Volunteering on Your Gap Year

Give something back on your travels

Volunteering abroad on your gap year is an ideal way to make the most of your time away, to travel and see the world while also giving something back. Many gap year travellers cite the time they spent on their gap year volunteering abroad as the best and most rewarding part of their travels. Gap year volunteering is an opportunity to settle into a local community and help those in need.

There are plenty of gap year volunteer programs out there to suit your skills and interests. You can do anything from teaching English as a foreign language in developing communities, to rehabilitating injured orangutans in Borneo, to helping conservation work in vital ecosystems in Costa Rica. Whatever you choose, volunteering gives you the chance to make a difference to the world, live somewhere incredible overseas, make new friends and memories, and come home with invaluable experience for your CV.

Below are some frequently asked questions about gap year volunteer programs, covering everything from how to choose the right placement to where your money goes.

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How do I choose the right volunteer program?

Gap year volunteer programs are amazing travel experiences, where you will be expected to work hard for the duration of your placement. It’s the only way you can really help! So it’s important to make sure you’re prepared for that, and that you choose a volunteer program that matches your skills and interests to make sure you can see it through to the end. You’ll find ones all over the world, from Kenya to Guatemala to Sri Lanka. If you’re really passionate about helping animals, for example, look into projects where you’ll get to work closely with them.

Always carefully read what a volunteer placement entails and consider both if you can handle the work and if you really have the skills to contribute. Once you have started a placement, finishing early can leave a project shorthanded.

How do I know if a volunteer program is ethical?

With so many volunteering opportunities available, it can be difficult to find the best gap year programs, and to ensure they are ethically run. There are numerous steps you can take to find a responsible volunteering placement. We recommend doing as much research as possible into any organisation, reading their website to find out their goals in local communities, how and where they spend their money, and the type of language and imagery they use to describe themselves. You should be able to ask questions, read testimonials from previous volunteers, and even be put in touch with some if you request. Look at forums and online reviews. Do not be shy to find out as much as possible before you commit to anything.

Why do I have to pay a fee if I'm volunteering?

We appreciate it may seem strange to pay a fee for a place on a volunteering program. This money is usually used to cover expenses for having you on the placement, such as food, transport, and accommodation. It may also go towards other expenses such as equipment and paying local full-time staff. Lastly, many volunteer programs will donate a portion of all their proceeds to investing in the local community, such as businesses, schools, and health care facilities. There may also be other overheads such as admin costs. If you are concerned about how your money is going to be used, this is a fair question to ask any volunteer program.

What is included in a volunteer placement?

This will vary depending on which volunteering program you have chosen. Most will include accommodation, food, and any transport necessary to get to and from work. This means that after paying the initial fee, a volunteering placement can give you a good opportunity to save some money for the next leg of your trip, be that in South East Asia, Africa or South Asia. We recommend reading placement descriptions carefully to see what is included. Any organisation should also make it clear well ahead of time what work you will be expected to do day-to-day so that you can adequately prepare.

How long should I volunteer for?

How long you should spend on any one project will depend on the type of volunteering. As a general rule, the longer the better. If you will be working with young children a good minimum amount of time is two to three months, allowing you to develop a real rapport with them and keep some consistency in their world. Conservation and wildlife programs offer the opportunity to make a difference in a shorter amount of time, as manual labour can sometimes be completed in a few days.

Training may be required once you reach a project, so make sure you factor that into the total time you can dedicate. Have a read of our 5 Signs You Need to Volunteer Abroad if you’re still not sure whether it’s for you.

Do I need any qualifications to volunteer?

Many gap year volunteer programs will not require you to have any prior qualifications, and if necessary many will include on-site training upon arrival. In this way, volunteering placements can be a great way to learn and develop valuable skills while simultaneously putting them to good use.

If you are interested in a teaching volunteer position, you will probably need to hold a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification. These can be attained before travelling via completing a course that usually lasts no longer than a weekend. Achieving this qualification will equip you with the vital skills to ensure you can provide the best possible teaching during your placement.

It’s important that when researching what travel insurance you’ll need that you factor in any volunteering you plan to do.

Can I travel during gap year volunteer programs?

Yes! While most volunteering placements will keep you busy, they will also give you the freedom to travel on your days off. Many volunteers will make friends in the course of their work, and go travelling around the host country together whenever possible. This is a great way to get a complete feel for your chosen destination. Working within a community gives you access to the best local knowledge, and some volunteer programs will even organise trips to top sights or other nearby communities. You also have the option of travelling before and after your placement.

Can I put volunteer work on my CV?

Absolutely! It would be silly not to. If you’ve been travelling and have completed some volunteer work during that time, it will definitely be of interest to any potential employer, even if it isn’t directly related to the job at hand. It shows that your time exploring the world wasn’t just spent playing the acoustic guitar in the hostel common room, demonstrates your willingness to work hard, and heavily suggests that you’re a good person in general. Gap year volunteering can go a long way to make you stand out when applying for jobs or further placements. Don’t be afraid to use it.

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