Volunteering or Voluntourism?

This post first appeared in Retirement and Good Living blog.  

Whether retired baby-boomers or gap-year kids, it seems more and more people are getting involved in international volunteering. What is it, and how do you choose which project to get involved in? Chris and I have just started on our full-time travelling career, and spend time either renting apartments in interesting places around the world, or volunteering on various conservation projects.  We’ve spent a lot of time researching which projects to get involved in, and now that we’ve participated in a few, we’ve gained some insights on how to make it work best for us.

White Rhinos in Zululand Rhino Reserve, South Africa
White Rhinos in Zululand Rhino Reserve, South Africa

Although it’s called “volunteering”, the volunteer is nearly always required to pay. This is not unreasonable, since accommodation and food is provided. How much you pay varies a huge amount, depending on the project, and often depending on the facilities available for the volunteers.

The other big question is what kind of work are you expected to do? Chris and I are pretty fit and healthy, and not afraid of hard work, but it seems that doesn’t always apply to all volunteers! We’ve chatted with some of the permanent workers on projects, and have learned that the quality of volunteers they receive varies a great deal. And this goes a long way towards explaining how much (or how little) work is expected of volunteers. If the project can’t be sure whether they’re getting willing workers, they’re unable to give the volunteers too much responsibility, in case the work doesn’t get done. This can be frustrating if you’re a willing volunteer! Plus if you’re only staying for a few weeks, it’s tough for the project to spend a great deal of time training and re-training new volunteers every few weeks.

African painted wild dog in Zululand Rhino Reserve
African painted wild dog in Zululand Rhino Reserve

We’ve figured out that the money we pay in order to join a project, not only pays for our accommodation and food, but also contributes towards the general running costs of the project, and that’s fine. If that’s our contribution, it’s ok. In return, recently in South Africa we have participated in projects like tracking African wild dogs, and noting ear tag identifications of both black and white rhinos spotted on the reserve. We’ve put up many camera traps for a leopard tracking project, downloaded and categorizing the photos taken. We’ve assisted in tranquilizer darting of nyala bucks for transfer between reserves, and had behind the scenes views of rhino capture and release.  And in Belize we’ve speared invasive lionfish, tagged conch and conducted transect line surveys of coral reefs.

invasive lionfish in Belize
invasive lionfish in Belize

We did begin one project that very quickly turned out not to be what we expected. There was some miscommunication and misunderstanding, we were too eager to believe that a lot of research was involved, and didn’t read the somewhat scant information given on their website, and it turned out to be more of a tourist project than research-based. That taught us the lesson that we need to do more in-depth research, look for unbiased reviews, ask more questions and read between the lines, when choosing a project.

7 top things to consider:

Project type: do you want to teach, help with children or animals, do you have medical knowledge?

Accommodation: are you ok sleeping in a tent, or sharing a dormitory, or do you need a bed in a private room?

Food: do you have specialized dietary requirements?

Language: does the project you’re considering require that you be fluent in the local language?

Age: ask about typical age groups of volunteers. It’s nice to be with a variety of age groups, but do consider this.

Work: what does a typical day’s work look like?

Reviews: look outside of the project’s own website for reviews. They’re generally going to show positive reviews! Dig deep, use the internet.

Nyala buck transfer in Zululand Rhino Reserve
Nyala buck transfer in Zululand Rhino Reserve

There is no doubt that we’ve seen and done things that the average tourist doesn’t. I think we’ve helped a bit too, and that’s our intent. We want to keep our brains and bodies active in retirement, and conservation work is important to us. We’re busy planning for several months in central America, so check out our future posts to see how the projects there turn out! We’ve found volunteering to be very rewarding. It pushes us outside of our comfort zone, we get to meet a huge variety of people, and try lots of interesting different foods. And it really does feel good to give!

Here’s more information, and questions to ask, in a very informative, in-depth article on Volunteering and Voluntourism from Uncornered Market blog.

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