Volunteering: What you need to know

Volunteering is one of the most rewarding experiences you could ever have. It connects you to a new country, culture and community and allows you to feel like you’re making a difference; satisfying the altruistic urges we all have. The issue with everything I’ve just outlined; it’s all about you, the volunteer.

That does not mean volunteering is bad and there are definitely benefits for the charity and community that you volunteer in, it just means that before you volunteer you must:

  1. Ensure you’re volunteering for the right reasons; and
  2. Understand the impact your contribution is going to have on the community you’re trying to help.

To help you with this process, we’ve outlined each step below.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Mahatma Gandhi

STEP 1: UNDERSTAND YOUR REASONS

By virtue, you want to volunteer because you genuinely want to make a positive difference. It is however incredibly important to be realistic about your expectations, skills and goals. A good way to do this is to ask yourself these simple questions before you volunteer:

1. What do I want to achieve from my volunteering experience?
1. What do I want to achieve from my volunteering experience?
- Improve my CV
- Gain additional experience.
- Improve my skills or knowledge.
- Satisfy my basic human urge for connection, learn or contribute.
- To give greater purpose to my life.

2. What do I hope to contribute?
2. What do I hope to contribute?
- To the charity.
- To the community.
- Is that contribution useful and wanted?

3. What skills, knowledge or experience do I bring?
3. What skills, knowledge or experience do I bring?
- Are my skills, knowledge and experiences useful?
- Am I happy to volunteer these skills or will I get bored?

When answering these questions be honest with yourself. You should not feel bad if you wish to derive benefit from a volunteering experience. Being frank with yourself will guide the decisions you make and this awareness will help you find a program that best uses your skills, fulfils your goals, and delivers the most benefit to community you’re volunteering in.

STEP 2: UNDERSTAND YOUR IMPACT

Most of the time, the issue isn’t the volunteer. Like everything, where there is demand, there are people willing to take advantage of the opportunities that demand presents. Right now volunteering is trendy, it’s a $3 billion industry and unfortunately, opportunists are taking advantage of this trend.

Don’t believe me, Google “Siem Riep orphanage volunteer” or “fraudulent orphanages”. You’ll find hundreds of reports of orphanages who rent children. They’ve figured out that renting children from their parents costs less than the donations tourist and volunteers pay; they’ve created a profitable business. Worse, often legitimate orphans are forced to live in unsanitary conditions because this pulls at the heart-strings and brings in more donations.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated instances, you’ll find hundreds of examples online if you do your research.

To save you time, we’ve compiled a list of questions that you can ask to ensure you make an informed decision, have a sustainable and positive impact on the community you are supporting and enjoy your volunteering experience.

1. Who is organising the project?
1. Who is organising the project?
- Are they a registered charity?
- What is their motivation for existing?
- Do they have a well-defined vision and mission?
- Do they have short, medium and long-term goals?
- Do they empower the community they serve or simple offer hand-outs?
- Do they have an exit plan?
- What have they achieved to date?

2. What are the specific objectives of the project?
2. What are the specific objectives of the project?
- How will the community benefit from this project?
- Are the project objectives achievable?
- Is there an end date for the project?
- Can someone complete the project if I run out of time?
- Is the project offering humanitarian or developing aid? Read more in the charity section of our blog.
- Was the project developed specifically for me? If so, is the primary objective to keep me busy or to positively contribute to the community?

3. Does the project require specific skills, experiences and knowledge?
3. Does the project require specific skills, experiences and knowledge?
- If not, why not?
- If limited knowledge, experience or skills are required, you may be stealing a job that a local employee could do and get paid for. Developing countries have an abundance of cheap manual labour.

4. Are local staff being employed?
4. Are local staff being employed?
- If not, why not?
- Do my skills & experiences compliment the local team?
- Can I upskill the local team to reduce the need for future volunteers and increase local employment?

5. Would I ethically volunteer at a similar project in my home country?
5. Would I ethically volunteer at a similar project in my home country?
- If not, why not?

6. Does the project have contact with children?
6. Does the project have contact with children?
- Do children protection policies exist?
- Will my involvement cause psychological issues or distress for the children?

7. What percentage of my volunteering fee is paid to the project?
7. What percentage of my volunteering fee is paid to the project?
- Administration fees are necessary and unavoidable.
- Intermediary organisations are also necessary to connect charities and volunteers.
- Do you think the percentage of your fee that is contributed to charity is reasonable? If this is not disclosed to you, ask.
- Does the charity transparently disclose where they spend their funds (i.e. do they complete audited financial statements)?

We know this might all sound complicated or daunting. Don’t let these questions scare you, awareness of them places the power in your hands and being a responsible volunteer is neither time consuming or difficult. Simply send these questions to the organisation you are looking to volunteer with, ask them to answer them; this is something they should easily be able to do and if they can’t, it might be a sign that they are not a good fit for you.

The most important thing to establish is, does the project you are going to volunteer at, empower local people to solve local issues? If it does not, your volunteering experience is unlikely to make a meaningful or sustainable impact.

Too many organisations take advantage of volunteers and developing communities and unfortunately the only way to stop this is for you to be a responsible volunteer and vote with your feet. When you do, you’ll find that you have the power to make a sustainable impact, not only on the lives of the people and communities you aim to help, but also on your own.

 

About the author

Nate is an adventurer, keynote speaker and responsible tourism expert with a serious case of 'Locational A.D.D'. With experience, travelling, living & volunteering around the world, including in developing countries such as Cambodia, Tanzania and Kenya, Nate is determined to do whatever it takes to make education accessible to every child in Africa.

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