Written by Andy King for whatCharity.com

There are a variety of companies and charities that offer overseas volunteering opportunities, which range in price from £800pp to £3,500pp. This has traditionally been an incredible way for organisations to raise vital unrestricted funds and for participants to see the difference they’re making for themselves. However, over the last few years, there has been a growing scepticism surrounding the merits of international volunteering.

Articles such as ‘the problem with little white boys and girls’ and ‘forget helping people, you’re only [in it] for the free tripshave become increasingly popular, and the charities that promote these opportunities are tackling more and more objections. Indeed, international trips are often dubbed “voluntourism” and described as either doing more harm than good or as being run in the self-interest of the volunteer.

Whilst it would be impossible to deny that there are some individuals in the world trading in on the kindness and naivety of potential volunteers, making personal profit whilst not actually assisting the world at large, it seems difficult to accept that this is true of the many (or, as some seem to think, most) of the volunteer opportunities in the world.

Throughout the rest of this piece we will examine ways to identify an ethical volunteer project.

There are three main things to consider are:  

1. What is the main thing you are contributing by volunteering?

In many instances, the main thing a volunteer contributes to an organisation is their fundraising efforts. Most, if not all, volunteering projects have a minimum fundraising target to be met in the participant’s home country before they fly out. Some of this fundraising will cover the cost of your project, but most of it will go to the charity directly – participants do anything from bake sales to half marathons and raise funds from their family and friends before heading overseas. This fundraising enables the project to happen, with volunteers doing unskilled labour whilst seeing the impact of their effort.

In instances of skilled volunteering, such as teaching English, you should ensure that you are adequately trained/qualified to provide this service – you should never be taking away jobs from local workers, and never be assuming to be qualified based on your country of origin. Each organisation should have its own policy and paperwork you can request to ensure this is the case.

2. How much of your cost is going to the cause?

It’s important that the company or charity are transparent with your costs. It’s common for a fundraising target to be set to cover your in-country costs as well as make a donation to the charity, and this is absolutely fine – as long as the charity receive the majority of the money and this is clear to all participants in fundraising. A common example is climbing Kilimanjaro for charity – you might have a £3,200 fundraising target where £1,500 covers your flight and in-country cost and £1,700 go to the charitable objects of the organisation you’re supporting.

Check for reports on how the organisation have spent volunteer funding in the past – any company that rips up and replaces a single toilet block over and over should be sniffed out in this way, and the impact report will give you something to shout about whilst volunteering.

3. What cultural training are you given, and how are you followed up on this?

Volunteers should be given ethical and cultural training prior to departure. Reputable organisations should have policies on the use of photography, the distribution of gifts and guidelines on what to expect whilst in country – all of which ensure you have a positive impact during your time. When working with young people, it’s important to ensure the organisation has measures in place to avoid over-attachment and abandonment issues, but many will have these procedures already in place. It’s also worth considering the organisation’s welfare policy for volunteers and the culture shock they might face.

As long as the organisation you’re looking at volunteering with can provide satisfactory answers to the above questions, the likelihood is that you’re able to have an incredible time and make an incredible difference. Volunteer fundraising often provides vital unrestricted income for charities, allowing them to grow and thrive, whilst raising awareness of the cause at the same time. Some people object to volunteer projects on the grounds that volunteers sign-up for personal gain, but this personal gain is what motivates the volunteer to raise thousands of pounds – as such, the end very much seems to justify the means. By appealing to new audiences, charities are able to grow in ways they wouldn’t be able to without that mutual benefit – imagine a world where only those who had a strong, strong affinity to cancer gave to cancer research charities. There would be no bake sales, no events, and likely a lot less research.

If you’re keen to make a difference and have a good time doing it, I’d recommend international volunteering in a heartbeat. If you’re interested in continuing the conversation about benefitting from charitable activity, Dan Pallota’s TED talk on the subject is an incredible starting point, or you could consider approaching a RAG (Raising and Giving) group at a local university.


Andy King

Andy is the Partnerships Manager of East African Playgrounds, having previously run international volunteering opportunities such as the Gorilla Trek for the last two years. East African Playgrounds charity can be found here