Things You Always Wanted to Know About Volunteering (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Today I’m featuring another post from guest writer Andrew Tipp, in which he tackles the interesting subject of volunteering on your travels, a post he bases on his own personal experiences. I’ve never done any real volunteer work like this, but it is a subject of interest among readers, so this post will hopefully answer any questions you might have. Over to Andrew.

The volunteering industry is huge, and tens of thousands of volunteers head out to work on placements around the world every year.

Volunteering can be awesome as a way of contributing to communities that need help, building your personal skills and developing your future career prospects. But a lot of people still feel like it’s not for them.

Why? Because there are lots of questions people have about volunteering. A lot of reservations. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer but have concerns, this might help...


Volunteering is for anyone

Are you young enough to be a volunteer? Are you qualified? Do you have enough experience? And do you even have time?

These are pretty typical worries that put people off doing voluntary work. While the core of international volunteering is made up of 18-25-year-olds, most organisations accept people much older. Original Volunteers says that although young backpackers make up the majority of their volunteers, they also send people in their 50s and even 60s to projects.

The traditional volunteer is an 18 or 19 year-old on their gap year doing a placement for three-to-six months, but the range of projects can be diverse. Some organisations offer placements for just a week or two, which is great for volunteering during Uni or work holiday breaks.

What about qualifications and experience? This is a controversial topic, as some gap year organisations send volunteers to perform roles they aren’t qualified for. Generally, you don’t need prior experience; you’ll be assigned to work that can be accomplished with some minimal preparation and on-the-job training. You’ll never be forced to work in volunteering roles that conflict with your ethical beliefs or make you feel uncomfortable.


Choosing the right placement

Is volunteering ethical? The volunteering industry is largely unregulated. With this being the case, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of examples of bad projects; if you pay attention to the news, there’s no shortage of placements with questionable motives, uncertain objectives and less-than-overwhelming results.

And for many people who read these stories, that’s enough to put them off. But that’s a mistake as there are plenty of projects out there that are credible, ethically sound and make a substantial difference to communities and people’s lives.

There are ways you can find the better projects. The Telegraph has a useful checklist for finding ethical placements. Basically, there are some questions you can ask to be sure you’d getting involved with the right kind of volunteer outfit. You should challenge whether they work with a local partner organisation, how much of your cash goes to the project, what happens when you leave, how you’ll be matched to a placement and what kind of training you’ll receive.

It’s relatively safe to volunteer

Will you be safe on a volunteering project? A lot of potential volunteers read horror stories of gap year adventures-of-a-lifetime gone wrong and panic. They worry about safety and decide not to risk it.

This is a shame, because volunteering abroad is relatively very safe. There will always be risk, but if you research, prepare and use common sense, you’ll be very unlucky to get caught up in any serious danger on any volunteering project.

Good volunteering organisations will offer you support while you’re doing your placement, and there are plenty of online resources you can use to make sure you’re taking all the precautions you can. Be sure to read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s gap year travel advice before you head out.


You can make a difference

It’s one of the biggest things that people want to know: will they make a difference? Obviously, this depends on many factors, such as how long you’re volunteering, how closely you work with people, how much training you’re equipped with and how much you invest yourself in the project.

Yes, there are projects that don’t achieve much. There are placements that only exist to give people the feeling of having volunteered - which can be extremely lucrative. But don’t underestimate the the impact you can have in a short space of time and performing seemingly menial and unimportant jobs.

There are lots of good and bad volunteer organisations. There are excellent projects and terrible ones. The key is to not be afraid of asking questions and seeking out answers. Volunteering can be such a great experience. It would be a shame to miss out because you didn’t bother to challenge your preconceptions.

About the author

andrew tipp 7Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor. He spent his gap year volunteering in South Africa with Gap Activity Projects, and has worked as a travel editor for advice and community site In total he’s spent more than a year backpacking and volunteering around the world, and his favourite countries are Bolivia and Sri Lanka. Central America and the Malay Archipelago are currently top of his to-do list.

You can follow Andy on Twitter and visit his blog here:

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