Gap Year Guides: How to Volunteer Sustainably

One of the most popular things to do on a gap year is volunteering, or more specifically, volunteering abroad. However, while the desire to volunteer is a positive thing of itself, participating in the wrong kind of volunteer programme can end up perpetuating the often negative stereotype of gap-yah volunteering, and ultimately can be incredibly damaging to the community that you’re working in. On the other hand, volunteering with the right organisation can be the most rewarding thing you will do.

Here are my top ten tips for how to find that organisation:

  1. Do your research.

    This is perhaps the single most important piece of advice you will receive. Unlike holidays, or even extended backpacking trips, the ‘route’ you decide to take here is actually really important. There are vast numbers of voluntary organisations out there, and it will inevitably take a bit of time to sift through them all, and narrow the selection down. Make sure you allow enough time for this process! Browse the internet for inspiration, head to careers fairs or go to talks at your sixth form or university, and even look out for stories in local newspapers – past or prospective volunteers will often share their experience in the media, sometimes in order to gain support for their fundraising efforts.

  1. Talk to people.

    Often the best way of finding out about volunteering opportunities is through talking to people who have done it before you. Take the opportunity to speak with people you know who have volunteered, and make sure you ask the right questions – not just ‘How was it?’ (to which you will inevitably get a reply of ‘Yeah, was alright’), but ‘Did you feel as though it had a positive impact?’, and ‘Do you think the work you did was sustainable?’ Usually, past volunteers are those most willing to talk about their experience, and if they went somewhere with the kind of organisation you will be looking for, they will be easily able (and very happy!) to tell you about how their project or organisation seeks to be sustainable.

  1. Think about what sustainability means.

    You want to work with an organisation that will have a positive impact on the community it works in. This means working to address a need in the local community, looking to develop strong relationships with local people, and ideally establishing systems with the capacity to last after the project has ended and you are gone. There are many ways to achieve this, ranging from skill sharing, to creating links between local organisations, especially relevant NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), and targeting people, particularly young people, who can be trained or encouraged to continue with the work that has gone on during the project. For example, establishing a peer-support mentoring system within a school, in which the older or brighter children are encouraged to help the younger or struggling children, will be much more valuable and long lasting than teaching a couple of classes how to do long division.

  2. Look at the words, phrases and pictures used on an organisation’s website

    Scrutinising the website in this way will usually make it clear where the organisation’s main focus lies: things that tick the right boxes are words and phrases like ‘volunteer-led’, ‘sustainable development’, ‘community-based’, and anything that shows or talks about working in partnership with local people or organisations. On the other side of things, if the apparent focus is on anything resembling adventure tourism, or indeed if the emphasis is on the weekend trips away rather than the bulk of the voluntary work taking place, this should start ringing alarm bells. Obviously it’s fine if things like this are mentioned in passing, or as an added bonus, but what should be clear is that the majority of the time will be spent in working as a volunteer, not galavanting around the country! As well as this, particularly in relation to projects run by charities, take a close look at what image they are portraying of the people in the country that they are working in. Is it a positive, empowered image? Or is it depicting them as victims who need saving? For an idea of what to look out for (and steer clear of!), take a look at last year’s winners of the Rusty Radiator awards, embodying this negative image.

  3. Google is your friend.

    Once you have narrowed down the number of potential organisations, look beyond just their website, which will naturally only seek to promote a positive image. Trip advisor, travel blogs, studentroom forums – there’s a multitude of ways of digging a bit deeper to find out a bit more information, and all of these will help you to get a better-rounded, and probably more accurate, view of what the organisation is like, and whether it is something you want to get involved with.

  4. Look into the fee breakdown.

    Most volunteering organisations will have a volunteer fee: a sum of money that each volunteer has to pay in order to go on the project. However, looking further into this can provide a very useful insight in many cases: take a look at what percentage of it actually goes back into the community you are working in, and compare it with how much is spent on going on trips as a group of international volunteers. There’s nothing wrong with taking weekend trips when you’re out there, but if they are built into the project fee, maybe it’s time again to take a look at what their main focus is. You don’t want your hard-earned money to be spent on admin fees!

  5. Look at what you will actually be doing.

    If it is something that you think would be quite fun to ‘have a go at’, you should probably be giving it a bit more thought. Are you trained or qualified to be doing what you will be doing? Are you a builder if you are going to help build a school or a well? Are you qualified as a teacher if you are going to be standing up in front of a class and teaching the curriculum? Make sure that you aren’t making the mistake of thinking that just because you come from a well-developed country with good education and health systems, you can assume to have superior knowledge to the people within the community who are actually trained and have experience in these professions.

  6. Think about why the organisation exists.

    Is it a profit-making organisation? What exactly is their purpose in sending volunteers into new and different communities? Have a look at the history of the organisation, into how and why they were founded and how they grew: this can often be a good clue. If it’s a charity, where do they spend their money? If it’s government funded, what are the aims of the programme and do they fit in with ideas of sustainability? Asking questions like these can help to focus your research, and pinpoint exactly what the organisation are getting out of sending volunteers abroad, which can be helpful to you in making your decision. Always, always look at things with a critical eye.

  7. The time it takes to make a difference.

    The sad fact is that most projects that are under 8 weeks will realistically not have the capacity to have a lasting impact. 6 weeks should be the absolute baseline for the length of a project, and even then it takes a very proactive and motivated set of volunteers to get anything substantial off the ground. Even settling in to a new community and a new role will take time, and allowing for that think about how much it is physically possible to achieve in such a confined space of time. The very end of a project is usually when you realise how little time 6, 8, 12 or more weeks actually is, especially in the context of a year or a lifetime for the community you have worked with. You will always feel like you needed more time to achieve your goals by the time you leave!

  8. Will it benefit you?

    Volunteering is not a one-way street: a big part of making volunteering sustainable relies on there being some level of personal development for you as well. Skills learnt through volunteer projects can be anything from increasing self-confidence, to gaining practical work experience in an area such as education, to developing transferable skills such as public speaking and event management. Not only will these things give you great material for your CV, but in all likelihood moving forward you will want to share your experience with others, and inspire them to do the same, where the cycle will begin again. And you probably won’t want it to end after one project – once you’ve got the bug, you won’t be able to stop!

Voluntourism is a sad reality. Don’t get sucked in by ostensibly appealing volunteer projects if the work you are doing is not valuable, or if it could even be unwelcome to those within the local community. Don’t presume that just because you are not getting paid for your work, it is automatically good. And please, please don’t be that person who perpetuates the gap-yah stereotype, popping into Africa to paint an orphanage for a couple of weeks before swanning off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. By all means climb Kili if you have the time, but don’t do it under the umbrella of ‘volunteering’. The key thing to take away from this is that a lot of thought needs to go into something which will have such an impact. It is so important that you make sure that this impact will be a positive one. The only way to stop damaging volunteer organisations is by educating yourself and others about the negative repercussions of their actions, so above all, think before you apply.

3 Comments

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  2. […] Source: Gap Year Guides: How to Volunteer Sustainably […]

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