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Lets Talk about Volunteering

Written by The Leap on 26 / 10 / 2017

Gap Year Advice

Lets Talk about Volunteering

With lots of bad press recently, volunteering may be something that you are hesitant to do, and this is understandable. JK Rowling condemned ‘Voluntourism’ as having more of a negative impact than a positive one, being used as a way to ‘boost a CV’.

Although this may be the case in some places, this should not deter you from wanting to help! Your actions, big or small, will have an impact but, how do you ensure it is for the better? Don’t panic, this week we’re taking you through how to pick your program and what to watch out for.

Volunteering shouldn’t be something that is struck off your list but it does need research, so here’s your guide…

What is Volunteering?

What is Volunteering

Starting with the basics, volunteering is ultimately devoting your time to help change something for the better.

The volunteering options out there are vast. From conservation to teaching, there is something that will interest and inspire anyone to help make a change.

The length of time you spend is flexible. Normally, you can volunteer for as short as 2 weeks and as long as 12 months…it depends on the program and what your preferences are. Remember that the length of time you give up to a project will vastly affect what kind of project you choose and what you can expect to realistically achieve.

Ultimately, volunteering is a broad term that covers all manner of things. It is up to you to decide your area is of interest and how long you have to participate. Most people will combine volunteering with some paid work and independent travel during their gap year.

So, once you’ve chosen your area what next?

How to be ethical?

You’ve decided conservation/teaching/community development (delete as appropriate) is your area of choice. But now what? You type this into google and an endless list of opportunities appear, how do you begin.

As the popularity in volunteering has grown substantially over the past couple of years, so have the number of organisations offering a volunteering experience. Although this has led to a higher understanding of the benefits and potential dangers of volunteering, it has made it more difficult to distinguish between ethical projects, ones that are more a tourist experience and those that are actively harmful.

Ultimately, research is critical. Your research should focus on the project and overall ethos of the charity or company, what its core intentions and beliefs are. The best way to do this is talking to those running the programs.

Our top questions to ask:

1. How has the program been chosen and checked out?

2. What are the plans for the future once I leave?

3. Where is my money actually going?

The Year Out Group, an independent organisation that vets gap year companies, provide a great list of different questions to ask volunteering companies, have a read here.

Dangers to watch out for:

When you’re choosing a project, there are lots to consider, length of time, type of project, organisation, the list goes on…

Here are our common pitfalls to watch out for…

Working with children: orphanage voluntourism has become an increasingly popular sector…but the impacts can be extremely negative in some places. Mothers sometimes are forced to put their children into these orphanages to boost numbers and therefore increase their funding. This means separating children from their families.

Perhaps opt for a program that works within schools instead. Also think about the length of time you have, opting for a care placement within a children’s home for just 2 or 3 weeks can produce attachment issues, children make strong bonds if you then come and go think about the effect you are having.

Working with animals: Volunteering for an animal sanctuary may mean you get to hold the orangutan or wash the baby elephant, but keeping animals in captivity comes with a whole host of issues. Ask yourself, what happens to these animals once you’re gone.

Perhaps, opt for something fewer hands on but is working towards a better environment for these animals. Whilst holding an orangutan would be really cute, working to improve their habitat may be less appealing but ultimately more helpful.

Your own misconceptions: many students go out with great intentions of helping these communities. Remember to think realistically about what you can achieve in your time frame and perhaps be open to different outcomes.

Where you think you might offer someone a better life materialistically, perhaps the cultural exchange is actually more beneficial… and always remember that you will take away a lot from the experience, that’s not a bad thing.

Top tips for getting started:

gap year volunteering

If the above scares you… don’t worry, it should. After all, if you really want to volunteer it’s not just as simple as picking what looks prettiest on a postcard, you need to chose the right place for the right reasons. But it shouldn’t put you off volunteering altogether. Begin your research early and you can and will have an amazing experience.

Here are our top tips to help you begin to narrow down your search:

1. What skills do you have to offer?

2. Which issues are important to you?

3. Combine your goals – if you’ve always wanted to visit Borneo...why not start by looking at volunteering opportunities there.

You can read in more detail about how to get your research started here…

It's not all bad but you do need to do your research

Yes, there are negatives, but this shouldn’t put you off. The top tip is research… you want to able to see what you’ll be doing on a day to day basis. You may not think that you are helping, but trust us, you will be…and the experience is life-changing. It’s not just about helping others, you’ll be surprised how much these communities have to offer you.

Check out our gap year programs

We have award winning programs across Africa, Asia, South and Central America. All include a mix of projects and adventures. All are supported. All involve team work.

Gap year programs

Need inspiration and direction?

Get in contact with the gap year travel specialists.

Here at The Leap we can help both team traveller through our programmes and/or the backpacker.

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