Find the Right Volunteer Placement
Working on a conservation project on your gap year is a great opportunity to make the most of your travels. While you should definitely take some exploration and relaxation time, volunteering abroad can offer a uniquely fulfilling experience, as well as add some valuable experience to your CV when you return home.
But in the light of recent criticism of so-called ‘voluntourism’ – projects focused on profiteering rather than actually helping a cause – choosing a responsible organisation can seem daunting.
Don’t be put off. A recent report concluded that volunteering can have a hugely positive impact, as long as you put in the work, both before and during your travels. Here’s some key advice on how to find a responsible conservation project.
Research, research, research
No one goes abroad to intentionally work as part of an unethical project. People are far more likely to stumble into one because they haven’t properly researched it before signing on. Learn from their mistakes!
Don’t just leap at the first conservation project that catches your eye. The first part of your research is simply to look around at what is available so that you can get an idea of what to expect, what each organisation is offering, costs, etc.
Ask around, read travel blogs, watch vlogs – there is a wealth of information out there to help point you toward good organisations at this early stage.
Reviews can also be incredibly useful at this early stage. If an organisation is following bad practice, you’ll likely find numerous former volunteers calling them out on it.
Hopefully, after your initial research, you’ll have something of a longlist. Now it’s time to look deeper.
Find a project that’s right for you
There are so many different kinds of conservation projects for backpackers out there to choose from, including working with primates and sloths in Costa Rica, or Manatees in Belize. Every project will require a different set of skills, and some may be more physically demanding than others.
It’s important to ensure you have something to offer a project, and to make sure it’s something you will stick with. Ending your placement early can be detrimental to the project at hand.
A responsible organisation should make an effort to match your skills to a placement. There should be some kind of interview or application process. Taking a volunteer placement shouldn’t be as easy as booking a holiday.
When you’ve found the project that might be right for you, don’t be afraid to get in touch and ask questions. UK companies should have a public phone number, and overseas organisations should offer a contact email. You could use this to request a Skype call.
Here are some questions you should ask:
– What are the long term goals of the project?
– How will the role you’ll be doing contribute to these goals?
– And how will it benefit the local area?
– Does the organisation provide any training before you go or when you first arrive?
– What kind of support is available once you are there?
– How were local people involved in establishing the project?
You should also ask to be put in touch with somebody who has previously volunteered with the organisation. Any responsible organisation will not hesitate to provide you with details of past volunteers.
Find out where the money goes
It may seem like a contradiction to pay to volunteer; after all, you’re giving your time. But there are costs involved in developing and managing conservation projects, and in supporting volunteers in-country. Your accommodation, food, transport etc. needs to be covered, and this is usually included in the fee.
One of the most important questions you can ask of an organisation is for a breakdown of where your money will go. While some it of it will go toward your general upkeep, there should also be money going directly into the country where you will be placed, and not to an office in your home country.
Ask the same question of several companies, and you’ll soon gain a good understanding of what is a reasonable fee to pay.
Find out who you’ll be working with
A conservation project placement is an excellent means of gaining valuable experience that may help you find a job when you return home. But it won’t be much good if you haven’t actually done any work while you’re there!
The best conservation projects will see you work alongside experts in the field, providing a real opportunity to learn and gain useful experience. Others amount to little more than cuddling animals in a wildlife park – undoubtedly nice, but unlikely to impress a potential employer.
An organisation that employs experts is not only likely to be more responsible, but it’ll also be able to supply you with a top reference when it’s over.
All of the above may seem like a lot of work, but it’ll all be worth it when you end up on the perfect placement, conscience clean and with life-changing experience under your belt.