Sound advice for anyone who is thinking about Volunteering

Since starting Grassroots Nomad, the number one question that I have been asked is ‘How do I find grassroots / sustainable volunteering work?’

Unfortunately the answer isn’t a simple one as it requires a lot of dedication and hard work – before you even start to volunteer. But, if you aren’t committed to working hard to find the right place to volunteer, then maybe volunteering isn’t the thing for you.

Step One: What do you want?

The first step when deciding whether or not to participate in volunteer work is to think about why you want to do it in the first place. Is it to make your CV better (which it will)? Is it to make a difference (which you can do)? Or is it to learn something about the world, different cultures, a new skill, or even about what inspires you (which you will)?

So here are a few questions to think about:

Why do I want to volunteer?
What are my specialist skills?
What are my passions?
What are my interests?
What do I want to learn?
How can I transfer these skills to volunteer work?
What kind of countries, organisations, issues do I want to work in?

Now you have an idea about what you can offer, you have to think where these specialist skills are best suited. If you are a professional teacher, maybe you could help train teachers in remote communities and develop lesson plans? If you are an IT expert, maybe you could develop a website for a small organisation? If you are a social media wizz, perhaps you could devise a feasible social media strategy to improve an organisations’ online presence and boost volunteer/donation rates?

If you are not qualified to work in an area, then think hard about working in that field, particularly if it relates to children or animals. If you are not qualified to work around children, many of whom have faced incredible challenges in their lives, then please reconsider volunteering for a few weeks at an orphanage.

Volunteering at an orphanage or school seems to be the number one type of volunteer work that people want to do. Sadly, your presence might be doing more harm than good.

Step Two: Where will I apply to volunteer?

The key to stage two is research. This is not easy. There isn’t one site that you can go to which lists all the free, grassroots volunteering opportunities around the world (although I am working on it).

Grassroots volunteering opportunities aren’t available through travel agents or big tour companies. You have to do the ground-work yourself.

Now you know what you can offer and what you are looking for you will be able to target your research rather than flicking through hundreds of websites without any direction. These are the places that I go to when I’m looking for volunteer work and they have been very successful for me:

Read research papers in your chosen topic. E.g. My focus was human trafficking so I read a lot of articles by the UN and big organisations like Anti-Slavery International, etc. Look closely at their reference list. These organisations conduct interviews with small, grassroots charities that work within these communities. They are the experts.
Research organisations that collaborate together. If you have found one charity that you like the sound of, read their research and see if they collaborate with other organisations. This is a great way to give yourself a number of different options for volunteer work, as your first preference might not accept you.
Read articles written by previous volunteers. Verge Magazine publishes a lot of different articles written by volunteers. It was in one of their online editions that I read an article by a lady who spent time volunteering with the Himanchal Education Foundation in Nepal. I will be spending the month of November volunteering with them myself, so I will update you on my work.
Talk to people. Keep your ears open for new opportunities or organisations that you haven’t heard of before. There are also groups online, such as Responsible Tourism Networking Facebook group where people regularly ask advice about volunteering opportunities or sustainable travel.

Stage Three: Applications

Once you have compiled a list of potential organisations it is time to make contact and ask whether it would be possible for you to volunteer.

Things to consider when writing your email/letter:

Keep it short and use simple language. Often English is the second, third, or even fourth language spoken by the staff you are emailing. If you use complicated language you may be impressing yourself but they will just be confused.
Explain what you can offer. Why should they let you volunteer? Volunteers are a lot of work for an agency as they require training and divert staff away from their day-to-day work. Make it clear that you have specialist skills and aren’t just looking to beef up your CV.
Be flexible. It is important that organisations pick volunteers that are able to offer skills needed by the community. This might mean you are working on something you never expected, but volunteering is about helping in a useful way – it is about what the community wants not what you think they want.
Be open minded, passionate, and show your dedication to the values and goals of the organisation.
Be respectful. Don’t assume that because you have qualifications that you know more than the people already working in these communities. Respect the work that they do, their motivations, and their backgrounds.
Once you submit your application, it is time to wait. Many organisations might not have frequent internet access or check their emails regularly so it might take some time for them to reply. Don’t lose hope!

Stage Four: Success!

After a few applications, you will find your organisation. Now it is time to discuss timeframes, what assistance they are able to provide with visas and accommodation.

See if you can conduct any fundraising before you leave, or if the organisation requires any resources that are hard to find – e.g. calculators, etc – that you may be able to bring with you and donate to the community.

Updated tip: Be flexible! In the hour or so since I posted this article my volunteering plans in Nepal have been cancelled due to increasing unrest and danger in the area. Now I have no idea where I am heading – back to the planning and research!


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