5 Top Tips On How To Choose Your Volunteer Organisation

Whether you are an experienced volunteer with a few trips already under your belt, or a prospective newbie who has just started out doing your research, you will want to make sure you choose the right organisation - one that has the best interests of you as a volunteer as a priority, AND keeps the welfare of the projects they are involved in close to their heart.

There are so many stories in the media of unethical organisations who exist merely to turn a profit with no concern for the welfare of its volunteers or the communities it sends volunteers to - it’s enough to make your head spin at best; and at worst, make you rethink your trip altogether!

But don’t despair, take out your backpack and dust off your practical shoes - there are some methods to help you make the right decisions so you don’t get ripped off or end up somewhere where you may be doing more harm than good.

It can be quite confusing finding a volunteer organisation that’s a good match for you. Once yoú’ve seen a large number of websites with pictures of excited, happy volunteers in the majestic bush working with animals, or surrounded by cute smiling children, you start to wonder if they all deliver on their promises, and do what they say they do.

So - which projects are sustainable, and which exist to make money, with no concerns about the potentially harmful impacts on vulnerable environments or communities? Here are some ideas to help you make the right choices.

1. First of all, create a fairly detailed list of your personal interests and requirements for your ideal volunteer experience. For example, "I want to volunteer in Africa for 2 weeks, in conservation / adult education / helping orphans." Or "I want to volunteer for a month in a developing country, on a project that costs between X and Y, in a medical field.” Don’t worry about being too fussy in your requirements  - after all, it’s your experience and you want to make the most of it.

2. Write down your selection criteria for the volunteer organisation you will be choosing, and choose a few criteria that have the most importance to you personally, as a volunteer. Here are some examples of criteria that would be worth your consideration:

  • Project sustainability - you want to be sure that the project you’re interested in doesn’t damage the environment or affect communities negatively by taking paid work away from locals, or making them completely dependent on the volunteers’ funds or skills - only to suffer when volunteers leave!
  • Transparency - the organisation is completely up front and open about where your money is going to, and why. You want to avoid “small print” and terms and conditions that you weren’t expecting. You’re volunteering, not refinancing your home!
  • Cultural experience - volunteers are encouraged to experience the many and varied cultural elements of local communities, and not get to know them merely on a surface level. Some volunteers want the experience of living in a home environment with local people instead of in a situation consisting only of other volunteers. One of the most rewarding things in life is to get to know people whose culture seems so different to your own - and then you realise that environments and experiences might be different, but humans are all ultimately closely interconnected!
  • Volunteer preparation - the organisation makes sure volunteers are told how to stay safe and healthy, as well as informing them about any sensitivities the community they are working in might have. For example, you would want to know about about appropriate dress codes in conservative societies, or what to pack for a tropical climate. Volunteers might also want to be informed of behaviour or personal habits that are considered normal in local communities, but are unusual or even considered “rude” to Western sensibilities. Strange nasal sounds or smaller personal space “bubbles” can be surprising until you realise they’re perfectly acceptable in some places, and YOU are the strange one!
  • Last but not least - affordability. Some projects can be relatively pricey; if they involve specific fees, permits or training. Don’t feel guilty if affordability is at the top of your list - it’s your own hard-earned money you’ll be parting with - and if you’re a student or gap-year volunteer on a tight budget, you won’t want to part with it for nothing!

3. Time to put together your short list! Once you’ve narrowed down your preferred type of volunteering experience and your most important selection criteria, it won’t be too difficult to find some organisations that look like they’ll be able to deliver the goods! Keep a keen eye out for volunteer feedback on the sites of organisations, about the projects you’re interested in. You might be able to contact previous volunteers personally, or the organisation might be able to forward your queries to them on your behalf. A shady or unethical organisation might try to avoid this - red flag time! Ask previous volunteers with positive feedback if they have the details of someone who perhaps didn’t have as great an experience, and contact them to get a better overall view of the pros and cons of the project. The more info you can collect, the higher the chance of making good choices for yourself.

4. Keep Calm...and make your choice. Contact the organisation that seems to tick the most boxes and discuss your requirements and concerns, and get a good feel for the staff and their practices. Keep in mind that, especially in the developing world, unforeseen challenges and risks can arise which are no fault of the organisation. The best will rise to the challenges, meet them with aplomb, and take care of the interests of volunteers and local communities with openness and professionalism.

5. Perhaps most importantly of all: have a spirit of adventure! Little hurdles are all part of the experience. You could make lifelong friends and arrange future volunteering trips together, or perhaps one trip will be enough for you. Whatever you choose, your trip will be remembered for the rest of your life.


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