Volunteering abroad is a great opportunity to do something worthwhile during your travels, get to know local people and have a more authentic experience. However, there are thousands of different volunteering projects out there and due to the massive growth in the sector, not all volunteering programmes are set up and managed in a responsible way.
We know gap year volunteers have genuinely good intentions and want their time overseas to have some sort of positive impact. However the reality is that many people return from the experience feeling like they have contributed very little. There has also been a lot of negative media coverage and online criticism of gap year volunteering, especially where inexperienced and unqualified young people are sent to do roles that they would not be allowed to do in their home country (like teaching or childcare) or end up doing something that isn’t actually that useful. To help you get started, here’s some advice about how to find a responsible volunteering placement.
Do your research
Arranging a volunteering placement should not be like booking a last-minute holiday! Spend some time looking at different volunteering organisations and types of projects and try to narrow down what interests you and what kind of project you could contribute something to. There are lots of different types of volunteering, from helping out with environmental conservation projects to teaching English and much more in between. There are also hundreds of different organisations who arrange volunteering projects. Take time to really learn about the organisation you would like to volunteer with – it is important that how they work fits with your values and that they will provide you with the level of support you need.
Ask lots of questions
Don’t just book something you’ve found online. Pick up the phone and talk to the organisation who run the volunteer project (and if they’re based overseas, email them and ask if they can speak to you via Skype). Ask lots of questions about the project, for example:
- What are the long term goals?
- How will the role you are doing contribute to the development of the local people?
- And the destination?
- How were local people involved in establishing the project and roles of volunteers?
- Have a look at this list of useful questions to ask when talking to volunteering organisations.
You should also speak to someone who has volunteered on the same project before as they can give you a first-hand account of what it is like, what you are going to be doing, where you will be living and how to prepare. A responsible volunteering organisation should automatically provide you with contact details for previous volunteers and encourage you to get in touch with them.
Make yourself useful!
One of the best ways to ensure you have a responsible volunteering experience is to use your existing skills, rather than do something you are not really qualified for. Look for an organisation that takes the time to match your skills and experience to a suitable placement. Everyone has useful skills to offer – you just need to take some time to identify them. If you haven’t had much professional work experience, think about what you do for a hobby, any community work or local volunteering you’ve done or skills you’ve gained at school or university. There are also volunteering programmes which don’t require previous experience or skills, for example conservation volunteering which usually involves collecting data for scientific research, where you will get training when you first arrive.
Check where your money goes
Paying to volunteer may seem like a contradiction. You are giving your time, so why should you pay? If you are volunteering abroad, there are certain costs involved in developing and managing volunteering projects and supporting volunteers both before they go and while they are overseas. There is also the cost of your accommodation, transport and food while you are volunteering, which is often included in the fee. If you are going overseas with a responsible volunteering organisation, a good proportion of what you pay them should be going towards these costs. Make sure you ask the organisation you are interested in volunteering with to explain how the money you will be paying is spent and how much goes into the country where you are volunteering, benefiting local people, rather than staying in your home country.
Pre-placement preparation and in-country support
Any responsible volunteering organisation should offer you training or an induction before you start your placement. This may be pre-departure or when you first arrive in the country of your placement. They should also have some sort of support system for when you are volunteering so that if something goes wrong, you can call someone and ask for some help. Before you sign up to volunteer, check carefully that the organisation you are volunteering with offers you this kind of support both before you get started and while you are volunteering.
A few months is more effective than a few weeks
The longer that you can volunteer for, the more effective and satisfying your placement will be. The idea of volunteering for more than a few weeks may sound daunting initially but will actually be far more rewarding. It’ll give you time to settle in and get to know local people and learn the language. It’ll also give you the opportunity to get stuck into your role and understand local needs, so that you can have more impact as a volunteer.
Don’t volunteer in an orphanage
Many people taking a gap year are drawn to the experience of volunteering in an orphanage, as on face value it looks like you’ll be supporting children who really need your help. However, the reality is that many orphanages in developing countries have been set up to exploit tourists and volunteers who want to come and care for poor kids and donate time and money and in some cases, families are being paid to send children who aren’t orphans to these unscrupulous institutions. There is also the issue of children who have been abandoned or orphaned forming attachments to volunteers who only stay for a few months and then leave, furthering the feelings of abandonment. The advice from many charities is not to visit or volunteer in orphanages at all, but many volunteering organisations are still offering these kind of placements.
Finding a responsible volunteering project will take you a bit of time and effort, but it will be worth it in the end as you will have a far more satisfying experience and return home feeling like you have genuinely been able to give something back during your gap year.
About the Author
Natasha Stein is a specialist in volunteering in developing countries and founder of the website responsiblevolunteering.co.uk. She worked for the international development charity VSO for 6 years as a Volunteer Placement Advisor. During that time she advised, supported and found placements for over 400 volunteers and set up new guidelines and information for VSO volunteers to help them prepare for their placements. Since leaving VSO, Natasha has been researching, writing articles and blogging about volunteering abroad. Natasha has taken two gap years and has also visited many countries for work purposes. She is particularly interested in responsible forms of travel.