Responsible travel that includes volunteering can the most rewarding kind, allowing the traveller an extended period of time to get to know and give something back to a community or cause. Whether you're looking to make a tangible difference in conservation of endangered wildlife or the sustainable development of communities, here are some tips on choosing the right volunteering project for you.
Choose something you're interested in
In theory this is simple, but it's important to volunteer on a project that's right for by fully researching what's involved. Don't choose a scientific research project that involves surveying and tracking wildlife if you'd actually prefer spending time in direct contact with animals. It's essential to be clear in your own mind what you want from a project and what you hope to gain from your experience. Research is vital before committing to a project to ensure you end up on a project that will keep you interested and motivated throughout. Volunteering should be treated like a working holiday; 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 result that volunteering provides immense satisfaction - not only do you get to explore your passions further but the work you're contributing is also highly valued.
Read volunteer interviews and peer reviews
Word-of-mouth peer reviews can help you gain a true perspective of what to expect from a project. Volunteer interviews or blogs with first-hand accounts of volunteering can also be a good way to understand more about what a project will involve. Independent review sites and forums can be a good way to find this information as they provide a neutral setting for people to express themselves. Reading about previous volunteers' experience of a project will usually give you a much better idea about how you'll be spending your time, and can be a useful source of information when it comes to what to pack for example.
Decide whether you want to travel solo or part as a group
If you're nervous about travelling alone choosing a project where you'll be part of a group, or staying in hostel accommodation where you'll be sure to meet other travellers and volunteers can help ease any fears. Volunteering with an organisation can also give you the opportunity to be put in contact with other volunteers prior to departure. This can then be an excellent chance to exchange tips on planning, or could even save you money arranging group travel from the airport if transfer are not included in the project cost for example. For those less inclined to seek a social atmosphere, projects with homestay accommodation can provide an alternative experience. Smaller projects that work directly with in-country partners can be a good way to ensure your help is going directly where needed and that the projects achievements are long-term. Homestay accommodation on these sorts of projects can a great way to improve your language skills and learn more about the culture of a country from the family you stay with.
Maria Sowter is Online Content Editor at Frontier, a non-profit volunteering NGO that runs 320 conservation, community, and adventure projects in 57 countries across the globe. She can be found blogging on Frontier's Gap Year Blog or posting on the Frontier Official Facebook page.