Choosing the right placement

volunteer in classroom with local boy playing a game

Assess your interests and needs

Once you have decided that you would like to volunteer abroad, the next step is to find the right placement. A good starting point is to spend some time thinking about what you are interested in doing and what is important to you during your time overseas. It is also important to think about what your basic needs will be in terms of facilities and level of support as this can vary a great deal. It may help to ask yourself the following questions. The answers to these will help you when you are searching for the right placement:

  • What are you hoping to gain from the experience of volunteering? For example, do you want to gain some specific experience which could be relevant to your career plans?
  • Do you have any skills or experience that you could offer?
  • What kind of volunteer work would you be suitable for?
  • Are you interested in volunteering directly with local people?
  • Or are you more interested in wildlife and environmental work?
  • Do you want to do something practical with a tangible end result?
  • Or are you interested in contributing to a longer term project?
  • Do you prefer to be part of a team of volunteers?
  • Do you prefer to volunteer where there is a local project coordinator and support system?
  • Or are you confident to be the only volunteer on a project, or in an isolated area where there are no other foreigners?
  • What are your communication needs – how often do you need telephone reception / internet access?
  • Are you flexible about living in basic accommodation, sharing a home or living with a host family and eating unfamiliar food?
  • Could you cope living somewhere without running water and/or electricity?
  • What are your personal and financial circumstances and how will this affect your choices?

Types of Placement

There are many different categories of volunteering placement to choose between. Some of the questions above should help you decide what kind of thing you want to do and where you can best contribute. Here are a few of the main types of volunteering placement available:

Conservation

Conservation projects allow you to contribute to valuable scientific research and protection of endangered animals and ecosystems. These kind of placements don't usually require any previous experience or skills. If you're considering a career in science or the environment, you will also gain field experience.

Look out for projects where volunteers will be working alongside actual scientists collecting data for their research, as this means it is a legitimate conservation project and an opportunity to learn from a real expert. There are many volunteer projects which involve cuddling animals in a wildlife park for a few weeks but think about the long-term conservation aims of these kind of projects and how effective they are.

Also look out for organisations that demonstrate how they involve local communities in their conservation projects, as it can be a real issue if the presence of the volunteering team and conservation activities are not supported local people because they haven't been consulted.

Teaching

Teaching English or other subjects in a school is probably the most popular choice of overseas volunteering placement offered by organisations. However, if you don't have a teaching qualification, make sure your role will be as an assistant to a permanent teacher rather than taking the classes yourself, as this will be more beneficial to the children and ensure locally employed teachers are not displaced by volunteers.

You should also find out from the organisation what you will be expected to teach and how this fits in with the wider curriculum – you don't want to end up teaching exactly the same English lessons that previous volunteers have taught.

Working with children

Another popular volunteering placement is caring for children in a home or orphanage. There has been a lot of negative media coverage about these kind of placements and it’s important to consider the ethics of this form of volunteering very carefully, especially the impact on the children. The charity UNICEF has highlighted some of the issues with orphanages in countries like Cambodia, where the number of privately owned orphanages is growing, despite the numbers of orphans in the country decreasing, and many children are being placed in institutions by families living in poverty, hoping that their children will be better provided for.

However, research has shown that it is more beneficial for a child's development to remain within their family and community. One of the reasons that privately owned institutions are opening up is the number of volunteers and tourists who are willing to pay to spend time caring for and playing with the children. Another issue is that vulnerable children who have been abandoned by their families or orphaned can grow extremely attached to volunteers who spending short periods helping out in an orphanage, and this can cause further feelings of abandonment when the volunteers leave.

Building and construction

These kind of projects can involve anything from constructing homes or community buildings, painting and renovating a school to building energy efficient stoves and rainwater collection tanks. These projects often don't require any previous construction experience, but will be physically challenging.

One of the real benefits of building placements is the tangible impact you can make, especially if you only have a short period of time available to volunteer. However, it is important that the local community have been involved in the project from the outset and that what you are building is actually going to be of use to a community. There is an often-told story of a group of volunteers building a school in a small town, but the building was ultimately used for storage as there were no teachers in the town and no money to buy books or pencils. Look for programs where there is plenty of information about why the building project is beneficial to the local community and where information is specific and up-to-date on the progress of the project.

Community Development

Community development is a really broad term which covers lots of different types of projects which focus on the needs of a community. A local organisation will usually co-ordinate the projects and identify areas of need. This could be helping to construct buildings, improving sanitation systems, supporting local people to develop livelihoods or helping set-up and look after a community garden. These projects need to be carefully managed by the local organisation to ensure that volunteers have a clear role and are doing something that is genuinely useful to the local community and which is sustainable after volunteers have left.

Healthcare

Placements involving healthcare usually require volunteers with specific experience in this field. Medical professionals are highly sought after, with severe shortages of doctors, midwives, nurses, pharmacists and other specialist medical personnel in many countries. There are organisations looking for health volunteers which focus on emergency and disaster relief as well as long term development projects, with opportunities to teach and train local health professionals. Healthcare placements tend to have a clear impact and tangible outcomes, with medical volunteers able to save lives and provide desperately needed expertise. However, to be sustainable, these kind of placements do need a constant stream of volunteers or to have a strong focus on teaching and training local health professionals.

There are also non-medical healthcare projects, for example public health roles, which involve promoting healthy practices, hygiene and disease prevention to local people. Ideally, volunteers for these kind of projects do need some prior experience of communicating health messages in a sensitive way to different cultures.

Specialist placements

There are also some more specialist types of placement, for example agricultural projects, journalism and assisting small businesses and micro-enterprises. These kind of placements usually require specific skills and experience.

What skills do you need?

It is important that when you volunteer, you have the right skills that are required for the role you choose. A responsible volunteering organisation will spend time matching your skills to a placement and helping you decide if you are right for the role. You should definitely be wary of an organisation that is happy for you to do a placement that you don’t have the right skills or experience for! As a baseline, you should not choose a role that you wouldn’t be able to do in your home-country. A good way of looking at it is, would you agree with someone coming to volunteer in a children’s home in your country who didn’t have the right experience or qualifications to work there? Just because there is more of a need in developing countries due to skill shortages, is it really going to be effective or responsible to have someone unqualified doing a role?

There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer if you don’t have particular skills that are needed. There are lots of conservation projects that will give you training on the tasks when you first arrive. Other more practical projects also don’t require experience, for example building and construction. Being an extra pair of hands can be just as useful, however when looking at a placement, it may be worth considering whether a local person could be employed to do the work instead of a volunteer and whether the project is sustainable. For example, if the placement involves building a school for a community, could this be done by someone who lives locally who could earn some money from doing this? Or how will the community manage the school, do they have a teacher, pens and pencils?

Choosing the right organisation to volunteer with

There are hundreds of organisations offering volunteering placements all over the world. So how do you choose the right placement for you? Rather than recommending particular organisations, we prefer to give you some good advice to help you choose the organisation that best fits with your values and interests.

Company or charity?

The first thing to consider is whether the organisation is a company or if it is a charity or not-for-profit. Although it may sound more ethical to volunteer with a charity/not-for-profit, a company that is founded on good ethical principles which plans volunteering placements based on the needs of local communities can still be a good option.

Some of the most well-known organisations offering volunteering placements are owned by large holiday companies, and this means you have the additional security and protection offered by these kind of companies if something goes wrong. Many of these companies have a long history of sending young gap year volunteers on their projects (and may have only recently been acquired by the big holiday company), and they partner with local organisations in developing countries to set up volunteering projects which are beneficial to communities.

Ultimately, it comes back to your own values and your view of companies who sell volunteering placements. One argument is that they are helping small organisations in developing countries to have a regular stream of volunteers to help with projects, but another is that making a profit from people wishing to do something altruistic is unethical.

Big or small organisation?

You may also prefer to go with a smaller organisation – big is not always best. If you prefer a more personal service and specialist offering, a small organisation that perhaps only has one or two projects in a couple of countries could be better for you. And you may also prefer to give your support and money to a small organisation.

Long term development

One benefit of going with a charity is that they are likely to have a stronger focus on long-term development and poverty reduction in the areas they work and their strategy will focus on how volunteers can contribute to this. The cost of going with a charity or not-for-profit is usually less than with a company and a larger proportion of what you pay is likely to go towards the project or local partner organisation (although see How much should you pay? for more on offering local communities fees to host volunteers).

Language and imagery used

You should look carefully at the language and images used by organisations offering volunteering placements, how they present their projects and also examine the pricing of their projects. Do they use patronising language on their website, for example describing poor or underprivileged people as “needing your assistance” and talk about your presence making a real difference to these people, or being “life-changing”? Do they have lots of images that perpetuate stereotypes of developing countries – poor people and lots of images of children? The concept of “westerners” going to help people in Africa is very outdated and an organisation that uses images/language that gives this impression should probably be avoided.

Training and preparation

The next thing to consider is how much training or preparation the organisation offers you. A responsible volunteering organisation should provide you with detailed information about the project, where you are going, what to bring and what to expect. They should also provide you with some sort of induction or training, whether that is in your home-country before you go or when you first arrive. A minimum of one day of induction/training is a good benchmark.

They should also recommend you learn the local language and provide you with some support or resources for this. If a particular skill is required for the placement, the organisation should discuss this with you and help you find a way to gain this, for example if it is a placement that involves teaching, they should either require you to have a teaching qualification or support you to gain one, for example providing you with a recognised course in teaching English as a foreign language.

Go to our preparation section to find out more about how you can prepare yourself.

Selection process

Does the organisation you have chosen have any kind of process for selecting volunteers, for example do they interview you over the phone or ask for an application form stating your motivations for volunteering? Signing up to a volunteering placement should not be like booking a holiday. You should not be able to phone an organisation or go to their website, pay a deposit and that is it. There should be some sort of process in place where you and the organisation both check if the placement is right for you and you are right for the placement.

An interview is always a two-way process (even if it doesn’t feel like it when you have a job interview) and it is the chance for you to ask questions and gain information about the placement (see questions to ask an organisation). The information on an organisations’ website may be brief and very general so this is your chance to get the specifics and find out exactly what you will be doing, where you will be living and what it will be like.

Even if you are planning to go on a very short placement which doesn’t require any kind of skills or experience, it is important that there is some process in place for you to speak to someone at the organisation to check it is right for you and for them to check you understand what is expected of you. You are likely to be spending a significant amount of money so you want to make sure you are signing up to the right placement for you and what you’ve read on the organisation’s website is accurate.

Going direct to a local organisation

Another option is to by-pass volunteer sending organisations and find an organisation to volunteer with in the country where you are planning to visit. This can significantly reduce the cost of volunteering, however you should make sure to do a lot of research and find out as much as possible about the organisation, what they will expect you to do during your volunteering placement and how much support you will receive. Ideally, you should have an interview (by phone or Skype) with the organisation and you should ask them if you can contact someone who has volunteered with them previously. You won’t benefit from any pre-departure preparation and the organisation may not have the resources to advise you on whether you have the right level of experience or skills for the placement so you need to check this yourself and prepare yourself for the experience (see preparation). Some organisations may offer an in-country induction if they regularly host volunteers. You will also need to arrange insurance for your time volunteering, check the security situation in the area where you are going and find out what medical facilities are available. You will also need to arrange your own work permit or visa which allows you to volunteer in the country and make your own way to the area where you will be volunteering.

Reviews

Reading reviews can be useful when you are trying to choose which organisation to volunteer with, however it is important to remember they are based on individual experiences and can also be very subjective. If you have ever tried to choose a restaurant or hotel based on online reviews, you will know that you often find a mixture of high praise and extreme criticism for the same place, leaving you no further in your decision!

Reviews can give you useful feedback from other volunteers and if you read a number of accounts that give a generally negative impression about an organisation, this could influence your decision about whether to volunteer with them. Try to read between the lines and discard reviews which have very specific criticisms or reflect overly high expectations. You may get the sense that the person who wrote the review didn't fully understand what they were signing up to or prepare themselves for the experience.

If you read a review that is negative about the project you are particularly interested in, contact the organisation which runs the project and ask them about the review and how have responded to the concerns the reviewer raises. Ask to speak to a few previous volunteers to gain a balanced view and use this information to make your decision.

And remember, some volunteering placements do go wrong and sometimes this can't be avoided and may not be anyone's fault, but a reviewer may not express this fairly if they are unhappy with their experience.

How long should you volunteer for?

Some organisations and guides will tell you that there is no point doing a short term placement and nothing can be achieved in less than 6 months. We think this is a generalisation and there are actually lots of good examples of volunteers doing short placements which have been effective. The key thing is to ask the organisation for the tasks and objectives of the placement you are interested in and consider whether they can be achieved in the period you are available.

For short placements, you can also do a lot to prepare beforehand and also follow up after you have left. You could establish a work plan in conjunction with the local organisation, especially if you are able to contact them by email or Skype before you go. Again, information about the tasks and objectives of the placement are essential to help you prepare. For example if you are helping a small organisation write a marketing plan to help them sell their products, you could do some research online and get together some resources and templates before you go.

You may be one of a series of volunteers going to a long term project for short periods. You could ask the organisation if they have other volunteers lined up to go before and after you and contact those that have done the project recently so you can gain up to date information on what has been done so far and what still needs doing. Ideally the organisation will have up to date information available but things can change quickly so it would also be good to speak to someone who has been there recently.

It is also useful to find out from the organisation what the long term plan is for a project to see how sustainable it is. If you spend 3 months in a placement, what happens after you leave? How does the local organisation get ongoing support? How reliant are they on having a steady stream of volunteers and what happens if the organisation isn’t able to recruit people?

How much should you pay?

Many people ask the question "why should I pay to volunteer?". The concept of volunteering is usually seen as giving your time so it is understandable that this question comes up.

Volunteering overseas, especially in developing countries, is very different to volunteering at home. If you choose to go with a sending-organisation, you are paying for their expertise in developing placements, their relationships with local organisations, the logistical support, local representatives employed by the organisation and insurance cover. You also need to cover the cost of accommodation, transport to the placement and any training provided.

One other question is whether the local organisation or host community who manages the volunteering project should receive a fee for hosting a volunteer. The risk here is that the local organisations may see volunteers as a money-making opportunity and not set up placements which are actually needed by their community. As an alternative, some volunteer sending-organisations do make a donation to the project and incorporate this into the cost paid by the volunteer. For example organisations may donate materials for a construction project or equipment for a local school where volunteers assist the teachers.

It is important for responsible volunteering organisations to be transparent about how volunteers' money is spent. If they don't display this information on their website, you should definitely ask them to give you a breakdown. Look at how much of the money you pay is spent locally rather than in your home-country and try to find out who benefits, for example does the organisation use home-stays or employ local people in volunteer-support roles.

Questions to ask an organisation

You may find this list of questions useful when you are considering which volunteering organisation and project to choose:

  • What is the background to the placement you are interested in?
  • Is there a local partner organisation on the ground which manages the project and develops roles for volunteers?
  • Why does the organisation or project need a volunteer?
  • If the project involves supporting a community or local people, how much involvement have they had in deciding to host volunteers?
  • What kind of activities and tasks will you be doing on a day-to-day basis while volunteering?
  • Are any particular skills required for the project?
  • Does the organisation have a selection or interview process for volunteers?
  • If the project involves any aspect of interacting with children (or any kind of vulnerable people), does the organisation conduct a criminal records check on their volunteers and have a Child Protection policy?
  • Can you speak to a volunteer who has been on the same project?
  • How much does the organisation charge for the placement and can they provide a breakdown of how this money is spent?
  • How does the price compare with similar projects with other organisations. If it is more, why is it more? If they offer more support or preparation, then it could be worth paying extra.
  • Does the organisation provide any training before you go or when you first arrive?
  • What kind of support is available in-country?
  • What are the local conditions like where you will be living?
  • Does the organisation arrange insurance and medical cover?