This is an important section for everyone, but especially for first-time volunteers.
When one chooses to go abroad and volunteer, or to teach, or to learn new skills, they are faced with important decisions. Some of these decisions are easier than others, but the RIGHT answers will vary from person to person. Some people look for opportunities that balance more contemporary comforts within their experiences, while others look for more culturally representative options, which can be hosted in more challenging and/or intimate environments. Either way, there are only 2 pillars of decision making, and they are based on how an organisationâ€™s philosophical and operational standards match with your own personal needs and interests.
The first item of thought must address what is driving you towards traveling with this purpose. Is this to grow your skill set?, or to give back and address an issue?, is it to increase social awareness?, or is this simply a â€˜goodâ€™ holiday alternative? Ask yourself this core question first. It will help in steering your course. Remember, there are no wrong answers, but there are certainly better choices.
GoVoluntouring does our best to connect people with as many quality choices as we can, but as the user and final decision maker, you must find your own â€˜perfectâ€™ match, based on your own criteria, and your own behind-the-scenes research. If there is one thing I have learned with my 13 years in tourism, is that travellers are amazing bloggers, they hold back no punches, and they share their experiences openly. Be sure to include independent blogs in your homework.
The philosophical questions must align with your personal belief system. Donâ€™t be afraid to speak to an organisation and stress the â€˜intangiblesâ€™ that are important to you. You may ask yourself, does this decision support my religious, faith or moral compass? Does this organisation have the best interests of its local community and stakeholders at heart? If you are paying money, ask where the money goes; if you are being paid, ask where the money comes from. More importantly, you need to answer what will be your legacy, and what will you have supported, enabled, or empowered in the process?
The operational decisions must address health, wellness and organisational deliverables. You need to ask about contingency plans, proximity to medical centres, local crime rates, vaccination needs, travel restrictions, and cultural norms (such as dress, food, nightlife, and alcohol). Wearing bikini tops outside of the beach, can be both insulting, and dangerous in some places - that's the real world. It's not good, it's not bad, it's just different.
You will also need to ask what you need to do before you leave home (some vaccinations need to be administered weeks/months in advance), and what timeframe does this need to be happen in? What do I need to pack? What happens when you arrive at the airport, and what happens if there is an emergency? Who is my support network, and where can I find them, what should I expect?
On that note, you may find the following checklist from Australiaâ€™s Monash University to be very helpful as well.
- Is the operator a not-for-profit organisation?
- Is there an application fee to participate as a voluntourist?
- Does the operator provide a breakdown of how any fees will be spent?
- Does the operator have the support of either the local government, your government, or United Nations?
- Does the operator provide a history of their activities and time spent working in the location?
- Have the locals been adequately consulted? Is it what they really need/want?
- Does the project replace local jobs with expensive overseas voluntourists?
- Will the project be sustainable by local people after voluntourists leave?
- Does the operator evaluate their work to ensure it continually meets the needs of locals?
- Does the program allow you to use your particular skills and experience effectively?
- Have I done adequate background research on the operator before committing?
- Will I be making a difference through altruistic volunteering and not just being a tourist?
- Have I identified the relevant visa, safety (inc living conditions) and insurance requirements?
- Can I leave the program if I needed to?
Use these questions as starting points only, and make sure you address the 2 pillars of decision making. It is right to have expectations, and you need to use early questioning in forming them. Remember, if it doesnâ€™t feel right, than please donâ€™t proceed.
Aaron Smith, Founder