how to be a responsible volunteer
This article, written by us, was published by responsible travel in March 2008

We believe responsible volunteers are also the most effective – they work with the community in mutual respect, helping to achieve shared objectives, offering advice and encouragement, and increasing local people’s capacity to develop their own futures. Responsible volunteers are more likely to be a positive presence, a source of inspiration and empowerment. Poorly prepared volunteers who impose their own agenda and cultural norms, failing to include local people in decisions, can leave behind more problems than they solve, making life even tougher for economically poor people.


Let’s start at the beginning – you’re already committed to responsible travel and now you want to volunteer, but how can you be sure of being a responsible volunteer?

Stage 1 – ask questions of yourself: why do you want to volunteer, what do you want to achieve, where and when would you like to travel and for how long – your honest answers to these and similar questions will establish an agenda to help you assess the numerous offers and alternatives.

Having done this, you’ll know a lot more about yourself and your motives, but you’re probably no further forward in deciding which volunteer organisations can help you to be as responsible as you want to be – there are so many to choose from: some are commercial; some are not-for-profit; some are charitable. (Some offer opportunities to ‘volunteer’ for as little as a day or two, and the merits or otherwise of this approach will have to wait for another article …)

Whether commercial or charitable, there are good, not-so-good and downright irresponsible organisations, but their initial marketing makes it difficult if not impossible to differentiate. They invariably use the latest buzz words (ethical, meaningful, community, responsible) and therefore appear to be saying the right thing – which we naturally want to believe.

So, how can you be sure of choosing an organisation that will help you achieve your goals?

Stage 2 – ask questions of organisations: there are plenty of independent resources which suggest questions for you to ask – we suggest that you explore the following … 

… to help you develop your own critical list. We suggest that you then ask exactly the same questions of each organisation that you contact.

But, as you asses their responses, if any of the following questions come to mind …

? why haven’t they asked more of me than my credit card number – don’t local people need to know about me and how I’ll work in the project?
? why are they reluctant to put me in touch with previous volunteers or local people – surely I need to understand where and how I fit into the bigger picture – or isn’t there one?
? why can’t they tell me how much of what I’m spending reaches my hosts – how do I know that my hosts are being fairly recompensed for their hospitality?

… we would suggest that it’s unlikely that the particular organisation can help you achieve your goals.

Once you’ve worked your way through stages 1 & 2, you’ll have a short-list of ‘good guys’ and most will have responsible travel policies. Through talking with previous volunteers or local people, you’ll be able to find out if the organisations actually do what they say they do – then make your choice and take responsibility for your decision!

Feel good about your choice, feel good about volunteering, feel good about the whole experience – and do all you can to ensure that you’re not the only one to feel good …then you’re well on the way to being a responsible volunteer.

Contributor: ed
Created: 05/06/2008

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