3 Questions to Ask Before You Volunteer

By Logeetha Balakrishnan

It seems like an illogical idea, having to pay to volunteer. It sounds like walking into a company and telling them you will work for free, bear the burden of any cost incurred while helping the company make a lot of money. It’s counter-intuitive, counter- productive and only needs another word that says ‘counter’ before we deem this the holy trinity of ‘How to Create a Really Bad Idea’. But this is exactly what goes through people’s minds when you throw at them the idea of paying to volunteer. Why should I pay to do something good? Isn’t the donation of my time and skill enough?

But before we even get into all of that, the crucial question is should you even be traveling the world to volunteer your services? And if so, how does one travel and volunteer the ‘right’ way to ensure maximum impact for the community your are visiting and not mere satisfaction for yourself? We are all familiar with the slew of criticisms directed at international volunteering and it’s not a pretty sight. Recently, Inspired Escapes released a free e-book titled ‘Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good’ which offers guidance to the prospective volunteer before they embark on their journey. Often it’s just a matter of asking yourself the right questions. 

We have listed some important questions they raise to help you make better decisions when it comes to international volunteering.

1. Am I qualified to volunteer?

 Victoria Smith from Long Run Initiative says it best:

“If you’re not skilled, qualified or legally allowed to do something at home, what makes you think communities abroad should accept you doing it there? If it was the other way round, what would you think? Would your parents, or you as a parent, be happy welcoming a teacher with no skills, no qualifications, no experience and no ability to speak your language, let alone no police checks?”                

2. Is the organisation I want to volunteer with making any real impact?

The best way to answer this question is to ask the organisation you intend to volunteer with questions around how they select beneficiaries for a project, the nature of their relationship with the communities, how long they intend on working with the same community and how they intend to create sustainable impact. If the organisation does not provide satisfactory responses or is not invested in sustainability, you may want to think twice about volunteering with them.

 3. Is my presence taking away jobs from the locals?

 If you’re volunteering for a long period of time to do tasks such as painting a fence or helping clean an elephant sanctuary, you need to ask yourself whether your presence is harming the local economy. It might be wise for you to just donate to the organisation so they can hire locals for the task instead of you spending all that money flying across the world to do something which can be done by locals. Ask the organisation for skilled volunteer opportunities instead which are difficult to fill with local talent.

*At MAD, we require all volunteers to fundraise for the cost of at least 3 biosand water filters in order to qualify for our volunteer trips. This ensure the communities we visit benefit from the presence of volunteers. Additionally, our volunteer trips are short 2 day field visits designed to expose the volunteers to the water crisis in Cambodia, not to take away jobs from the locals.