Travelling is a wonderful thing, but without an objective it can feel a little aimless – a great way to mix exploring the world with making a contribution is to take a volunteering trip. Not only are these trips usually a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture as any good organisation will have close ties with local authorities, it’s also a great way to add a little purpose to your travelling adventure.
- Be aware of voluntourism
As ethical travel becomes trendier and trendier, so the number of companies offering volunteering trips become more prevalent – but often they aren’t as beneficial as they seem. Before adding a trip to your basket, do a bit of research on the company and see whether they actually benefit the community they work with.
For example, some places ,asquerading as elephant sanctuaries actually exploit the animals they claim to care for, and some childcare volunteering companies actually perpetuate harmful practises in destination countries.
However, there are plenty of companies which do offer genuinely effective programmes – you just have to make sure you do your research on ethical volunteering before you commit to a trip.
- Look into the company
Following on from the above, a great way to tell whether the company you’re considering volunteering with is a yay or a nay is by looking at their environmental and ethical policies.
These can usually be found on their ‘about us’ or ‘our mission’ pages and they should give you a strong idea of what the company is really all about – making money or making a contribution.
You should also see of they have any connections to local authorities or organisations, as this is usually a good sign suggesting that the company genuinely has the community’s best interests at heart.
- Tailor your trip to your interests
Although your main motivation should be to help in your destination country rather than to improve your resume, you should still tailor your volunteer trip to you interests.
If you don’t like working with children then a childcare or teaching position won’t be for you, and likewise if you don’t like animals or wildlife then a conservation trip won’t be up your street.
There is an almost limitless selection of volunteering possibilities out there, from building work to elephant rehabilitation to painting restoration, and in order to get the most out of your trip and be the most help you can be to your hosts, you should pick something you are passionate about and which fits your skill set.
- Know what’s important to you
What comes first for you – the location or the activity? If you’re dead set on volunteering your medical knowledge, then pick your programme based on the quality of care it provides.
If your main consideration is wanting to visit a specific region or country, then find the best volunteer provision in that area before deciding which programme out of the ones they offer.
- Look at testimonials
A good volunteering company will probably have a lot of testimonials, and they are usually quite detailed.
Ignore short reviews like ‘had a great time’ or ‘did a lot of good’ and look for more in depth analysis such as ‘we were prepared really well before our first day on the job’ or ‘I felt very supported by the local team at all times’.
This kind of comment is what will really tell you about the kind of experience you will have, how the programme is run and whether it’s worth your money.
- Look into the support offered
Even if a volunteering company can’t provide specific timetables for what your trip might entail (this would be downright impossible for some types of trip), they should be able to give you a rough shape to the days and offer some specifics such as what training will take place and when. You can also look at what support is provided afterwards – will you be able to get in touch afterwards to get a reference for example, and will you be informed of further opportunities? Looking for this kind of solid structure and organisation, in conjunction with analysing the kind of contribution the organisation makes to the community, will allow you to separate the good opportunities from the bad.
The desire to contribute your time and skills while you travel is excellent, but with this industry growing bigger by the year it’s sadly easy to fall prey to some of the less altruistic ‘voluntourism’ companies which feed off your desire to do good while actually contributing little or nothing to the communities they claim to support. However, with a little research and thoughtful planning, you can easily avoid these pitfalls and have an amazing volunteering experience where you learn a lot about your destination country and make a genuine contribution.