Want to volunteer overseas but bamboozled by choice? Maria Sowter of Frontier, an NGO operating conservation and community-based volunteering projects, shares her advice on finding the right volunteering project for you.
Volunteering abroad can be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences you can have; a brilliant way to experience the world’s rich and varied cultures whilst making a difference where it’s needed most. Planning a trip abroad though can be complicated at the best of times and incorporating a volunteer placement into your travels can sometimes seem like a daunting prospect.
If you’re reading this you’ll know you want something more from your travels than a good photo opportunity and a bar on the beach. You’ll also know that the key to any successful placement is planning and researching to ensure you end up on a project that will keep you interested and motivated throughout. But how do you choose the right volunteering project for you?
What’s your passion?
It may sound simple but choose a project that involves something you’re truly interested in. For instance, if you want to work directly with animals, avoid projects heavily focused on scientific research as you’ll end up spending more of your time with data than with the animals. Volunteering should be treated like a working holiday, you are often performing vital work and many communities and programmes rely on volunteers to survive so it’s necessary to be fully dedicated to your cause. The flipside of your hard work is often the immense satisfaction you get from volunteering; not only do you get to explore your passions but the work you’re contributing is also highly valued.
Do your research
A good way to get the best idea of what a project involves is to read previous volunteer reviews, interviews, or first-hand accounts about their experiences. Review sites and forums (and the recommendations on Goodtrippers – take a look under Good Work) can be a sound way to find this information as they provide a neutral setting for people to express themselves. Reading what other volunteers got up to on the project will usually give you a much better idea of how you’ll be spending your time than any website’s marketing spiel – it can also give you an idea of what you need to pack for your trip.
Solo or group?
Accommodation can be make-or-break for your experience and you want to make sure that anywhere you stay has the facilities to be comfortable for an extended period of time. If you’re nervous about travelling alone, going on a group project and staying in a camp or hostel accommodation can be a good way to combat any fears. If you’re travelling with an agency they are usually able to provide you with fellow volunteer email addresses or give volunteers the chance to meet on training weekends prior to departure. This can also help you save money by arranging group travel from the airport if transfers are not provided. If you’re less inclined to seek out a social atmosphere, then projects with homestay accommodation can be a good way to improve your language skills and learn more about a country’s culture by staying with a local family.
Time it right
Once you’ve decided on your project, make sure you travel at a time of year appropriate for what you want to do. If you know your happiness hinges upon volunteering in a sunnier climate then don’t visit a country during their monsoon season. If you want to take part in a project that involves working with wildlife, be aware that some species may not be seen in certain areas at specific times of year due to different breeding or migration patterns.
Most of all, remember that a volunteer holiday – alongside providing valuable help – should be fun. Volunteering can be hard work, but working in an area that you have a passion for is unlikely to feel like a chore.
With the right balance of research, planning, and common sense, any time spent volunteering abroad has the potential to be a memorable success for both you and those involved in the project you choose.
About the author: Maria Sowter works for Frontier, an NGO dedicated to safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, and building sustainable livelihoods for marginalised communities in the world’s poorest countries. Check out the wide variety of opportunities to volunteer abroad with Frontier: whether you’re looking for placements involving teaching abroad, wildlife conservation volunteering, or simply some adventure travel, Frontier is sure to have something suitable.Visit www.frontier.ac.uk