How to find responsible volunteer work

Since starting Grassroots Nomad, the number one question that I have been asked is ‘How do I find responsible volunteer work overseas?’

Unfortunately the answer isn’t a simple one as it requires a lot of dedication and hard work – before you even start to volunteer. But, if you aren’t committed to working hard to find the right place to volunteer, then maybe international volunteering isn’t the thing for you.

Step One: What do you want?

The first step when deciding whether or not to participate in volunteering overseas is to think about why you want to do it in the first place. Is it to make your CV better (which it will)? Is it to make a difference (which you can do)? Or is it to learn something about the world, different cultures, a new skill, or even about what inspires you (which you will)?

So here are a few questions to think about:

  • Why do I want to volunteer?
  • What are my specialist skills?
  • What are my passions?
  • What are my interests?
  • What do I want to learn?
  • How can I transfer these skills to volunteer work?
  • What kind of countries, organisations, issues do I want to work in?

Now you have an idea about what you can offer, you have to think where these specialist skills are best suited. If you are a professional teacher, maybe you could help train teachers in remote communities and develop lesson plans? If you are an IT expert, maybe you could develop a website for a small organisation? If you are a social media wizz, perhaps you could devise a feasible social media strategy to improve an organisations’ online presence and boost volunteer/donation rates?

If you are not qualified to work in an area, then think hard about working in that field, particularly if it relates to children or animals. If you are not qualified to work around children, many of whom have faced incredible challenges in their lives, then please reconsider volunteering overseas with children at an orphanage.

Volunteering at an orphanage or school seems to be the number one type of volunteer work that people want to do. Sadly, your presence might be doing more harm than good.

Step Two: Where will I apply to volunteer? How do I know it is a responsible volunteer organisation?

 

bubbles

The key to stage two is research. This is not easy. There isn’t one site that you can go to which lists all the free, grassroots, responsible volunteering opportunities around the world (although I am working on it).

Grassroots volunteering opportunities aren’t available through travel agents or big tour companies. You have to do the ground-work yourself, especially for those wanting to volunteering overseas for free.

Now you know what you can offer and what you are looking for you will be able to target your research rather than flicking through hundreds of websites without any direction. These are the places that I go to when I’m looking for responsible volunteer work and they have been very successful for me:

  • Read research papers in your chosen topic. E.g. My focus was human trafficking so I read a lot of articles by the UN and big organisations like Anti-Slavery International, etc. Look closely at their reference list. These organisations conduct interviews with small, grassroots charities that work within these communities. They are the experts.
  • Research organisations that collaborate together. If you have found one charity that you like the sound of, read their research and see if they collaborate with other organisations. This is a great way to give yourself a number of different options for volunteer work, as your first preference might not accept you.
  • Read articles written by previous volunteers. Verge Magazine publishes a lot of different articles written by volunteers. It was in one of their online editions that I read an article by a lady who spent time volunteering with the Himanchal Education Foundation in Nepal. I will be spending the month of November volunteering with them myself, so I will update you on my work.
  • Talk to people. Keep your ears open for new opportunities or organisations that you haven’t heard of before. There are also groups online, such as Responsible Tourism Networking Facebook group where people regularly ask advice about volunteering opportunities or sustainable travel.

Stage Three: Applications

 

elephant

Once you have compiled a list of potential organisations it is time to make contact and ask whether it would be possible for you to volunteer.

Things to consider when writing your email/letter:

  • Keep it short and use simple language. Often English is the second, third, or even fourth language spoken by the staff you are emailing. If you use complicated language you may be impressing yourself but they will just be confused.
  • Explain what you can offer. Why should they let you volunteer? Volunteers are a lot of work for an agency as they require training and divert staff away from their day-to-day work. Make it clear that you have specialist skills and aren’t just looking to beef up your CV.
  • Be flexible. It is important that organisations pick volunteers that are able to offer skills needed by the community. This might mean you are working on something you never expected, but volunteering is about helping in a useful way – it is about what the community wants not what you think they want.
  • Be open minded, passionate, and show your dedication to the values and goals of the organisation.
  • Be respectful. Don’t assume that because you have qualifications that you know more than the people already working in these communities. Respect the work that they do, their motivations, and their backgrounds.
  • Be positive! Show your passion, your dedication and your desire to use your skills to help. There are many benefits of volunteering but it is best when the benefits are mutual – if you are making a genuine difference, you will enjoy your experience much more.

Once you submit your application, it is time to wait. Many organisations might not have frequent internet access or check their emails regularly so it might take some time for them to reply. Don’t lose hope!

Stage Four: Success!

camel

After a few applications, you will find your organisation. Now it is time to discuss timeframes, what assistance they are able to provide with visas and accommodation.

See if you can conduct any fundraising before you leave, or if the organisation requires any resources that are hard to find – e.g. calculators, etc – that you may be able to bring with you and donate to the community.

Updated tip: Be flexible! In the hour or so since I posted this article my volunteering plans in Nepal have been cancelled due to increasing unrest and danger in the area. Now I have no idea where I am heading – back to the planning and research!

Help me!

If you are interested in sustainable volunteering opportunities, please contact me.

For additional information, please email laura@grassrootsnomad.com

Have you volunteered with a grassroots organisation before? How did you find the opportunity? What are your recommendations?

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41 Comments
Victoria Sallie

Thanks for actually writing this post! I remember we were discussing this over Twitter. Very informative, and it’s something I’m more than interested in! So if you can help me find some opportunities, I would love you forever LOL

Good luck on your business endeavors, and I hope all is well!

Victoria Sallie
http://www.onetravelbag.co
@OneTravelBag

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks so much Victoria, you actually were some of my inspiration for writing this article!! I would be happy to help, send me an email with your ideas and I will see what I can do 🙂

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Jessica Hill

I didn’t realize you were starting a business to pair people with sustainable volunteer opportunities, but I think that’s a fantastic idea! Especially because one doesn’t exist, like you say. I’m excited to see it launch!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Ford, glad it was helpful! Looking forward to meeting up with you both in Guatemala 🙂

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kachinasnomaddiction

A really great post. Having volunteered myself and studied the effects of ‘voluntourism’, I think it’s so important that future volunteers are properly educated on what they getting involved with. You’ve perfectly outlined the process with which volunteers should take. 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks so much! I have a monthly series about responsible volunteering (first article later this month) featuring a guest post from someone who has a volunteer experience they would like to share. If you would like to be involved send me an email at laura@grassrootsnomad.com 🙂

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Joanna

Thank you for this insightful post, will definitely come in handy as I’ve always wanted to volunteer in South America 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

That’s great to hear Joanna! I am about to start 5 months volunteering in Guatemala so I will be writing a bit about my experiences. I also have a month volunteering series and in April will be featuring a guest post by a volunteer in the Amazon – stay tuned! 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Amanda! Always good to spread the word about responsible volunteering! 🙂

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GinaBear

This is really great information on how to be a responsible volunteer. I knew absolutely nothing about volunteering abroad and now I know what questions to ask myself and how to get the organization to accept my proposal!

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Eva Casey

Volunteering abroad such a complicated topic, but you wrote about it in such a helpful and informative way! I really want to volunteer at some point, but I want to feel 100% sure that I will actually be helping the community I volunteer in before I do it! I’ll definitely keep referring back to this post!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks so much Eva, this is so great to hear! Let me know if you have any questions!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Suze! It is a hard topic to discuss so I’m glad I was able to get people thinking outside the box a bit 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

Hi Kate, that is definitely a problem, however hopefully with some extra research you will find an organisation that appeals to you and makes you confident in their work 🙂

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Roberta

Very useful post! I want to try volunteering and this information can really help me. Thank you!! 🙂 Have a great day!

adventurousmiles.com

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The Flyaway Girl

Such a good post and all so true! I have never considered reading research papers though – great tip. I volunteered in Honduras this past summer helping a small NGO in social media etc (I do social media marketing and I’m a photographer). I ended up not having the best time as I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the woman who ran the charity (she didn’t take into account what the community wanted all the time, rather what would look better on social media etc) but it did give me a great insight into being more of an independent volunteer and how to use my skills to helps others.

I ended up helping an expat working with coffee farmers in central Honduras set up an NGO so it all worked out pretty well in the end!

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Grassroots Nomad

I would love to learn more about your experiences! If you have time, maybe you could send me an email? I do a monthly feature of a guest blog by a volunteer and would love to feature you! 🙂

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Joe

An excellent post! Some very good, very practical advice that many people who are considering giving volunteering a go very useful.

As you say research is key, and I found that, if you can, bypassing the bigger, international organisations can out you in more direct contact with the organisations that need it. I’m currently involved in a project to build a library in Tanzania, and that came about through me approaching the charity (KYGN – Kilimanjaro Young Girls in Need) directly through following a link I found in a guidebook. Patience and not just going for the first thing you see is key! 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

Hi Joe, I’m so glad you found it helpful. Great work with your researching – are you enjoying your volunteer work?

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Joe

Well I’m not doing any at the moment, I’m back in the UK working in the day job, part of which is preparation for the project mentioned above 🙂

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Romina

Hey, there is actually a website now, a platform where you can compare different travel opportunities from all over the world 🙂 It’s volunteerworld.com and I have found an amazing sea turtle program in Costa Rica with them 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Romina, I will have to check it out! Are they paid volunteer trips or ones where you just pay for your accom/food? Enjoy your trip!

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The Thought Card

I recently attended a volunteering conference and this post added so much more to my knowledge base. Figuring out what kind of projects I’m passionate about it something I want to figure out really soon.

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Grassroots Nomad

You will find it and then there will be no stopping you! What was the volunteering conference? I’d love to hear more about it!

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