A rewarding and often eye opening experience, volunteering can be a great way to give back to the countries you are visiting, it can allow you to truly immerse yourself in another culture and really get to know the people who live there.

However there has been an increasing rise in ‘voluntourism’ – when tourists travel abroad and incorporate volunteering into their trip or vacation. Unfortunately, without proper research, many volunteers are not entirely aware of the situation they are entering and their positive intentions can often end up doing more harm than good.

Many people see voluntourism as the perfect opportunity to have the adventure of a lifetime, to see and learn about a new place, whilst at the same time fulfilling an altruistic desire to do good and give back to those less fortunate. Of course these are not bad intentions and lots of volunteers make a big difference to the organisations or projects they are helping. But combining a personal trip with volunteering can be problematic. As well as finding the right organisation to volunteer at and making sure you have enough time to contribute properly, it’s also important to ask yourself why you want to volunteer, and if actually, there could be better ways you could help.

DO YOUR RESEARCH and make the right choice

The last thing you want to do after volunteering is look back on your efforts with regret. The unfortunate truth is that not all organisations – even non-profits – are doing good. There are projects with fundamental ethical issues – something which eager, new volunteers need to take on board.

Take a step back from planning your trip and research thoroughly the organisations you wish to volunteer at.

There’s the risk that if you choose poorly, your voluntourism experience will give you the satisfaction of cultural immersion and adventure, but won’t do much good for the communities you’re supposed to be helping.

Helping others makes us feel good and sometimes volunteers can get so swept up in positive notions of how they are going to help that they neglect to do proper research and look at the potential negative issues that could arise.

Anyone interested in volunteering needs to research their project as much as possible.

Ask questions – do they have a child protection policy? Animal welfare policy? How to they involve the local community? Where are donations being spent? What is their long term plan? If they won’t answer then try somewhere else!

Talk to former volunteers – find out about their experience and see if it matches up to your expectations.

Find out about country specific issues – research where you’re going to be volunteering to find out if there any specific issues surrounding voluntourism you should know about.

Even if using an intermediary still do your research –  because of the rise in placement websites and a rush to grow, not all of these sites are offering ethical placements. You could be left unprepared and placed in an unsuitable role you’re not comfortable with. Some intermediaries are also also making huge profits from organising voluntourism trips so be aware of this and try to find out where exactly your money is going before booking anything.

Finding a volunteering project

How you go about finding a project really depends on what kind of volunteering experience you’re looking for.

If you have skills that are required overseas, particularly in developing countries, then you should find it relatively easy to find an opportunity. Placements for skilled individuals will not normally require volunteers to be out-of-pocket with direct costs and basic expenses usually covered. However you are likely to be required to make a significant contribution in the form of a long term placement often for at least a year.

For skilled volunteers who are looking for a long term placement, VOS is a great source to find opportunities.

If you are looking to incorporate volunteering as part of a holiday or travelling experience then there are a number of ways you can go about it. However this type of volunteering, often referred to as ‘voluntourism’, usually incurs a cost to and is a controversial topic with many arguing it can cause more harm than good.

Our oppinion on voluntourism is that, if carefully managed, it can be a great way for tourists to do something positive whilst they travel.

Use an intermediary or organise a placement yourself?

There are now numerous volunteering websites where you can search for volunteering placements around the world. These websites can be a useful resource for finding organisations looking for volunteers. But more often than not you can go direct to the organisation to arrange your placement and it will likely be for a much smaller fee. Unfortunately many intermediaries are making huge profits from tourists desire to do good with only a small amount of the money charged actually going to the organisation you are volunteering at.

If you are feeling anxious about visiting a new place then you might benefit from the support network that some intermediary websites can provide. The only intermediary we are happy to recommend is Giving Way, who don’t add any additional fee’s and do not charge organisations for listing volunteer opportunities.

Be Aware: Due to the quick growth of voluntourism there are some placement websites that should be avoided with instances of unethical and unsuitable placements being listed, as well as a lack of volunteer support on the ground. You may think that by using an intermediary you are getting peace of mind that you are giving your time to a good cause however not all of these sites do thorough background checks so always bear this in mind and still do your own research before committing to a project.

The costs of voluntourism can be high with flights and insurance to consider as well as the cost of accommodation and food if this isn’t included. Make sure you are aware of all the costs involved before you sign up for a placement.

Manage your expectations

If you begin your volunteering experience with a particular set of expectations you may leave disappointed. Experiences don’t always live up to what we anticipate and if we could give one piece of advice it would be to keep a completely open mind.

If you have relatively few expectations then you will be better at dealing with any unexpected problems when they arise. If you put to many goals and ideals in place then you risk feeling down and unhappy if the experience doesn’t work out as you imagined.

You won’t change the world and that’s okay. Accepting this fact can take a while and it can sometimes leave you feeling a little lost. But the key is realising that big change starts small and you will almost certainly be making a difference even if it is on a smaller scale than you imagined.

As long as you keep in mind that anything could happen, and likely will, then you should be on your way to taking part in an experience that you will look back on fondly for the rest of your life.

Culture shock & how to cope with it.

You may consider yourself well-travelled and unlikely to suffer from culture shock. But sometimes difficult situations, extreme climates and witnessing shocking poverty can make it hard to adjust.

If you find yourself struggling to deal with culture shock, here are a few suggestions that might help you cope better…

  • Avoid judging things to quickly – observe how people in your new environment act in situations that puzzle you. Try to understand what they believe and why they behave as they do.
  • Think about how you have dealt with stressful situations in the past and apply those methods to your current circumstances.
  • Laughter is the best medicine! Try and see the humour in confusing situations that you encounter.
  • Recognise the benefits you will gain from volunteering. Your life will be enriched by meeting new people from different cultural backgrounds.
  • Acknowledge your progress in adjusting to a new culture. Think of everything you have learned since the day you arrived and will continue to learn.