Thinking about volunteering overseas?
If you want to combine volunteering with travelling overseas, there are many companies who organise trips of this nature. However be aware that for many opportunities you will be expected to pay a (sometimes large) fee.
Whilst international volunteering can be hugely rewarding it is by its very nature more complex than volunteering at home. Not only do you have to think about the actual volunteering role but also your living arrangements, the local culture and travel and transport.
Many advertised opportunities are with overseas organisations or with UK organisations who have partnered with local projects in various countries and because of this it is not possible for the Students’ Union Volunteering Team to check out individual projects and roles and therefore recommend specific opportunities. Instead, listed below are a range of questions we would recommend you get answers to, in order for you to make a considered and informed decision about whether international volunteering is right for you, and which project will be the best experience. We have also included some links to articles and youtube videos that discuss international volunteering.
There is a national standard (also known as a kitemark) which organisations and companies can work for the safe management of overseas ventures. This provides a specification for organising and managing visits, including gap year trips. It is worth asking whether a company has met this standard. It is called BS8848:2014 'Specification for the provision of visits, fieldwork, expeditions and adventurous activities outside the United Kingdom'. Please note this only looks at minimising risk, not at issues of ethics or the nature of the actual role.
When researching organisations on google, the richest and biggest organisations will come up first but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best. You can learn more by taking time to research and learn about the issues e.g. go to talks, workshops, conferences, follow charities on facebook and twitter etc.
Project background and ethics
- How was the project identified? Was it from a local perspective, either through a local organisation or via consultation with the local community?
- Is there a local partner organisation with responsibility for designing and managing the project?
- Is the project being sustained after the volunteers leave or has it been set up as a one-off opportunity that will only have short term benefits?
- What is the organisation's philosophy towards development? Whilst many organisations have deep rooted, sustainable links with communities and local people, others operate on a more commercial basis.
Representation – how are people being represented?
- Who will benefit from the project? Will anyone be adversely affected by the project? How will the expectations of the local stakeholders be managed?
- Is there a genuine need for volunteers to do this or has the opportunity been created as an adventure holiday? How can I be sure that the opportunity is not taking away the chance of paid employment for a local person?
- Has the volunteer role been clearly defined?
- Will the volunteers be provided with training? What skills are required?
- Will this build on the volunteer’s existing skills (how will they be useful to the local communities).
- Who will I be working with? Will I be on my own, is there a group of volunteers or does the role involve working alongside local people?
- Does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office approve of travel to this country?
- Is the organisation linked to other reputable companies or have travel or government endorsements?
- How and why was the organisation set up and what sort of organisation is it (e.g. NGO, charity or profit making company)? How long has the organisation been running and how many people do they send overseas?
- Can I speak with volunteers who have returned from the project to find out about their experiences?
Finances – Organisations should be transparent with their finances
- Avoid a customer-centric attitude by ensuring volunteers have to apply to volunteer.
- What am I getting for my money? What proportion of the cost goes towards administration and marketing and what goes to the local project that is hosting me?
- What support and training am I provided with, both before and after? What happens if something goes wrong - for example if I am very ill or have to get home unexpectedly? Is repatriation included? Does the organisation have contingency plans for a crisis? Is there an evacuation plan?
- Will I need my own travel insurance and does the organisation's insurance cover me for the kind of work that I will be doing? (Think both about health and about belongings).
- Is there in-country support for the volunteers? This includes practical arrangements such as accommodation and meals as well as support to undertake the role.
Adopt a learning attitude – Make sure the project is geared towards mutual learning, be humble, learn from the community – what do they have to teach you?
For more help and advice visit:
Funding for overseas volunteering
Once you have found a volunteering opportunity overseas that you are happy with, the Students’ Union may be able to support you with funding from the Eleanor Peel Trust. Click here for more info.