How to Choose a Volunteer Project
Whether you’re a long-term traveller or choosing to focus exclusively on volunteer work for your trip to South America, taking part in a volunteering project will always be an eye opening experience. But choosing which project to dedicate your time to is an important decision, and there are a number of factors to bear in mind.
Firstly, how long do you want to volunteer for? The length of time you have available can quickly narrow down your volunteering options. A lot of volunteer projects are short term (from a few days to a few weeks), because many people don’t have a lot of free time at their disposal. These projects are likely to not require a big commitment, as you’ll only be a brief part of the project. The longer term projects (anywhere from a few months to a year) will demand more commitment from you, both in terms of time and energy – but they’re also a chance to really get involved in the project, both with your fellow volunteers and with the local community. Another option, usually the most possible for long term travellers who don’t have a definite travel plan to stick to, is to volunteer for a short time and then see if you want to stay longer. Volunteering for a few weeks can quickly turn into a few months if the project really clicks for you – and it’s a common phenomenon in South America!
Looking at the ethical issues surrounding volunteering abroad can be a minefield. Although you may have a strong interest in working with children or animals, it’s crucial that you’re aware of the problems with these types of projects before making a commitment. Research is essential. Get in contact with your potential project’s organisers before arrival and ask to speak to past or present volunteers, so you can get their perspective. If you plan to work with children, remember that a short term project could lead to difficulties when those children form an attachment to you which is forced to end when you leave the project. It’s also important to consider if your project is going to make a discernible difference to the parties involved,
Skills that you’ve acquired throughout your life can be very helpful for volunteer work – and it’s often the things you don’t first think of. Many volunteers have good language skills, experience of working with children or vulnerable people, teaching experience, and rudimentary medical training, and all these skills can be utilized when volunteering. Try thinking outside the box, though. What are your hobbies, and how could those translate into a more meaningful and productive volunteer project? For instance, if you’re a talented writer, a skilled photographer or you work predominantly online, you could check out a volunteer organisation’s online presence and offer your services alongside your specified volunteer work. It’s also likely that you’ll gain completely new skill sets from volunteering, so it’s useful to think about what you might learn from a particular project. There’s the distinct chance that you’ll return to your day job with your eyes opened and a fresh perspective on how to work.
While it’s usually ok to work out your volunteering tasks when you’re on location, some projects ask for you to prepare before your arrival. This could be straightforward - brushing up on your language skills and making some rudimentary teaching plans for lessons - or as niche as training up your body for a building project. Bear this in mind when you’re choosing a project, and make sure you’ll have time to adequately prepare yourself beforehand.
A common issue with volunteering abroad for many people is whether or not they should pay to be able to volunteer. Some organisations charge a small fee to help maintain the project; others ask that volunteers pay for their own room and board but can participate in the project for free; and a few don’t mention money at all (although all volunteer projects are usually happy to accept donations!). Make sure you’ve understood what the money situation is before you agree to take part in a project, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about whether any meals are included or if the project organisers can help you find accommodation.
While volunteering is often regarded as a very generous act, you should still consider what you’re expecting to achieve with any project you do. Is it to broaden your horizons, and gain a deeper understanding of that country and culture? Is it to practice your language skills, or to work as part of a particular community, or in a specified field? When you know what volunteering at a specific project really means to you, it will make choosing the perfect project a great deal easier.