The Debate That Won't Stop

Voluntary work offers a dazzling array of opportunities for those planning a gap year and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive activities a student can undertake in their time out as far as universities and future employers are concerned. But with so many gap year organisations offering a huge variety in project work and lengths of placements it can be a daunting prospect trying to decide which is best.

One of the biggest questions facing a would-be volunteer is how much of their gap year to commit. Projects range from a few weeks right through to a full year and organisations offering longer-term options are quick to extol the virtues of spending six months+ working on a single project, while suggesting that anything less is time wasted.

It’s true that longer projects, such as those offered by Project Trust (8-12 month placements) give the volunteer more time to pick up the language, acquire an understanding of local culture and complex issues facing developing nations and integrate with the local community. When successfully managed these types of projects can lead to lasting benefits for both the gapper and project. They work fantastically well for mature, motivated students that are happy to live in what can often be far flung places and immerse themselves fully in a foreign culture.

But there are undeniable benefits of shorter projects too. Short-term projects give a great taste of volunteer work for people who may not have the confidence or time to commit to a longer project. With only a few weeks of hard graft on each project you work towards achievable, immediate goals such as the building of a school or planting trees, which can feel more gratifying. For school leavers worried about travelling alone or feeling isolated, short-term projects generally offer better opportunities to work as part of a group and you tend to be supported more closely by a leader figure. It’s a good set up for inexperienced or nervous travellers and can be seen as a ‘safer’ bet than launching into a long-term project.


One of the dangers of short-term project work is that the volunteer isn’t given time to acclimatise or overcome culture shock, if the experience lasts just a few weeks they’ll be moving on just as they settle in and begin to understand the project. At The Leap we recommend six weeks as a minimum length of placement, which the volunteer can then choose to extend to 10 weeks if they wish. We combine a number of different projects, encompassing community, conservation and ecotourism work so the volunteer experiences a mix of stimulating, skill-forming work while developing a meaningful understanding of the local culture. Motivation and energy levels are kept high as teams of volunteers work towards varied goals rather than undertaking repetitive work and volunteers get to travel during their placement too, with some projects located at the coast, some in the jungle and others in the bush.

Surprisingly time is the limiting factor for most gap year students. Whilst a full academic year out gives a student 15 months to play with (a luxury few can enjoy later in life), it can be difficult to squeeze in a long-term volunteer project. For those who have just left boarding school some time will need to be devoted to working to raise the money to travel and fund a volunteer placement, a near-impossible task whilst in full time education. Gappers often find they are required to sit retakes or attend university interviews in the middle of their gap year, or they may wish to combine volunteering with other activities such as work experience relevant to a future career, a ski season, gaining a qualification in cooking or independently travelling overseas. Short-term projects offer much more flexibility and can work around other gap year plans.

Shorter volunteer placements are also great news if you are plunged into an ‘unplanned gap year’, as so many students have experienced this year. This trend in default gap years will likely increase next year as students missing out on their top choice institution opt to retake exams and reapply rather than pay extortionate fees for a 2nd rate university. A bonus of short-term projects is they tend to require less planning ahead, for example The Leap continues to take applications from volunteers right up to the week prior to departure. They can also be a more affordable option, plus as mentioned before volunteering looks excellent on a UCAS personal statement and can help students to gain a place at their desired university.

A major consideration for any student planning to volunteer needs to be the effect their presence will have on the project beneficiaries. The gap year ‘industry’ has expanded unregulated in recent years and there are plenty of horror stories in the press about gappers placed in bogus projects. However, there are organisations offering well-researched and professionally managed projects, which sadly attract far less media attention. The Leap consult community leaders when setting project goals, we spend an average 64% of volunteers placement fees overseas (which we are confident is higher than the industry average) and closely monitor the impact our volunteers have. Ultimately there are poorly run organisations in both the long-term and short-term project sectors and gappers need to aware of the risks and prepared to do their research. As long as you choose the right company you'll have an amazing time.

Alice BainesAbout the Author: Alice Baines

Alice works for The Leap, a volunteering and eco-tourism company. This is what they've got to say about her:

"One of our first ever 'Leapers', Alice now works with us in Marlborough as our overseas placement manager. Having spent her first gap year working in a Kenyan safari camp and her second 'shaking her jungle coconuts' on a team placement in Ecuador, she would love nothing more than for life to be one long gap year! If unsure where to go, what to do or what to take... this is your girl."