Volunteering on your gap year can be an amazing and genuinely noble thing, but not all volunteering experiences are created equal, and with unethical voluntourism opportunities getting harder to spot, you need to know what questions to ask before you volunteer.
There are so many genuine and amazing organisations that do a hell of a lot of good for animal welfare, conservation or a variety of social issues, and some like the International Red Cross who work in disaster areas and conflict zones. Unfortunately there are a ton of irresponsible voluntourism agencies and downright unethical scams too. When choosing where and who to volunteer with, it isn’t as simple as looking in an online industry brochure and seeing what experience you want to do. You have to know the credentials of the company you will be volunteering with, what good they are doing, where the profit goes and many other things besides. So what do you need to know, and what do you need to ask?
What type of organisation is it?
Find out what type of company it is, a non profit NGO? A charity? A for profit business or gap year experience company? Is it a religious based organisation or a secular one? These questions will give you a good first clue to not only if they are legit or not but also what their motives are. Small, locally run grassroots organisations are much more likely to be dedicated to genuinely helping the cause or the community than a for profit experience company would be.
Where does the money go?
This is one of the big ones. Voluntourism packages cost an absolute fortune but quite often the majority – if not all – of the profit from that goes to the multinational gap year industry companies and middlemen that have simply greenwashed their experience tours and are exploiting the goodwill of those who want to do good. Genuine volunteering programmes that take a fee should be funneling all of that money back into the project or the organisation.
Always ask for a specific breakdown of any fee you are paying. What exactly does it pay for and how much is used to pay for your upkeep, how much goes back to the community or the project, and how much of the profit goes to any company or middlemen that may be taking a cut.
Where does the rest of the funding come from?
Genuine volunteering organisations should be open, honest and transparent with their funding and be totally accountable to it. If they are, they are much more likely to be a genuinely ethical organisation.
What is the point of the work the organisation is doing?
Is the work there to benefit the local community in some way and does it change to meet the changing needs of that community, or is it glorified busy work to keep voluntourists busy until the next lot come in on the profit making conveyor belt?
If the content of the volunteer programme empowers a local community and can be self sustaining as a long term project then it is likely to be one that is ethical and responsible. Programmes that are packed with filler work that is only there to serve the needs of the volunteers, then it obviously isn’t ethical and not something that you should be giving your money and time to.
Does the organisation works with a local community or a specific cause (or both) and how long have they been doing so?
Is the volunteer programme servicing a genuine need or cause in the community or does it create menial work for a conveyor belt of voluntourists?
If it is a genuine organisation it will be run by or at least with locals trying to help a genuine problem or cause, and will have been doing so for a length of time. It will also have a track record of achievements and things it is still working toward.
Too many voluntourism programmes bus a lot of fee paying tourists into a poor looking village, let them help build or paint a school hut for a week and then when they pack them off on their pre planned excursions, the hut is torn down and the next bus load of voluntourists come in to do the exact same thing. You think I’m joking?
Does the organisation keep track of the progress of community projects after completion?
It is easy to say that a volunteer programme is ethical, that it benefits a local community or cause and has a lot of positive long term effects. Proving it is another matter.
You have to look beyond a lot of the greenwashing bullshit that is layered thickly on top of unethical voluntourism programmes, see if there is a backlog of unbiased, positive reviews and stories not just from other volunteers but locals and international organisations too.
If the organisation has a track record of positive change and that is visible for all to see, then they are worth working with. If they don’t, they probably aren’t.
Can you speak to past and present volunteers?
This will help you get first hand information on the impact the project is having and the experience overall. It can also help to speak to a local liason who works with volunteers.
Does the organisation use local businesses and local labour, or do they just parachute a bunch of ‘volunteers’ in.
Genuine volunteer programmes are often run locally, or at the very least work alongside and empower local communities, and a large part of that is using and employing local talent and labour. The volunteers should be used to teach, work alongside and support local labour, not supplant it.
If volunteers are used as teams of western saviours, brought in to do a menial task over and over for the benefit of the poor locals, then the positive effects of any volunteer programme can be negligible.
Does the volunteer organisation screen volunteers? If so how? What are the requirements?
If the only criteria an organisation has for you to volunteer is that you can afford their fee, then you really should be moving along very quickly. Genuine organisations will demand time, skill, dedication and commitment, and will screen potential volunteers not just to see if they are suitable but also how they can be useful. On top of that if there are vulnerable people or children involved, then allowing a conveyor belt of volunteers to waltz in unchecked is probably not the best practice that you should expect.
Exactly what work will you be doing and how does that fit into the wider project?
Responsible projects will have a plan and short term and long term goals, and they will be able to explain very clearly how the work that you are being asked to do fits into that goal.
Are volunteers appropriately matched with the tasks that are needed in the community?
Obvious skills and qualifications such as nursing, teaching or veterinary medicine for just a few examples are clearly high impact skills that can be utilised by a lot of aid organisations and charities, but there is a whole smorgasboard of skills and qualifications that could be utilised. If you have expertise in marketing you could help with the promotional campaigns of a charity in a back office, if you are good with computers, the charity website may need a looking at, or their material rewriting if you are good at languages. These are often not the ‘sexy’ jobs that most voluntourists sign up for, and they won’t make as good a selfie as cuddling a cute baby orang utan or playing with local children will, but they will have a far greater impact. On the other side of the coin they could just be getting your high fee paying group to dig that ditch for the well they are going to build, before filling it in again when you leave ready for the next group of gullible tourists. Oh, sorry, ‘volunteers’.
Does the project allow time to brief or train volunteers?
Depending on the project itself there should be some sort of briefing beforehand on the type of work you will be doing, what is needed from you and also cultural norms and expectations. This will help integrate the work being done with the local community and minimise any negative impact of an organisation imposing its own norms and agendas on that community.
All of these are just basic questions but they should give you a good idea if the organisation you are volunteering for is a legitimate one or if it is a greenwashed profit company looking to exploit the goodwill of volunteers and the reputation of true volunteering companies. Any good and true organisation will be very transparent and happy to answer any of these questions, those that won’t do that or struggle to give straight answers to these questions are often not all that responsible and should be avoided.
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