7 Ways to Choose an Ethical Volunteer Programme

With so many volunteer project offering a multitude of amazing opportunities, how do you choose an ethical programme?

Today, there are an overwhelming number of volunteer organisations offering short-term volunteer opportunities. These programmes are attractive to travellers who want to combine service work with adventure travel and eco-tourism experiences.

Whilst there are many reputable and responsible volunteer organisations and projects, many are highly questionable, where the benefits to volunteers and the communities in which they are sent to work, are doubtful. So how do you choose an ethical volunteer programme from this huge choice?

Do a google search for “volunteering in Africa” and you will be swamped with results from volunteer agents, individual projects and gap year travel websites. How do you pick your way through the maze and identify a project which is responsible and ethical, whilst at the same time, affordable, exciting and fulfilling?

Here are our 7 ways to help choose an ethical volunteer programme:

1) They are transparent about where your money goes

Paying to volunteer seems like a contradiction. Why should you pay to volunteer? Well, don’t forget that there are costs involved in developing and managing volunteer projects abroad and supporting volunteers before they go and while they are overseas. There is also a cost for accommodation, food, transport, and the equipment you need to do your work.

A good programme will be up front about where your volunteer fee is going and what it is being used for. They should be able to give you a receipt for your payment and a list of all the current projects which you and your money will be supporting. You should be able to see evidence of these projects when you are on the programme – you can even ask to see their progress. If most of the money seems to go on keeping volunteers happy, fancy accommodation and smart vehicles, then possibly the money is not filtering back to the communities and wildlife the programme is designed to assist.

2) The organisation has a positive reputation

People within the relevant industry, from local NGOs and other community or wildlife organisations should know the character of the people running the organisation and their history, and should be able to vouch for their and the programme’s credibility and integrity. It is worth reading reviews by previous volunteers, but some will not have the expertise or independent knowledge to be able to judge the core principles under which the organisation is operating.

3) Your programme has an achievable long term goal and you can see progress being made

What is your programme trying to achieve by sending you to teach English, or work with animals or work on community health campaigns? They should be able to tell you what goals they are working to achieve (giving children a better chance of finding employment, reducing poaching, combating HIV and TB) and be able to show you the proof that these methods are working.

4) Volunteers have a positive impact

Would the community or wildlife be better served employing either local people or qualified professionals? You need to ask the organisation why they have looked outside the local community to find someone to do the work you will be dong. Having a proficiency in English and a university degree might be all it takes to make foreign volunteers better suited for the job, but certainly not always. Some construction and manual labour programmes could almost certainly be undertaken by the local community, so it is worth checking with your project why they need outside help.

A volunteer programme should not allow its volunteers to do things which you would be unqualified to do at home. However, if you have a skill, no matter how small it may seem, most programmes will seize on it and make use of your expertise and interest.

Some of the most unfulfilling volunteer programmes were set up once the organisation realised that it could charge volunteers a fee to do manual work. These programmes are often the most vague about what you will be doing and what long term goals volunteers helping to achieve.

5) The programme involves, as well as helps, the local community and is sustainable post volunteer involvement

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”

One of the biggest changes in the provision of aid over the last 2-3 decades is the removing of hand-outs to third world countries and the focus on empowering people to help themselves. A good volunteer programme won’t just be working to help a community, but will be doing so in a way that the community helps themselves to achieve long-term development goals. These goals should have been determined with the community, who know best what they need.

The word sustainability is a ball which is carelessly thrown around the development playground. Hand-outs do not improve disadvantaged communities in the same way that education, healthcare, training and business development can, so you should be sure that your programme has steps in place that ensure the development projects continue after volunteers have left. Check that they have long-term objectives and that these objectives are at the forefront of any work which is done.

6) Your programme is clear about what you will be doing

Your project should be open about your living conditions, the availability of food, the transport you will be using, what sort of work you will be doing and the impact you will have. A programme which is vague probably doesn’t have an idea of what to do with volunteers and you will end up on a glorified holiday. Many volunteers return from their volunteer experience feeling like they have contributed very little.

7) What support will you get when you arrive?

A good volunteer programme will offer you an induction or training once you arrive at the programme (some operators have inductions before you leave home). If something goes wrong, you should know immediately what to do and who you should call. Does the programme have an emergency action plan? Are there qualified first-aiders on-site? Do they provide food and accommodation and if not, do they places they recommend? Check what support you get once you are on your programme before you book, and decide if it meets with your requirements.

Take a look at past volunteer testimonials – if possible on neutral volunteer directory websites as well as the programme’s own site – and see what support they provide to volunteers. Feel free to ask for a previous volunteer to get in touch with you to answer any specific questions you might have.

Projects to watch out for:

  • Orphanage scams

Unfortunately many orphanages in developing countries have been set up to exploit tourists and volunteers who want to come and care for poor children. Families have been paid to send children who aren’t orphans to these institutions. Children also form attachments to volunteers who only stay a few weeks or months, furthering feelings of abandonment and isolation. The advice from many charities is to not visit or volunteer at orphanages at all.

  • Some wildlife sanctuaries

There are a large number of wildlife sanctuaries with less than ethical operating practices. Sanctuaries are often the most popular volunteer programmes as they promise the volunteer an opportunity to get close to iconic animals. There are a few questions you should ask your wildlife sanctuary before making your booking.

  • Organisations which breed big cats in captivity and allow tourists to interact with cubs

Over the past decade there has been a proliferation of enterprises across Africa that offer interactive or close-encounter experiences with large cats. Some of them take a frank approach and sell themselves for what they are – commercial ventures that rely on the lure of a ‘touchy-feely’ encounter. But there are many others with a deceptive tagline, promoting themselves under the banner of conservation, science or education in an attempt to acquire legitimacy for their activities. These outfits find little favour within the wider conservation and wildlife management communities, despite their assertions that charging visitors large sums of money to walk with sub-adult lions and cuddle captive-bred cubs is justified because the outfits are involved in data-collection and reintroduction programmes. Persuading foreign volunteers to pay for an African experience on the basis that the work they do is beneficial makes for an extremely lucrative business model. 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

FIND OUT MORE about all our volunteer programmes, or SIGN UP!

Read our Responsible Travel Policy.

Jump into our

(access to exclusive offers and all the latest project news!)