Volunteering and voluntourism have become huge parts of the travel industry.
Whether it’s teaching English or building schools, conserving fragile marine environments or nurturing traumatised animals, volunteering overseas is an experience that can be hugely enriching and rewarding. A chance to immerse yourself in a remote community you might not otherwise have visited or a way to hone your skills and learn new ones.
Unfortunately though, it is also a part of the travel industry that is fraught with issues.
There numerous excellent organisations that design meaningful and sustainable programs with long-term goals of making the local communities they assist entirely self-sufficient. There are also many that are simply moneymaking machines and can be detrimental to those they are purporting to help.
At best this can mean charging well-intentioned foreigners extortionate rates for the chance to ‘do-good’ and, at worst, blatantly exploiting animals and children and causing more damage to a community than when they started.
One of the biggest problems is that many programs are set up to simply make money by targeting our ‘do-gooder’ instincts rather than focussing on making a meaningful and lasting impact.
Ultimately this tends to create a vicious cycle of dependency that can prevent local communities from developing and becoming self-sufficient. And in some cases, they would have been better off without any outside intervention at all.
Over the past seven years, I have volunteered on several projects. As my background is in Environmental Science, these have tended toward those with a wildlife conservation and scientific research focus. While the industry often gets a bad rap, I believe when done right it can be a valuable process for all involved. Though, sifting out the good programs from the bad can often be difficult.
If you are planning to devote some time to a volunteer project, it is not something to rush into. To ensure you choose a sustainable and reputable organisation that strives for lasting positive change, as well as a project that will be of benefit to you and your goals, these are some things to consider first.
From finding a reputable and sustainable organisation to work with to a role that aligns with the type of work you want to do, research is easily the most important aspect when approaching volunteering.
There are thousands of projects out there but they are not all made equal, and some are downright awful.
Get in the know by researching different organisations online, the work they do and what they stand for. Join Facebook groups and ask for recommendations of projects that align with the work you want to do. If you already have some programs in mind track down past or current volunteers and ask about their experiences.
Look at the good and bad aspects of the specific area you are entering into and whether there are any ethics to consider, which brings me to…
One of the hard things about choosing the right program is that many use buzzwords like ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ to describe themselves because they know that’s what most of us want to hear.
But that doesn’t mean they always are.
There has been a rise in the number of ‘ethical conservation reserves’ or ‘sanctuaries’ that promote up-close encounters with wildlife including lion cubs, elephants or other wild animals. They also charge incredibly high fees for the privilege of cuddling up with them. Sometimes these are genuine sanctuaries, but often this is purely animal exploitation with no regard for the animal’s welfare.
These wild animals are often badly mistreated to force them into submission or stripped of their natural defences (claws, teeth etc.) to make them ‘safe’ for human interaction.
In the case of the lion cubs, they are generally part of a larger canned hunting scheme, whereby the cubs are bred in captivity and habituated to humans and later released into larger cages for hunting that virtually guarantees a kill. This is a lucrative business in parts of southern Africa and often advertised as part of ‘ethical conservation’. This Facebook group keeps a regularly updated list of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ volunteer programs in Southern Africa to assist in making an ethical choice, though it is by no means an exhaustive list.
Donating money or time to help children in orphanages is another dodgy practice. Foreigners sometimes pay large sums of money to support poor children living in squalid conditions. However, as this has become a rather profitable front, children are now being taken from their families and villages to ‘act’ as orphans, be cuddled by foreigners and bring in funds to the person in charge rather than attending school or living with their family. Keeping these children in squalid conditions ensures the donations keep flowing and so the cycle is perpetuated.
A project that selects paying volunteers over skilled locals that could be paid is also not ideal or sustainable. Programs with a genuine desire to empower the community should be heavily involving the locals in the project with the aim of one day handing it over to them completely.
This is one of the murkiest areas when it comes to volunteering as you generally can’t take what is advertised at face value. Arm yourself with knowledge of the ethics surrounding the area of work you want to get into and then get back to researching the best projects that offer this.
One of the biggest critiques of this industry is that unqualified volunteers are often placed in environments and given jobs without the necessary skills or training to offer any real value.
This is an issue that has put a big question mark over many volunteer programs and organisations and this article pretty much sums up why.
Many placements don’t require specific skills but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask yourself what skills or experience you have that make you suited to a certain type of placement.
Do you have particular expertise that will make you an asset to the project? Do you have a skillset that will make you useful in areas of organisation or physical labour?
As the article points out, you might have your heart in the right place but your good intentions don’t mean much when it comes to building a structurally sound house.
That doesn’t mean you have no place volunteering if you don’t know what to do with a hammer and nail, it just means not everyone is suited to every role.
Aligning your skill set closely with the work you are interested in doing will go a long way to ensuring you and your host community have a more valuable experience and successful outcome.
If you are paying to volunteer then you want to be sure that your money is going to the right place.
These days many organisations tout ideals of supporting local communities and conserving environments, while charging extortionate volunteer fees and lining their pockets with the profits.
Basically, if you are being charged thousands of dollars a week to volunteer in a country that would otherwise be cheap to visit and provided very basic living conditions, you should be questioning where the money is going. In these situations it is likely only a small portion of this money is filtering through to the community and actually supporting the project.
Organisations that aim to be transparent should be upfront about exactly how your funds are allocated, so don’t be afraid to ask. Generally, fees are used to cover your food and board, project equipment and maintenance and modest salaries for coordinators and local employees.
By cutting out any intermediary companies and contacting the local or on-the-ground organisation directly, you can usually be sure your money is going directly to the source. Having said that though, some intermediaries charge higher rates simply to cover on-the-ground logistics which may be worth the cost if you are an inexperienced traveller.
Different projects can vary wildly in how much work and down time you get.
When I spent time at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, the entire day was filled with activities – from morning chores like scooping up elephant poo, preparing elephant food or cutting corn from the fields, to a variety of cultural and educational activities in the afternoon. While it was an excellent immersion experience and highly rewarding, it left very little downtime.
In comparison, a turtle conservation project in Costa Rica involved the occasional 2-hour work shift during the day and a 4-hour patrol at night leaving plenty of free time to spend as we liked.
Both experiences had different merits, but depending on what type of trip you have planned, or experience you wish to have, you may prefer one or the other.
My final week in Costa Rica we were given the task of uprooting the layer of grass off the field ready to build a new shaded structure. It was hot and humid, the ground was muddy and one girl felt the need to repeatedly grumble that this was not what she signed up for.
We had spent evenings sending turtle hatchlings off into the sunset and watching nesting females do their little dance after successfully laying a clutch. That was the fun part, the stuff that looks good on Instagram and in the brochure. But often there will be the unglamorous side too that will require you to put in a little grunt work and get a little dirty.
In general, you are paying for the privilege of volunteering but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to actually work, sometimes doing physically draining and repetitive tasks, often in hot, humid climates or torrential rain. Be prepared for a few shit jobs and when they come be ready to throw yourself all in.
If that isn’t for you, it might be useful to know exactly what you will be required to do ahead of time.
Before my homestay I had envisaged myself sitting around the dining table with my new temporary family, playing games with the kids, tasting homemade delicacies of the local cuisine and laughing as we fumbled our way through a conversation with a limited grasp of the other’s language.
A true home away from home as it were.
The reality could not have been more different.
Meals were never eaten collectively. Myself and the other volunteer I shared with were often sat down to eat alone while my host mother went off to continue watching television. As the ‘local cuisine’ was basically rice and beans that is exactly what we ate for every single meal, for two weeks straight. Any language barrier can also reduce the chance of any meaningful conversation to a simple recap of the daily events.
A homestay experience is a great way to have a truly immersive cultural experience in a small community, but realistically, it may not be the bonding exercise you expect it to be.
Also, acknowledge that some communities do not have the same living conditions as the west. That is simply the reality of how some people live. It is unpretentious and real and it should not be used as a way for you to get bragging rights for ‘doing it tough’ when you return to your privileged life.
Some projects need much more than the core roles they advertise for.
If you have specialised skills or an area of interest that could be beneficial to the project – things like construction, design, filmmaking, advertising or other relevant experience – there are often ways you can become more involved so don’t be afraid to lay them on the table before you begin your placement.
Think outside the box and consider how these skills can be used most effectively.
If you are working with animals, it is best to come with no expectations.
I spent a month working as a research assistant looking at leopard distribution in a private reserve in South Africa. You know how many times we actually saw leopards in the flesh? Once and for about five seconds.
While monitoring sea turtles in Costa Rica it was nearly two weeks of hot, tiring night patrols before I saw my first nesting female.
That’s just how it goes.
It can be a little frustrating, especially when you’ve travelled a long way, but those fleeting moments when you see the leopard cubs playing on the road or a turtle dancing on her nest for the first time, those are the moments you can truly treasure.
Be patient and don’t set your expectations too high.
The truth is, meaningful change often happens very slowly over a long period of time.
If you can only dedicate a week to your chosen cause, that’s great, but your ability to have a genuine impact in that timeframe is limited.
This is a case where our good intentions can only go so far. Our privilege does not qualify us to solve the complex issues of the world, especially not in a week.
In the scheme of things this may make you feel a little useless, but lending a hand even for a short time, to the right project where your skills are valued, will contribute, at least in a small way, to the end-goal of the project.
If you’ve read this far it may seem like I’m pretty down on the whole industry, though I truly believe that when done right, volunteering can definitely have a meaningful place in your travels. But, our need to ‘do good’ and feel emotionally fulfilled from the work we do while overseas should never get in the way of allowing developing communities to grow.
Choosing a project that is suited to your skills and run in a sustainable way should enable an enriching experience on both sides.
Some of my favourite resources for tracking down affordable projects include:
Seaturtle. The Seaturtle jobs board provides a fairly comprehensive list of turtle conservation projects around the world and available positions for volunteers, research assistants, project coordinators and interns. Placements are often reasonably priced and connected with on-the-ground organisations.
Volunteer Latin America. A comprehensive guide to a variety of volunteer placements in Latin America. Though not a free service (to get project specific details you must pay the membership fee), you can search for available projects in your chosen field or destination before committing.
Workaway. Personally, this is not an organisation that I have used, but it has often come highly recommended. Workaway promotes cultural exchange and generally involves no fees, rather you work in exchange for food and board.