Whether you’re looking for a gap year placement, an alternative travel experience or a meaningful retirement activity, if you're planning to volunteer abroad you'll be wanting to make sure your time and money is well spent.
We'll take you through what you need to know before you book your volunteer placement as well as:
Volunteer programs abroad are advertised as a chance to make a real difference. It sounds like a win-win situation that benefits the community and the volunteer. The catch is, volunteer programs aren’t always mutually beneficial. Poorly thought-out projects often don’t benefit communities, which means well-meaning volunteers can find themselves in places where they're not needed.
Organisations which send volunteers overseas have also become increasingly commercialised due to an influx of for-profit companies and travel agencies. Some organisations spend the majority of a volunteer’s fee on administration, marketing and organisational costs rather than on in-country living costs and the local project.
Volunteering abroad is the new backpacking, says Stephen Wearing, an associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, and specialist in volunteer tourism. But volunteers will tend to pay a significant amount more than a backpacker, he says. “Once [it’s] commodified like it is now, you just get projects that are put there for keen tourists to do”.
Volunteer programs have the potential to do a lot of good. But too often well-meaning volunteers have arrived at projects only to find their good intentions go to waste. A report by UK think tank Demos in 2011 found that a significant number of volunteer tourists felt the work could have been done by locals and were unsure as to whether their voluntary work actually benefited the communities.
One reason for this is the advertising used by companies wanting to sell trips, which may give volunteers an over-inflated sense of their usefulness. Short trips are increasingly being designed to suit the convenience and motivations of the volunteer rather than the community.
But community involvement in planning the project is key to its success. Projects that aren’t well-thought out and simply outsourced to local partners without close supervision or consideration of local needs and values will often be unhelpful. “A good company will spend a couple of years deciding how that project is going to work,” says Wearing.
To find the right overseas volunteer opportunity, it’s important to understand the complexities of the development landscape. Trips which offer cultural training programs and inductions prior to departure are a positive start.
Volunteer tourism statistics
The global volunteering abroad market has experienced a rapid increase in the past 25 years. In 2008, the industry had an estimated annual value of US$1.7bn to $2.6bn. An estimated 1.6 million volunteers a year were taking part, predominantly from wealthy countries.