You are planning a break from work or that trip that you’ve been saving for months. This is not just a week in Spain, this is the big one. You’ve done your research on where you’re going and you’ve stacked up a list of sights and activities you want to do along the way. One of those activities is volunteering. You are aware, however, that there are pitfalls to this. You are not your typical ‘gap year’ backpacker, looking for a good Instagram photo and a warm fuzzy feeling. You would like, if possible, to have a real impact wherever you decide to volunteer. The unfortunate reality is that the majority of volunteer opportunities for young people abroad will not have a lasting positive impact on the communities they claim to help; this is an unavoidable result of sending an unskilled workforce into a strange setting for a limited amount of time – and there’s no getting around that. There are, however, certain ways you can spend your time and money that have more of a positive impact than others.

If you are going to volunteer abroad, here’s how you can avoid doing more harm than good:

  1. Use your skills – This is the most important point by far. There may be a lot of things you are good at or qualified for. You may be a nurse, a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, or an engineer. You may, therefore, be able to take that skill to a developing country, plug an existing skills gap and really be of some use on a project. If this is not the case, if like me you are in your early twenties with an arts degree and not much work experience, I urge you to stop and consider your trip for a moment. If you do not actually possess the necessary skill to make your trip successful, your presence will actually have a negative impact rather than just not being useful. By sending unskilled white volunteers to work where a local person would do a better job, we perpetuate a hurtful myth of western people being able to ‘save’ developing communities. Don’t be a part of this.
  2. Use your time – This is also a really important point. If you can only go for 3 weeks, you can’t go. Short-term volunteer projects cause strangers to constantly dip in and out of the community, breaking continuity and creating problems for local workers with the job market and economic stability. Even worse are the few days spent ‘helping’ at a school or orphanage, with vulnerable children who have no idea why you’re there. Placements longer than 3 months are really the only ones worth considering and the longer the better.
  3. Use your head – You are an intelligent traveller! You would not stay somewhere without doing your research first. You would not take a job without knowing a little about the company you were going to work for. Ask what they will expect of you as a volunteer, ask how they measure their impact and ask why you would be good at it. Read reviews and testimonials from people who have been involved with them before and see if they have been in the press at all.

Good intentions are not enough. Ask real questions, consider what measurable impact you think your specific presence would have, and if in doubt – don’t go. Volunteer at home or donate to a cause instead.


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