How to Volunteer Ethically

February 4, 2016

Featured image credit: Brett Cole Photography – TOLFA, India

Now that I’m thinking about a longer trip than originally planned, I want to cast my net wider than the one charity in Rajasthan (TOLFA) that I was planning to work with initially. However, the great thing about working with a charity that someone I knew was already very involved with, was that I could be sure it was an ethical enterprise; one that helps not only the animals it rescues, but also remains beneficial to the community in which it operates.

Now that I’m looking further afield though, the sheer number of gap-yah projects that command £2000+ purely for the privilege of building a house/washing an elephant for a week – two weeks is, quite simply, astounding. In 2016 we should all know by now that most of the projects that require an extortionate amount of money from us, or run seasonal ‘sales’ on their volunteering trips, are probably going to be ripping us off, as well as not being as beneficial to the community as they claim to be.

I’m new to this ethical volunteering search but I’d rather not give my money – and more importantly, my time – to a business like that. With this in mind, over the last few weeks there are a few things I’ve been learning about how to screen out the gap-yah glitz, so you can actually volunteer to make some kind of a positive impact wherever you are.

Work with a Registered NGO

This is slightly different from volunteering on the ground. Whilst working for an NGO you may very well be based in a new country, but it’s more than likely that you’ll be working for free in an office in Thailand somewhere, rather than scrubbing down elephants or hacking through jungle vines. This isn’t necessarily the ‘fun’ option, but it is often vital work that your chosen charity can’t afford to pay for – such as putting together contracts, building awareness and creating fundraising campaigns, or signing up new members for support.

If you’re serious about travelling slowly and about making a difference that will last, then applying for an unpaid position with one of the many NGOs around the world may be for you. You may also find that, although this work doesn’t pay a wage, you will have your accommodation and expenses covered and still have time at the weekends to explore your chosen country.

Thai Temple

Thai Temple

Look out for Social Enterprises

A social enterprise is different from a charity, in that it doesn’t receive the bulk of its funding from grants and donations, but rather sustains itself by selling and trading goods and work within the local community and working with other social enterprises. But if you find an organisation you’d like to be a part of you need to ask the following questions before agreeing to work with them:

  • Do you have to pay a fee to volunteer?
  • If so, where does that money go?
  • Do they encourage your questions?
  • What will you be required to do, and is this something that’s actually needed?
  • Are local community members included in the project, and if so, does the outcome directly or indirectly benefit them?

Paying a small fee isn’t always something to set alarm bells ringing. Often, it’s simply a gesture of good will, as well as providing the money to cover your training, accommodation, and other expenses.

What should be concerning though, is if the organisation you’re planning to work with is sketchy about where the money is going to end up. If their website shows exclusively travellers working on their projects, then you need to ask yourself why this enterprise isn’t employing the people they purport to be helping, and whether this is a good enough reason.

Select Something Within Your Skillset

This might sound incredibly obvious, but if you’re 18 and more of an artisan baker than a construction worker, then why would a company want you to work with them to build a house? Sure, if you’re given appropriate training over a period of one – three months you could certainly do this to a high standard, but is this what they’re offering?

If a company asks you for a hefty fee for the privilege of spending two weeks daubing concrete on bricks without any idea of what you’re really doing, and – as before – if they only employ travellers, then you need to question the quality of what you’ll ultimately be helping to build. There are some registered schemes – such as Raleigh International – that are the exception to this rule, but if you’ve never so much as picked up a trowel before, perhaps it’s better to go for a project that doesn’t require you to use one.

Use an Ethical Database

There are a million and one gap year, career break and short-term volunteering projects out there, but not all of them will be ethical in terms of the work they do or who the money goes to. One tried-and-tested database for ethical volunteering projects is Grassroots Volunteering, which compiles a fully-screened list of projects that are proven to give back to their communities – and many of them don’t require a fee to volunteer with.

If you want to volunteer independently then there are also a number of sites built exclusively for this, including Kind Mankind, Moving Worlds, Idealist, and Volunteer Base. All of these are recommended by Grassroots Volunteering, but it’s still important to ask the questions listed above so you can be certain that, whatever you choose to do, it will be a good fit for you as well as for the organisation.

Give Your Time as Generously as Your Money

It may seem like a good idea to fly in and spend one week working in a school or on a nature reserve, but will that really be making a difference? Unfortunately, the answer is probably no. If on this occasion you’ve only got a limited time in which to travel, then it’s probably a better idea to wait until you have more time to commit than it is to zip in and zip out again, without properly impacting your chosen project.

A general rule of thumb is that if you can commit to two weeks of work, then you have a small chance of doing something unique for the organisation or charity you’re working with. But if you want to have time to settle in and add something of real benefit, then budget three weeks or longer for a more rewarding and useful experience.

Be Wary of Working with Orphanages

Cambodian orphanage

Cambodian orphanage

In fact, after reading up on this subject I would go so far as to say that 99% of the time, you shouldn’t be providing most of these institutions with disposable income. A study conducted in Cambodia found that a high percentage of the children in orphanages in the country actually had parents, but were taken away from them with the promise of a ‘better life’.

Even though the families were poor, removing children from their care purely to bring an income into an existing organisation is, most people would agree, morally wrong. There are a number of brilliant projects out there that work specifically to support poor families who struggle to raise their children, with the aim of keeping the family unit together and allowing the children to live in a stable environment. You’d be far better off finding one of these charities than an orphanage that will allow you to play with the children for a week, but won’t tell you what happens after you’re gone.

Which brings me to the second problem with volunteering at an orphanage abroad: Why would you be qualified to work with children – often children who have experienced trauma of some kind – in another country, when you wouldn’t be in your own? You wouldn’t, is the plain and simple answer. So if the orphanage or children’s home you choose to work with isn’t running background checks on yo, and won’t be providing you with the training to support and benefit the children you’re working with, then the chances are they aren’t a reputable organisation at all.

If you do desperately want to work with children then make sure you use a valid, ethical website, where the conditions of the orphanage have been checked, you have been given appropriate training, and the money really does go into making these children’s lives better. If none of these things have been taken care of then you’ll most likely be unintentionally doing more harm than good, to the very people you’re trying to help.

Do your research

This list is by no means exhaustive and it’s only taken me a few weeks to put together, so no doubt there are plenty of other tips and trick out there for you to be thinking about. Only you know what your skills are and exactly how you want to use them, so please don’t rely on my advice – it’s time for you to start looking at how you can volunteer ethically and whether it’s the right step for you.

Have you had experience ethically volunteering? Let me know in the comments!

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1 Comment

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