Why do gap year travellers spend their money, time and effort to volunteer when they can simply throw on their backpack and have fun?
I started thinking about this question a few years ago as I embarked on an adventure around the globe, with no idea where I would end up or what I would take out of the experience.
I travelled the world alone for 10 months whilst on my gap year, mainly in Mexico and Australia. I had a strong desire to volunteer, especially with street children. It was a shock to learn that contributing to such a good cause cost so much money in addition to flights, insurance and spending money. Because of this I didn’t volunteer.
On return from my gap year I started university studying International Tourism Management. Throughout university I’ve continued to take short gap years. One of my favourite experiences has been travelling to The Gambia as a part of a niche tourism assignment. The aim was to help community development through community-initiated sustainable tourism; creating net benefits for all community members. So far we have been successful.
Due to my personal experiences I wanted to find out why young people volunteer within their gap year. As part of my university course, I was able to investigate this question for my final year research project.
What do gappers expect to get out of volunteering? How much does motivation vary between gender and age? What influences their choice of location and time spent on their placement? What does the overall experience mean to them?
Perhaps most importantly: how does their experience shape their future, if at all?
People volunteer during their gap year for many reasons. All motivations are dependent on, and heavily influenced by, an individual’s life, expectations and desires. Some motivations were simple: to travel, to meet people and network, and wanting more than to ‘merely’ go backpacking. Some were focused on the future such as broaden horizons, personal growth and professional development.
But what are the reasons why people volunteer during a gap year?
I have three theories.
Firstly, a gap year is a great way to learn and practice a profession that you’d need qualifications or experience to do in the UK. A volunteer project can help facilitate this experience, whilst also providing a social base for volunteers to meet like-minded gappers.
Secondly, volunteer organisations provide a safety net for gappers. Living in isolated communities in Africa or South America without support can obviously carry inherent risks. A volunteer organisation’s local infrastructure, personnel and knowledge allows gappers to explore destinations more safely.
Lastly, people volunteer with the expectation of gaining something for themselves in the process. A gap year allows people to gain independence and life experience, build confidence, and develop skills in communication, leadership and organisation.
My research was an online survey about gappers’ motivation to volunteer and what influences it.
I asked questions on where, why and for how long they volunteered, their best and worst experiences, their views on value for money, and demographics.
I asked a mixture of open-answer and multiple choice questions, and received a total of 38 high-quality responses. The results were very interesting.
The research revealed 34 motivational factors behind gap year volunteering. The top six factors motivating gappers to volunteer were: broaden horizons; experience for the future; personal growth; to learn; fulfil a dream; altruistic reasons. All of these had a 60% agreement or above. Broadening horizons was the strongest motivation with a 90% agreement.
The study suggested that the typical gap year volunteer is a female aged 16-24, who is very highly self-motivated, especially by factors surrounding adventure, education, personal development and growth.
Females showed a strong desire to travel, especially to the developing world. Males are much less motivated in general, and more influenced by their family / peers. However, they show a great desire to travel, to meet people and broaden their horizons.
Younger volunteers are also very highly motivated, with 70% or more agreeing with the majority of motivational factors. Their responses suggested a genuine desire to help with no expectation of receiving something back on a personal level.
Volunteers older than 25 showed more motivation by their experience being at the right time and in the right place. They are also more focused on helping someone with the expectation of receiving something back on a personal level.
Is Experience a Motivation?
One large motivation revealed was the experience of a gap year voluntary project itself. Incredibly, 100% of respondents said they would volunteer again because of their experiences, regardless of the price.
When I was reading the comments about volunteers’ experiences I could feel the level of emotion, gratefulness, fulfilment, value and positivity that volunteers felt. One volunteer referred to their experience as ‘life-changing’; another said it was ‘priceless’, while someone else said they felt blessed.
Some volunteers referred to their worst experience as leaving, while the large majority said they didn’t have a ‘bad’ experience. One comment that was very touching was from a volunteer who worked in an orphanage; they said their best experience was “being able to be a part of creating a second childhood.”
The open answer ‘experience’ section of the research was the most valuable for me as it showed that gap year volunteering changes people’s outlook on life and the way our society lives here in the west. One volunteer, who volunteered in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi, said that communities are “so much more sociable and people-centred there; so much more active and happy than here in the west.”
Another volunteer said their experience had “changed their life so much that they are now dedicated to making this world a better place,” and that they went home to study international development. I share their passion as I myself desire to build a career in poverty alleviation and community development through sustainable initiated tourism, something I will try to continue when I return to The Gambia.
What Does all this Mean?
My sample size was small, but provides a significant insight into the factors that motivate gap year volunteering. I feel the results support my theories, and I think more studies should be done with a larger sample size.
My research suggests taking a gap year is one of the most valuable activities a person can do. It gives people time and space to work out who they really are, while leading them through one of the greatest adventures in growing up.
Volunteering within a gap year can support this further, while allowing the less fortunate to benefit. By genuinely helping others, gappers learn a lot – both about life and themselves. This enables them to open their mind to the world around them, potentially re-shaping their outlook on life.
While initial motivations primarily focus on self-fulfilment, volunteers showed a great desire to help the less fortunate whilst gaining, personal, professional and educational growth. This experience motivated gappers to volunteer due to the level of emotions they encountered after. This then becomes an expected outcome, increasing motivation further.
I will continue to study within this area on my Masters course of International Development and Tourism. I feel that a gap year, and volunteering within it, is a valuable and life-changing activity. If understood properly, the world – both communities and individuals – can positively benefit.
I intend to take another gap year immediately after university in search of local Non Governmental Organisations to work with; initially with street children, community development and poverty alleviation in Latin America. I also have a strong desire to contribute further work within The Gambia.
I hope this article has inspired you to embark on something I believe to be the most valuable, exciting, memorable, unforgettable, life changing, and best experience of my life.