How to Avoid the ‘Voluntourism’ Trap When Volunteering Abroad

Giving back is a hugely rewarding way to spend your time, whether at home or abroad. Even better, it can be anything you want – from working with exotic animals to teaching in schools or helping with post-disaster construction project, and it’ll give your CV a boost too – check out RouteSalad’s top reasons to volunteer abroad.

Make no mistake – it’s hard work, and not something to be undertaken lightly. But volunteering is one of the most fulfilling ways to make friends, learn about a new country and a new culture whilst giving something back, and if you’re part of a good project it’s a win-win scenario.

Finding the perfect project

That being said, finding a project to donate your time and effort to can be a bit hit-and-miss. There are a lot of companies out there that will quite happily charge you a couple of thousand pounds to work in turtle conservation or an orphanage as a volunteer.

Those companies very rarely want anything more than your money, and their projects do very little to help anyone or anything. It’s worth seriously scrutinising animal conservation projects or opportunities to ‘volunteer in orphanages’, as those often magically spring up due to tourist demand and are actually incredibly damaging to the communities which they boast about helping.

Luckily for you, RouteSalad have a few handy tips to help you find and choose a project that is mutually beneficial for all involved! Here are a couple of considerations when choosing a volunteer project abroad…

Voluntourism - student advice for volunteering abroad
Voluntourism: is your project really making a difference?

The project itself

A few years ago, it was pretty fashionable for people to “volunteer building schools in Africa”, gap-yah style. (Of course, because Africa’s a country not a continent…) Whilst that trend thankfully appears to have died down a little, it’s a great example of what to avoid when looking for a project – your unskilled labour taking a paid job away from a local.

Here are a few things you should ask yourself:

  • Who set up the project? Who is running it now, and where is it being run from?
  • What are the long-term goals of the project?
  • How does this project help the local community? And how does your presence specifically contribute?
  • Would your work as a volunteer take away a paid job from someone who actually needs it?
  • What skills are you bringing to the project?
  • How many volunteers are taken on at any one time?
  • How much are you being asked to pay, and what does this cost go towards?

You, the project and practicalities

Once you’re satisfied that your project contributes to the wider community, it’s time to think about the logistics of volunteering abroad.

Here are a few things to think about:

  • What will your week as a volunteer look like, and how will your time be spent? What are your responsibilities? How much free time will you have?
  • What additional costs will you encounter once in-country?
  • What resources are available, and what will you be expected to bring with you?
  • What cultural differences can you expect to encounter, and does the organisation give you any what-to-expect style guidance before you begin?
  • Where will you be staying?
  • What are the visa requirements, and what help can the organisation you are working with give you?
  • What health issues do you need to take into account?

Once you have some answers for some of those questions, you’re well on your way to finding a project. We can’t emphasize enough how rewarding the experience of volunteering abroad is – give more, gain more.

Photo credit: Conde Nast Traveler

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