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Here’s how to volunteer abroad responsibly and make a positive impact, and why a travel volunteer trip shouldn’t be a casual bucket list item to tick off.
There’s a reason why volunteering is for life and not just a one-off travel experience. Volunteering shouldn’t be something you do just because it’s the ‘done thing’ to do as a backpacker, or because you added it to your experience list and you can easily cross it off.
It’s not about pity and feeling as if you have to do something to make yourself feel like a better person. If volunteering as part of travel, you should have an inherent want to do it or feel compelled to help after witnessing a situation firsthand. It means you don’t fall into the camp of people who turn a blind eye.
Most importantly, it’s about giving people a step up to help them change their lives. To give them the education and resources from which to live independently and eventually without aid or under the gaze of a Western colonialist approach to dominate and control.
- How to Get Started on Travel Volunteering
- Finding Time for Worthy Causes During Travels
- 6 Top Tips for Volunteering
How to Get Started on Travel Volunteering
There is no particular destination or place where everyone gets started. Some witness a project first hand on their travels and decide to go back; others teach English abroad and find local projects to lend their time to or which they are already teaching at; and others find a project through online research or word-of-mouth recommendation.
Here’s how I got started and the variety of volunteer positions I have worked in and experienced.
Madagascar – Assisting with a charity mission
Ever since my first volunteering stint in Madagascar in 2009, I knew that volunteering wouldn’t be a one-off, but forever high up on my agenda of things that absolutely had to be included not only during this big trip but for the rest of my travel life. I realised when I returned home that it had changed me for the better because it wasn’t just something I tried out.
Volunteering was raw, gritty, hard work. It was tiring and it played havoc with my emotions. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but the rewards overshadowed everything – to the point where it became one of the pivotal factors as to why I wanted to travel more: so that I could come across worthy projects and groups of people that would make me continue to see the world differently.
I volunteered in Madagascar through a work project. It was a case of being very lucky that the opportunity came about. I worked on a PR campaign for a parenting brand which partnered with and raised money for Operation Smile (a children’s charity treating facial deformities such as cleft lips and cleft palates all around the world) and I got to organise the press trip and take journalists to report on the amazing work being done. And the fantastic thing was that we weren’t just there to observe from a media perspective, we all had to muck in too! Those five days in Antsirabe count towards some of the most wonderful experiences of my travel life.
Aside from seeing a small part of an incredibly beautiful country, I met medical workers who gave up two weeks of their annual holiday every single year to help others, members of the Peace Corps who supported the cause, alongside development and charity staff whose sole mission in life was to give something back to others. I got to shadow doctors, nurses, surgeons, psychologists, fundraisers, and many others from who I learned so much.
I met local people from Madagascar, who I couldn’t communicate with except via a simple hello, a handshake, or a hug – people who trekked for days through the rainforest to get to this one part of Madagascar so that their child had a chance of getting surgery. People who, in just those few seconds of interaction touched your life in the same way that you hope you changed theirs. For the better. You could say it puts a lot of life’s little stresses into perspective.
Finding Time for Worthy Causes During Travels
Kenya – A local visit during travels
Since then, I’ve tried to fit in time for visits to worthwhile projects when I have been on my travels. When in Kenya, I longed to see life outside of the resort I was staying in as a compromise to the traveller I was with. So I booked a car to take us on a tour around the town and also asked to visit a local community, as well as the Masai village. We only spent a few hours at each but it was an insight into understanding how destinations outside of the tourism realm are less supported and make a direct donation.
Northern Thailand – Helping out whilst on a tour
When trekking in Northern Thailand for a few days we were told we could visit a school and help out within one of the classes. Again, this was only for a few hours, but the four of us became a part of the lesson as guest teachers amongst children who often saw us in their village. However, I do believe in the importance of dedicating ample time to teaching and teaching assisting positions, but it did give me some experience for what I would later do.
Cambodia – Starting a long-term volunteer placement
Which was deciding to spend a few months volunteering in Cambodia. I went there in November 2010 and I came back and know it was somewhere I wanted to try and revisit and make a positive impact. It’s a country of profound extremes – full of the most wonderfully friendly and beautiful people despite the atrocities that occurred there and the damage that still lingers – the begging children, the poverty, the lack of affordable education, and the displaced victims of genocide within shattered communities left to survive day-to-day.
So I set about finding somewhere to volunteer. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in Cambodia whose intentions are more exploitative than charitable but luckily I have Cambodian friends and contacts in that part of the World so I managed to find something pretty easily.
I spent three months at the New Hope organisation in Siem Reap working as a teaching assistant and in outreach support. This charity provides aid and support for displaced families and broken communities in Mondul 3, one of the poorest slum areas in Siem Reap – many people are unaware of what lies beyond the realms of Angkor Wat and Pub Street.
It’s also supported by the G Adventures Planeterra scheme, which is another means of how I came to know about its genuine nature. By approaching the charity directly I didn’t have to pay a ridiculous weekly fee to a third party either. A fee that is usually lost in admin and doesn’t benefit the locals.
They asked me to raise a minimum of $400 – which would go directly to the charity funds – and pay for my living expenses. I decided this time that I didn’t want to volunteer for a week or two but that I actually want to work somewhere properly and not just be a passing face that leaves after a couple of weeks.
I really wanted to get to know people and become a part of their lives, live locally, and try and make the biggest difference that I possibly can. I also wanted to use the time to make a decision on whether I would like to live and work in Cambodia long term after my other travels – to carve a career in the direction of charity and development and put my communications skills to more valuable use.
I saw things that broke my heart and rendered me speechless, and things that I would never post about on here. No one teaches you the mental toll of certainly types f volunteering – but it is something to keep in mind. I walked away with memories and friendships that last a lifetime as well as skills to take with me in the travel and tourism space to promote best practice.
6 Top Tips for Volunteering
Volunteer doing something you are passionate about
This can include working with animals, construction, or teaching. Don’t just choose something based on price or because it seems easy. Volunteering can be hard work but passion overrides the pain.
See a project first hand and then decide
Where possible, offer to volunteer after you have seen a charity in operation first hand. That way you will know how the charity works, know if the type of volunteer works suits you, and feel confident that the charity is one you want to support.
If you are using an organised tour for certain parts of your travels, look at ones that combine general sightseeing with volunteer stints interwoven. G Adventures does some brilliant trips which include all the sightseeing highlights as well as an opportunity to visit some of their project bases.
Longevity and dedication are important
If you really can, try and volunteer for more than a couple of weeks. This means that you are a regular and trusted face amongst those you are helping. Many charities, especially those working with children, now request this to promote stability.
Don’t pay third-party volunteer placement fees
Don’t fall for the companies who demand ridiculous rates per week to organise volunteering gigs for you. Half of that money no doubt goes towards administration and not directly to the charity. Instead, research long and hard about charities in the country you are visiting and approach them directly. The only ask they will have of for you to raise a small donation and this way you can quit the red tape and know your money is going straight to the cause!
Don’t volunteer at an orphanage
Orphanages are usually set up with the aim of exploiting children (who usually have a living family member) in order to obtain money and resources. More often than not, tourists fall for it, not to mention that children are not tourist attractions in the arena of poverty gazing. READ MORE: Think Before Visiting An Orphanage