1. Make sure you can afford it
Spending money to work for free may seem bafflingly illogical at first glance, but the reality is that volunteering abroad is expensive. Before you have even paid for your placement you will have to make sure you can also afford the airfare to get there.
You’ll also need to consider the cost of visas and vaccinations. The charge for the placement itself will depend on many things, such as the type of volunteering, the location, and how much time you spend on the placement, and typically covers your accommodation, food, training, local transport, insurance and background checks.
2. Find a good organisation
The international volunteering industry is absolutely huge, and growing by the minute. With so many organisations out there, inevitably some are more scrupulous than others, and it’s crucial to get in with the former to ensure you end up on an ethically sound placement.
The key is research. Tons of it. If you find a project you’re interested in, find out as much as you possibly can about the company behind it. Check online reviews and search through forums. If possible, speak directly to people who have worked on whatever placement it is – any reputable volunteering organisation will be happy to put you in touch with its previous participants.
3. Ask the right questions
Once you have found an organisation you trust, it’s time to dig a little deeper. It would be ideal to speak to them in person but a phone call is a good second best option. Be prepared with a list of questions. Some of these could include:
Why do you need a volunteer and not a local person who could work for a wage?
How exactly does my fee break down?
What kind of training will you provide?
Is there a local partner organisation who manages the project on the ground?
In what ways is the local community involved?
How do you select your volunteers?
What will my day-to-day life be like on the project?
What are the long term goals and how do I fit into them?
What kind of support will I have on the ground?
They should be just as interested in you as you are in them. So if the only questions they are asking are concerned with the numbers on your credit card, be very cautious.
4. Match your skills and interests to a project
When choosing a volunteer placement, it’s really important to think of the big picture. If you are already involved with or want to pursue a career in teaching, a suitable project could be teaching English to children (providing you get a TEFL qualification). If you want to work in the veterinary profession, an ideal placement could be rehabilitating animals back into the wild. Those studying to be doctors or nurses could join a medical elective for a few weeks.
Matching a project to your skills and interests not only means you have a rewarding and truly valuable experience, but it also ensures the project is genuinely benefiting from your presence.
5. Spend a suitable amount of time
How long to commit to any given project is subjective and largely dependent on the type of volunteering. Generally speaking, if you will be working with young children (perhaps teaching) a good amount of time is two to three months, so you can create a real and meaningful rapport with them.
For environmental and wildlife placements, which are often more focussed on manual labour, you can make a positive impact as a pair of arms in just a few days.
Keep in mind that for some projects, on the ground training will be necessary, so factor this into the total amount of time you can dedicate.
6. Be prepared to work hard
Whether you’re digging foundations for a new school in Cambodia, collecting marine data on a coral reef in Belize, teaching football to kids in Romania, educating a village community in Ghana about AIDS, or clearing out a pen in an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, one thing is guaranteed: you will work hard.
This is exactly how it should be: the last thing you want is to be standing around kicking your heels. The harder you work, the more important you will feel to the project and, ultimately, the more difference you can make.
7. Isn’t it better to just donate money?
Sometimes, yes. A good example where money is much more welcome is in areas hit by natural disasters, at least in the immediate aftermath. While it might be tempting to get the first plane out there to pitch in, you could end up being an added burden in what will already be an incredibly chaotic situation. In a general sense, the best thing is to think with your head and not your heart.
In other words, try to put aside altruistic feelings for a moment, and truly ask yourself whether you as an individual will make a more positive difference by physically being on a project as opposed to simply donating money.
Will is the Editor at gapyear.com, a website aimed at backpackers and budget travellers, and where you can plan, book and share your travels. He tweets @willjackjones.