Volunteering abroad is an increasingly popular option for travelers eager to give something back, or offer their specialist skills and strengths to places that need it most. But so-called “voluntourism” can have its drawbacks, and many voluntourists return home distinctly unfulfilled and dissatisfied. So how do you choose the right program for you?
What do you have to give?
When you think of “volunteering”, quite often the first thing to jump into your head is playing with bright-eyed orphans, teaching English or saving turtles on a remote beach somewhere. If you have a way with children, a TEFL qualification or experience working in conservation then – great! These are fantastic options for you. However, don’t automatically write off any seemingly less voluntourism-friendly skills you might have.
If you were looking for a job in a charitable organization in your home country, what do you have to offer? IT skills? Marketing and promotional experience? A second language? All of these can be put to good use for organizations across the globe, and may lead to an experience that is more beneficial, for both you and the charity you volunteer with, than jumping into something you’ve had little or no interest or experience in before.
What do you want to get out of it?
Similarly, it’s important to think carefully beforehand about exactly how you envision life as volunteer. Do you want to be immersed in the local culture and language, or work as part of a more international team? Do you want to devote yourself entirely to the volunteer program, or mix it up with other activities, such as language classes or cultural excursions?
Do you see yourself working independently with the organization to create real, long-lasting changes – or are you really just happy to spend a few weeks helping out however you can? There are no right or wrong answers – any help you can give will be appreciated, as long as you choose the right program for you. Be honest with yourself about what you want and what you’re willing to give before choosing a volunteer program.
What are your financial restrictions?
Practicalities might be a bummer, but there’s no getting around it. Financially-speaking, some volunteer programs will cover your living costs, and maybe even your travel expenses. Many won’t.
In many cases, especially in programs pre-booked from home through big companies, you’ll be expected to cover your own living costs, as well as potentially pay towards funding the program itself. Some people would rather pay big bucks beforehand for the extra security these pre-booked programs usually offer (they often include all living expenses, an array of activities and even airport pick-up), whilst others choose to look for grassroots volunteer opportunities once on the ground.
This is often cheaper, and means you can scope out the organization beforehand and see if the volunteer program is right for you. Checking that a volunteer program is being offered through a non-for-profit organization, as opposed to a business making money from your stint of voluntourism, is an easy way to make sure your money is spent wisely and going where it should be.
How much time do you have to give?
Time restrictions can also be an issue. Some programs will only accept volunteers on a long-term basis, meaning that they’re a lot more of a commitment. Often volunteering long-term is the best or only way to really get to know an organization and how it operates, and to make a substantial difference. But if that’s not an option for you, then it might pay to look for a program where you won’t feel short-changed by spending less time there- one where you can see you’re making a tangible contribution, as one of the ever-changing stream of volunteers, no matter how long your individual stay.
Choosing a volunteer program requires some serious thinking, and the amount of different options can seem overwhelming. But with a little careful thought, you’re sure to find something that works best for both you and those you’re helping.