? Below are two gapyear.com members that have taken part in several volunteer projects and can offer valuable words of both encouragement and caution.
Warrick Howard has experience of volunteer work with retired circus animals in Ecuador as well as Favella children in Brazil. He has been an active and helpful member of gapyear.com for many years, and has written numerous site articles and guides.
“I think volunteering is a fantastic thing to do, and every backpacker should donate some of their time to a worthy cause at some point on their trip. What I have a problem with is people who have unrealistic expectations of volunteering, or, more specifically, people who spend thousands of pounds on two-week placements purely so they can have a photo of them sat with a lion to put on Facebook.
"Volunteering can be a rich, rewarding experience. It’s just a case of understanding where your help will mean the most. Personally, I think that unless you’re a teacher volunteering during the summer holidays, if you want to volunteer teaching children, you should be prepared to commit 3 months-plus to the project. You need to build a rapport with the children, they need to learn to trust you, and you’ll have a much more enriching experience if you actually get involved over a period of time. Obviously if you’re a teacher by trade, then you’ll be able to make an immediate impact as you already know how to deliver lessons and information to the kids; therefore shorter timescales are acceptable.
"Animal projects and green projects are different. If you’re prepared to volunteer somewhere as ‘a pair of arms’, so you’re happy to dig holes, plant trees and shovel poo, then you can make a big impact even in a couple of weeks. A lot of volunteering centres I’ve seen are in dire need of people who are prepared to just grab a shovel and get stuck in, without whinging that they haven’t fed the monkey a banana yet.
"With volunteering, you need to ensure that the work you are doing right there, whilst you’re physically present, is making some kind of positive difference. If so, then you can hold your head up high and know that you’ve made a difference to a life. I know, 100%, that whether it was cleaning up the poo, releasing animals back into the wild or building enclosures, the work I did at that centre made a difference to those animals’ lives. So for that reason, I’m glad I did it.”
Alexandra Quinton works in the travel industry for a company that organises short-term voluntary work. She has experience of working as a volunteer in Kenya, Tanzania, Romania and Peru and has been a member of gapyear.com for several years, moderating the boards and writing content for the site.
“With teaching, I think you should volunteer if you are either trained as a teacher, naturally good with young people and engaging, or have a TEFL. People that go into teaching overseas without any experience or idea how hard it can be can end up wasting time for the school and the children and be more damaging than helpful.
"Generally, if an organisation sends volunteers to a project year on year, month on month, the chances are there won’t be as much work to be done there as somewhere you happen across on your travels that isn’t in the glossy promotional brochures. Large companies are notorious for using the same project again and again.
"I visited one of these projects on a work trip to Tanzania and it was an incredible facility (orphanage) but I was astounded that volunteers were sent there - there would have been nothing for them to do unless they spoke Swahili (not hugely likely), as it was privately funded from a wealthy benefactor in the USA.
"Regarding getting there, UK companies which provide flights as well as volunteering packages should be ABTA or ATOL bonded. If they aren’t, they are technically breaking the law and it is worth asking them about it.
"If you are organising your own project directly with the organisation, ask them questions about health and safety - you may have to sign a disclaimer. You’ll also want to find out how you get to/from the project and what support they can provide you.
"Always remember, if you don’t research the company/project yourself (that means getting online to Google and trying to discover as much info as possible), you won’t find much out.
"The bottom line is that volunteering should not have anything to do with you – the warm fuzzy feeling of helping someone/something else should be a secondary thing to wanting to actually make a difference.”
So there you have it; the gapyear.com guide to choosing a volunteering placement. We hope we haven't alarmed you or put you off. But it needs to be made clear that proper volunteering is not a holiday. Nor should it be. Without all the blood, sweat and tears, where is the reward?
Be honest with yourself, and be realistic with your expectations. You will not be able to change the world on your placement, but you might change the world of someone or something. Volunteering is hard work, but thoroughly worthwhile, and a great way of experiencing another country and culture. You just need to make sure you ask the right questions - of yourself as well as others - before you jump headfirst into a project that might not be suitable for you.
We offer a number of volunteer placements right here on the site.
To chat and get advice from ex-volunteers and other gappers, head to the Messageboards.
- Hannah Jones's Guide to Volunteer Bursaries
- Catherine Hall's Guide to Teaching on Your Travels
- Lucy Mills on Coaching Sports in Ghana
Images in this article were supplied by Projects Abroad.