The UN considers volunteerism indispensable to achieving its Sustainable Development Goals, though it’s important to remember that not all volunteer-abroad programs are created equal.
"To get the most out of volunteering you need to put effort into choosing who you go with and what you do," says Dr. Kate Simpson, an expert advisor on Lonely Planet’s Volunteer: A Traveller’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World who has spent years researching and working in the international volunteering industry. These questions are designed to help you learn as much as possible about the quality, value and sustainability of volunteer projects before you dedicate your annual leave to one.
What work will I be doing?
An organization with a good volunteer program should be able to tell you what sort of work you will be doing, including how many hours a day and how many days a week, and with which host organization, well in advance of the project start date. A typical source of dissatisfaction for volunteers is not doing what they planned (and paid) to do.
Does the organization work with a local partner?
If a volunteer program is to be of value to a local community it should work in collaboration with, rather than be imposed on, that community. Find out who that partner is and how the relationship works. Is someone from the local organization involved in the day-to-day management of your project? What sort of local consultation took place to build the project? Why is the project of value?
What time frame is the volunteer program run on?
A well-structured volunteer program should have a clear time frame, and organizations should know from one year to the next whether a program will continue. One-off programs, and especially placements, can be problematic. If you are acting as a teaching assistant for a month, what happens the rest of the school year? Are other volunteers sent or is the placement simply ended? It may also be very disruptive for children to have constantly changing staff. Establishing the level of commitment an organization has to a given project or placement is vital in establishing the quality, and therefore value, of that volunteer program.
Does the organization have safeguarding policies?
All volunteer organizations should have a safeguarding policy for children and vulnerable adults, whether they work with them or not, and programs that work directly with children must include child protection training for volunteers. Similarly, high-welfare wildlife sanctuaries have policies to protect wildlife (restrictions on human-animal contact are common), with appropriate training provided to volunteers. Volunteer organizations should also be able to tell you how they work to minimize the environmental footprint of their programs.
What support and training will you receive?
Organizations offer vastly different levels of training and support. Look for one that offers not only pre-departure training but also in-country training and support. Learning about both the practicalities of your volunteer job and the culture of where you are traveling to will help you get and give the most. Local support is also important, but ask if "local" means just across the road or several hours away by bus. Make sure there is somebody in the country with direct responsibility for you. All projects require problem-solving at some point and you will need someone on hand to help you with this.
What financial contributions does the organization make to its volunteer programs?
Volunteer programs need funds as well as labour, so ask where your money is going, and be persistent about getting a clear figure, not a percentage of profits. Also, be aware that payments for your food and lodging often do not assist your volunteer program.
Why do you want to volunteer?
Don’t forget to analyse your intentions for volunteering. Do you legitimately want to give back to the less fortunate, or are you more interested in seeking validation from your peers on social media, or using the experience as career leverage? If you approach volunteering with the curiosity and humility to learn, you – and the project – will get much more out of it.
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This excerpt is from Lonely Planet's Sustainable Escapes book. It first published in March 2020 and updated in December 2020.