International volunteering

Employers will look favourable on international knowledge and awareness of the wider world which can be gained by volunteering abroad.

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However, there are factors to consider when planning to volunteer abroad. This page offers some tips for what to think about when looking for a volunteering opportunity abroad.

Your reasons for volunteering abroad

International Volunteering has become a global industry worth £11 billion a year. There are questions which this raises and subsequently there is lot of discussion within International Development about the impacts of volunteering abroad.

It is important to think about your reasons for wanting to volunteer abroad. Volunteers who succeed and will benefit most by volunteering aboard will be ones who are going over with the mindset that they will be learning from the community rather than helping them.

Try to find a project that will let you build on your existing skills. In this way you are likely to be more useful to the local communities.

On top of this, think about how you will apply your learning upon your return to your home country. If you are volunteering about a cause you are particularly passionate about during your time abroad, think about how you will further help this cause on your return.

Choosing an organisation to Volunteer Abroad with

Bear in mind that the organisations that come up first on internet search engines are likely to be the organisations with the most money which is likely to mean they are not the most ethical.

So, how can you tell if an organisation you are working with is ethically sound and is making a positive impact in the community it works in?

Representation

How are people being represented on their website and their marketing materials. Avoid organisations that talk about volunteers ‘saving the world’ and instead look for emphasis on partnerships and change being made from within.

Community Ownership

Who asked for the project to be set up? Is it responding to a locally defined need? Who’s in charge on a day-to-day basis? As much as possible, the project should be directed by local people.

Sustainability

A project that is creating a long-term dependency on volunteers will have a negative impact on the community it is working in.

Make sure the organisation has a long-standing relationship with the community/local organisation and is using volunteers to add capacity where needed, using existing structures.

Ask about the organisation’s exit strategy – what happened when the volunteers go home?

Displacement and cost of volunteers

Is the volunteer the best person to fill the role or could the job be done by a local person? Who is covering the costs of the volunteer being there? Could the need be met locally?

Some projects can disrupt the local markets which can have a negative impact on the community’s development potential.

Impact

The impact should be talking about the impact to the local community and not about the positive impact on volunteers.

What is the overall mission and vision of the organisation/project? Do they have a proven track record? They should be able to provide you with an impact report to answer these questions.

If they are a new organisation then they should have a monitoring/evaluation framework which is in place to describe how they will measure impact.

Volunteer recruitment, training and support

Avoid projects which have no application process. Application processes reflect how much the organisation cares about the community the project is a part of.

Is there a volunteer role description? Will you get any in depth training before you go? What in-country support will you have? Will you be debriefed on your return to your home country? These are all very important things to find out.

Finances

Organisations should be transparent with their finances. You are within your rights to ask for a breakdown of what your money will go on should you be paying money to take part in the project.

Organisations should be happy to answer any questions you have relating to the above if you can’t find the information on their promotional channels.

Orphanage Volunteering

UNICEF Cambodia conducted research and found that volunteering in orphanages in Cambodia had become an industry which was causing more harm than good:

“The lack of background checks on volunteers not only increases the risk of abuse but the teaching of foreign languages by volunteers actually encourages parents to send their children to institutions. These are among the reasons why UNICEF Cambodia does not support volunteering in orphanages.”

Many International Development organisations reflect this view. We would recommend you don’t partake in any volunteering projects which involve volunteering in orphanages abroad.

You can read more about the issues surrounding orphanage volunteering via ReThink Orphanage, a global, cross-sectoral coalition working to prevent family separation and the unnecessary institutionalisation of children.