What’s the point of volunteering on your holiday or during a longer trip overseas and who does it benefit?
The concept of volunteering or voluntary service can mean many things but generally we see it as a way of giving your time and being of assistance where it is needed. This covers a broad spectrum of volunteering options, from helping an elderly neighbour with their shopping once a week to spending a year training teachers in Ethiopia.
The host community
The “where it is needed” bit of our definition is very important. Volunteer projects usually involve a host community - the people who live in the place where you are volunteering. It is really important that these people are involved in the decision to have volunteers in their community. Ideally the local community should be consulted from the beginning of a project and the volunteer placements should be developed based on their needs, which they have identified themselves.
How volunteering projects are run
Often a local organisation (sometimes referred to as the “partner organisation”) manages the volunteering project and they will work in partnership with the local community. They may decide to work with a volunteer-sending organisation, based in the UK, US or elsewhere, who will help to source volunteers for the project.
It is vital that the organisation developing the placements is working closely with the host community to ensure that they genuinely benefit from a volunteer placement. Unfortunately there are examples of volunteers who feel that they aren't able to make a contribution to a project and that placements have been developed based on what will be attractive to volunteers, for example spending time playing with children or looking after animals in captivity, but with no long term objectives or development impacts.
Assess your motivations
The first thing to think about when planning to volunteer abroad is why do you want to do it? Most people considering volunteering abroad will have a mixture of altruistic intentions and the desire for some sort of personal gain from volunteering. It is perfectly ok to want to gain something yourself from the experience, in fact the majority of volunteers gain for more personally than they are able to give back. However you should carefully assess your motivations and ensure they are balanced between your own personal gain and what you can contribute.