What cause should I volunteer for?
First things first: before picking any kind of ethical cause to volunteer for, remember this: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. Always think about what the community you’ll be volunteering for needs, not just what you want. Volunteering should be about making a long-term, sustainable impact on a community’s future – not about spending time somewhere that will look good on Instagram.
Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves. – Horace Mann
Once you know you’re in it for the right reasons, keep these tips in mind when deciding where and how you would like to do volunteer work:
- Decide what you actually care about. Animals? The environment? Communities with specific challenges? If you pick a cause that you’re not really passionate about, you’re unlikely to stick to it, so really think about what makes you tick.
- Determine the end goal of your volunteering. Do you want to boost your resumé with new skills? Make new friends? Be part of long-term change in a community? Knowing what you want will help you choose a volunteering organisation that reflects your passion and meets your expectations. (It could also help you realise that volunteering might not be for you.)
- Consider your natural skills and experience. You might have certain innate skills, such as great communication or organisational skills, or experience (such as teaching or carpentry skills), which could help you choose a volunteering role that suits you best.
- How much time do you have to give? If you only have a few days, pick volunteering opportunities closer to home or in your own community, which don’t need serious training for you to get on board. If you want to spend more time (even a whole gap year) with an organisation to develop new skills and make an actual difference, research volunteering programs in host countries other than your own. Remember: the time you spend volunteering doesn’t matter as much as how well the volunteering program is structured to meet the needs of the target community in a given period of time – and how sustainable that change is long-term.
Your practical skills might be useful for volunteer projects such as hands-on building or creating.
How do I choose an ethical organisation to volunteer for?
Start by researching organisations who specialise in ethical volunteering. This will help you avoid any scams and dodgy organisations that are actually just in it for the money. Remember: don’t assume that just because an organisation calls itself a charity or not-for-profit, it automatically means that they’re ethically and transparently run.
Find the answers to the following:
To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own. – Abraham Lincoln
- What is the non-profit organisation’s mission, and which causes does it support?
- What are the specific goals and the context of the project you’ll be working on, and what difference will it make to the community in the long-term? Projects should be planned well in advance, so if your chosen organisation can’t answer these questions, it might not be a good idea to volunteer for them.
- What work will you be doing?
- What are the costs/fees for placement in the volunteer program? And how will the money be spent? Ethical volunteering organisations must be completely open about where the money goes.
- Which criteria do the organisation use to select volunteers?
- Where will you be staying, and what does your accommodation look like?
- Are meals provided?
- Will there be other volunteers while you are there?
- Where is the organisation located? Are there any travel requirements to get there? (Visa, country restrictions, vaccinations needed etc.)
- Does your home country have any travel warnings related to the country you want to volunteer in?
- What do previous volunteers say about working with this organisation? Use Google’s review function to find out what’s been said about the organisation, and also check any recent news reports related to the organisation.
- Ask the organisation you’re planning to volunteer for to put you in touch with past and current volunteers – if they refuse to do so, that should raise an immediate red flag.
Volunteering could introduce you to brand-new friends.
Follow the money
Higher fees don’t mean that you’re working for a better organisation – but an organisation that is completely transparent about their fees and exactly where the money you pay them goes, is likely to be more ethical. There are three main ways to volunteer:
- By using a placement company, which is typically an international travel company that places volunteers with non-profit organisations, mostly in developing countries.
- By using an organisation that connects you directly with a local not-for-profit
- By contacting an organisation yourself
It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference. – Tom Brokaw
Placement companies usually sell volunteering packages, and their fees cover basic accommodation, meals and in-country transportation to the volunteering site. Your fees may not necessarily go to the not-for-profit and may be used by the placement company to manage their operations and turn a profit.
Make absolutely sure that you know where your money is going, and use placement companies that connects volunteers directly with local not-for-profits on the ground. They usually have better local knowledge of the community you’ll be volunteering in, and the long-term benefits their programs provide. It’s a good idea to contact organisations directly to get a sense of where your money goes, and to talk to previous volunteers to find out about their experiences with the same organisation.
Rule of thumb: if you’re not qualified to do something in the country you’re from, don’t do it abroad. This is especially true for working with children. Responsible volunteer organisations that offer placements for volunteers who want to make a real difference will always take the time to find the right match, and will find out about your skills and experience to find the right role for you.
Working with children while volunteering can be tricky, so be aware of the dangers.
Because people can be horrible, scams related to ethical volunteering sometimes happen. According to GivingWay, a company that connect volunteers with non-profits, volunteers should stay away from orphanages, since loads of fake orphanages that are run as businesses have started emerging to cater for the volunteering tourism industry. It can also be extremely traumatic for orphans who may have already been abandoned to constantly “meet” and then “lose” new people that they are exposed to. ReThink Orphanages, a lobbying group of NGOs, charities and travel companies, are working to raise awareness of orphanage scams – read more about what to look out for on ReThink’s website
If you really want to volunteer with children’s causes, keep in mind what your home country would require of anyone working with children. A school near you is unlikely to allow any “volunteer” to teach, interact or be alone with children. The stricter the requirements are for volunteers working with children, the more likely it is that the organisation operates ethically.
Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth. – Muhammad Ali
Working with animals
Yes, it’s wonderful to work with animals. But be very careful of animal sanctuaries that have unsafe or exploitative practices that affect the welfare of animals. Consider this when choosing where you want to volunteer with animals:
- Learn all you can about the natural behaviours of the species you would be working with, and ask relevant questions about how the organisation supports their needs.
- Determine the organisation’s program goals: are they rehabilitating animals for release back into the wild, or keeping them for indefinite periods of time?
- What are the organisation’s handling policies? Stay away from organisations that encourage the handling of animals when not necessary (any handling that is not veterinary, research or conservation related).
- Who is managing the volunteer program? Skilled professionals (such as biologists or veterinarians), or unskilled volunteer coordinators?
- Research the organisation’s credentials and affiliations.
- Are the animals in a good condition? (Well-fed, in a well-kept environment, with all their biological needs being met.)
When doing volunteer work with any kind of animal, wild or domestic, make sure that the organisation has a good record with animal rights.
Making a long-lasting impact
Choose a volunteer project that makes a long-lasting, sustainable impact in supporting the community. Yes, there are projects out there that are left unfinished when the volunteers leave – not good. Find projects that are run and managed by the local community, as part of continuous and sustainable work with a proper transfer of knowledge to the community upon completion, so that they can continue and maintain the project. (Short-term volunteering isn’t necessarily bad, depending on the project – again, do your research!)
If you’re choosing an ethical volunteering program abroad, chances are you’ll be working in a culture very different to the one you grew up in. Always, ALWAYS be respectful of local customs and culture – make sure that you research what is considered acceptable, and what not. You are a guest in someone else’s country, so be respectful and considerate. And open your mind: ethical volunteering is an opportunity to discover the beauty and diversity of our world, and to realise that you can make a difference. It’s a powerful thing.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead
Start your research
These websites will get you started:
Main image Nathan Lemon via Unplash.