This is a guest post by Andrew Tipp.
A lot of travellers are put off volunteering because they don’t know how to do it ‘right’. Which is fair enough, because volunteering can look pretty intimidating. It’s not a holiday, after all.
But it’s a shame, because there’s no great mystery about volunteering, and there’s so much information out there to help you get the most from your trip.
To summarize lots of the advice out there, here are a few ideas of how you can ‘win’ at volunteering. Not that it’s a competition – that’s just how people talk…
1) Choose the right project
Picking your placement is tricky. There are so many out there. What should you choose? And who should you choose to go with?
Selecting the right kind of placement is a very subjective thing. You need to find something that works for you. Picking the company to go with is a whole other issue. A good way to find out the best volunteering company is to ask the right questions.
The Telegraph has a useful checklist for finding ethically sound projects; you can ask 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.
These aren’t the only things to think about, though. Ask whether everyone at the placement will be a newbie, or whether they have a flexible, overlapping process for inducting volunteers – it’s always easier if there’s someone at the placement who’s been at it a while!
2) Go with some kind of organisation
There’s a lot of debate online about whether you should go through a volunteering organisation or go it alone. It’s a tough one. There’s no definitive right answer. And it depends on the company.
But generally, placements operate better if you go with an established company, like Original Volunteers. When domestic-based companies work with local coordinators and projects they can place regular and consistent numbers of volunteers, which helps organisers on the ground effectively budget and plan what can be achieved.
When solo travelers arrive on their own wanting to offer their time, money and skills of course it’s beneficial to a local project. But it’s hard for them to plan when seven volunteers might turn up one month, none the next and two the month after.
Being alone can also place a lot of pressure of independent volunteers in terms of managing expectations – local projects and communities will often hope for more than a small number of volunteers can deliver. In some ways it’s a simple question of maths: larger groups can accomplish more – especially on building or conservation projects – than a small number of people.
There are other factors working against going direct to a project, too, such as support and security – you’ve no guarantee anyone is going to look out for you if things go wrong.
This doesn’t mean any company is preferable to independent volunteering, though. Some volunteers will book with one company and end up at a project managed by someone else with little local knowledge. The best way to go is to choose a company that both advertises and markets the placement and manages the coordinators and placement details on the ground.
3) Combine backpacking and volunteering
Volunteering doesn’t have to be a six-month long experience. Some companies offer short-term placements, and these are awesome to combine with backpacking before, after or even during your placement.
This means you’ll need to do some proper research into what’s out there and what you can see and do. To start off with, make sure you swot up on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel advice for backpackers and volunteers taking any length of gap year.
Then move onto the destination. Learn about your placement area. What are the cultural curiosities? What language do they speak? What are the customs and etiquette? Get a head-start by learning some of the local dialect, brushing up on your traditions and discovering the most amazing sights to seek out away from the ‘day job’ of working at your placement.
4) Go beyond the scope of the project
Just because you’ve signed up to do one thing, that doesn’t mean your good work has to begin and end at the placement.
For example, in Africa orphanages are overwhelmed with volunteers wanting to care for babies and toddlers. But relatively speaking, these kids are pretty well looked after. The most in-need and poorest kids are often the ones beyond the reach of the orphanage; the malnourished children with pot-bellies and no schooling are living beyond the peripheries of the volunteering scope. So why not go there?
If you have really knowledgeable coordinators looking after you, they’ll know the local villages and families. They can take you to these places where you can lend a hand outside your agreed volunteering time.
Obviously, with this kind of approach you need to tread carefully and sensitively – you don’t want to thrust yourself into people’s lives when you’re not wanted – but you could make a huge difference by going above and beyond.
5) Take things that’ll really make a difference
Following on from the advice about going beyond the scope of the placement, when you head out to your placement bring things that’ll really make a difference. Or take money to buy things that’ll make a difference. Broadly speaking, schools and orphanages will be well-stocked with toys; those poorest families would appreciate water filters, medicine, underwear and hygiene items like tampons.
I hope this advice has been helpful. Let me know your thoughts on how best to approach a volunteering trip abroad by leaving some comments. Please remember these are just my own views, and not necessarily shared by Bohemian Trails.
Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor. He works in digital publishing, and has spent more than a year backpacking and volunteering around the world. He spent his gap year working in an African school with Gap Activity Projects, and later worked for advice and community site gapyear.com. His favorite countries are Bolivia.
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