This post is part of my contribution to Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, a free guide to impactful adventures. Drawing on the combined expertise of two dozen leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference, it is a guide for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure – one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get. To order your copy, click through from the Adventures Less Ordinary webpage to register.
Make SMARTER Choices By Victoria Smith
To be a great volunteer, be SMARTER with your Search, Motivations, Assessing, Relationship-building, Transparency, Evidence and Reviews.
Think about it. 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?
Be SMARTER about what volunteer tourism you pursue, and you’ll truly have a much more valuable experience. If the process is more like booking a holiday than applying for a job, do you really think you’re going to be using or contributing any skills?
S – Search specifics
If you search the web for vague undifferentiated phrases like “volunteer projects abroad”, don’t be surprised when you get vague undifferentiated organisations or projects returned, or those that can buy their way to the top of search engine results through paid advertising or investment in the optimisation of competitive search terms. Specialist volunteer tourism organisations that do not take financial advantage of their clients are unlikely to have enough budget to compete. It’s easy for big organisations to use the right words and be found for the right phrases, but if ethics are not completely integral to operations, it will show through. You have a personal responsibility for being objective and discerning on the specifics about what you want to achieve.
M – Motivations
Be honest about recognising what your motivations are. If you really want to help, as most volunteers do, then look for concrete information about what it means to help, what has helped and what will help. If you wish to be part of a sociable group of volunteers, equally let it be known so that the right organisation can match you to the right opportunity, or your expectations will not be met.
A – Assessing
Appraise any stated project objectives against your real motivations. To find an appropriate match, assess the skills required against those you can honestly offer. Also assess the project information against the organisation’s responsible tourism policy. Make a quick audit of what’s included and what’s not on different organisations’ policies. Do price comparisons between organisations and look for value. Ask about anything that’s not clearly stated and then make organisations answerable to gaps and hold them accountable to their claims.
R – Relationships
Build relationships. They are the foundation of volunteer tourism. Get to know the sending organisations (so they can help match you well), reach out to previous volunteers (so you know what it’s like and what you are likely to be doing) and, preferably in advance, make contact with the community or the project you are going to support. Nurturing relationships connects stakeholders in the interest of mutually beneficial and longer-term positive results, which is especially important when people are coming together in a place with different motivations and needs. Remember that relationships require communication and respect, and that every communication has the ability to cultivate or damage.
T – Transparency
Transparency is about open and honest communication, something around which all good relationships are built. A sending organization should issue clear, specific, unquestionable, factual, consistent, congruent, aligned information that enables all involved to set realistic expectations about what each party brings to the table and what the outcomes will be. Transparency builds trust, creates expectations that can be delivered and differences that can be made. No one should feel let down, and longer-term reputations for the organisations and communities are built.
E – Evidence
If an operator makes a claim, ask if there is evidence. There should be no hesitation to offer supporting materials and explanations of needs, skills, objectives, cost breakdown etc. If there’s nothing to support a claim about positive impacts achieved, the need for supporting project work to be done, where your money goes… then you are fully right to question whether those claims are true.
R – Reviews
Read reviews when planning. Write reviews when you return. Write a blog post, add comments to the Better Volunteering and Negative Volunteer Reviews Facebook groups, send Tweets, contribute to operator and review sites. Shout about the great organisations that deliver positive impacts. And shout about the ones that don’t. Hopefully you won’t have to do the latter if you’ve done your research properly. Keep in mind that all organisations have a hiccup once in a while. Let them address it. The good ones will, as any ethical business’ ethos is to truly make things better. The questionable ones may just try and shut you up, but don’t let them!
Here’s a presentation I did on the theme at the World Travel Market in London:
And here’s the accompanying video – make sure you watch the other excellent presentations from Sallie Grayson (People & Places), Dave Coles (Kickstart Ghana) and Nikki White (ABTA).