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5 minute guide to volunteering abroad

Travelling
5 minute guide

Jesse Dodd

26 January 2017

No matter how old you are, spending time volunteering abroad and helping a local community or environment, is always worth doing. But how do you make sure you get the most of out of the trip and ensure that the projects you’re working on make a real difference?

We asked the CEOs of GVI and Omprakash, two very different voluntourism organisations, to come up a list of questions to get help you book the right experience.

What are you looking for in a volunteering experience?

Steve Gwenin, CEO of GVI: You need to be honest about what you want. Do you want a cheap backpacker experience, do you want to work, or would you rather be at the beach most days? Do you want to make a difference – that’s the first step.

What are my hosts’ incentives?

Willy Oppenheim, CEO of Omprakash: If they’re making a bunch of money for a short time on something you don’t really know how to do – like build a school – then realise that for them it’s more of a money making exercise than really impactful help. It's basically tourism and not service. If you want something more serious and more sustained then maybe you need to look somewhere else.

5 Minute Guide To Volunteering Abroad 2 Gvi
“There’s nothing wrong with identifying what you want to get out of a trip and making it something specific”

Do they have previous volunteers you can speak to?

Gwenin: Look at the volunteers’ reviews or speak to one of the alumni and see what they did on a day to day basis.

Are the hosts interested in you as a human with particular skills?

Oppenheim: If a company is asking you to pay a deposit when all you’ve done is fill out a one page web-form then perhaps they’re not interested in vetting you or finding the right match for your skills and experience.

What are the specific goals of the project? Do they have local partners on the ground?

Gwenin: Look into who the local partners are and look into how the project is going to hit its goals. For example we work with partners like Save the Children, government ministries, the Red Cross and the WWF and lots of universities.

5 Minute Guide To Volunteering Abroad 3 Gvi

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GVI

Where is my money going?

Oppenheim: One of the major sleights of hand is when organisations say everything is all included. The actual costs for three meals a day and accommodation in India for three weeks might cost $1,000 for instance, but if you’re paying $5,000 there’s a big gap there. Don’t fall for the myth of everything being included because it looks easier.

What support is there?

Gwenin: If you’re less confident then check there’s more support, especially before you go. Check the ratio of helpers to volunteers.

What am I going to learn?

Oppenheim: Don’t let yourself off the hook with something vague like cultural differences or global citizenship. It’s so broad it’s doesn’t really mean anything. Instead, for example, if you have someone who wants to learn about small businesses in agriculture and their access to capital in rural areas because they’re interested in micro-finance, then that would suggest that they’re going to get something specific out of the experience that could help them in the future. There’s nothing wrong with identifying what you want to get out of a trip and making it something specific.

For more information check out our long read around the complex issues of voluntourism.