By Elma Glasgow
Volunteering has become a popular way of seeing the world, yet arranging a placement can be a tricky job! Many unethical outfits have emerged, setting up shoddy volunteering positions while taking advantage of both your desire to do good, and the needs of the destination community.
A fulfilling volunteering experience is a two-way relationship between you and the community you'll be serving. You can still enjoy every minute, but if the community isn't actually benefiting from your hard work, why go in the first place? And, if you're paying an upfront fee, where is it going?
These are just two of the key questions you need to ask yourself and others when researching opportunities. To make sure that your volunteering is meaningful for everyone, here are some points to include in your enquiries...
There are loads of options! But where do you start?
Good question. You can always start with Google but be aware that any travel company with some kind of volunteering offering can use clever keywords to get your attention. Be discerning about the organisation you want to arrange your volunteering with. Talk to organisations such as Tourism Concern or VSO who are old hands at ethical tourism and volunteering respectively. Read articles and blogs. Leave no stone unturned in your pursuit of the right volunteering organisation - you won't regret it.
Who are the community partners?
Volunteering organisations that work closely with community groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are more likely to offer great placements. The organiser should know the communities very well indeed and, together, they plan and schedule volunteer placements. If the organisation doesn't have committed partnerships, give it a wide berth!
Ask about the needs of the communities too: what areas of the community need the most development? Wildlife, marine or environmental conservation, sanitation, business and enterprise, education, agriculture? And how do volunteers fit into the picture?
What kind of role do you want?
Ideally, you'll know well in advance (a few months) about the kind of position you'll have since genuine volunteering organisations plan well ahead to ensure the community develops sustainably. If you can't get an accurate job description, beware; you may arrive at the destination and find the role has changed.
How long can you stay?
While you're concerned about your tight budget and availability, consider the kind of impact you can really have in a short time.
Watch out for organisations offering professional placements that last just a couple of weeks; think about it very carefully. It's not good for a community to have visitors coming and going - especially if children re involved. All is not lost - look for roles that are more suited to an extended holiday, such as ecological and marine conservation work. Or you can make a real and lasting difference by booking a wonderful trip with a responsible travel company that organises excursions so you can support communities by shopping and eating locally.
Where's your money going?
Although your volunteering is not a paid position the organisation hosting you abroad will have to spend precious time on organising and managing your position. So, it's likely that you'll need to cover such costs. But before you hand over any cash, find out where it'll go.
If you don't get a clear explanation or a detailed breakdown, be cautious. It's essential that neither you nor the community abroad are going to get ripped off.
What help do you get before leaving?
Before you embark on your adventure you should prepare for life in another culture. Ask about practical and cultural training, and find out if you can talk to other volunteers who have already completed their placement. If you want to work with children, a good volunteering organisation will run background checks on you. Don't worry! It's standard practise in the world of NGOs. And it's a positive sign that the agency is taking your volunteering seriously.
Listen to the experts
Finally, here's a little bit of food for thought - listen to this fantastic BBC talk that highlights the concerns created as an impact of unnecessary volunteering or "hero journeys" - some placements simply don't help the communities or the volunteers.
With that, you should be armed with enough questions to separate the wheat from the chaff, the diamonds from the rough... you get the picture! Now it's time to make your very first steps in what could be the most amazing journey of your life.
Bon voyage and happy volunteering!
Written by freelance copywriter and journalist, and NGO worker, Elma Glasgow at Red Ruby Copywriting. Contact me for a free and no obligation consultation.