Planning to Volunteer? - Don't Make These Mistakes

Planning to Volunteer? - Don't Make These Mistakes

I want to precurse by stating loud and clear that I believe the vast majority of people who choose to volunteer are doing so with the best of intentions - and that there are some great volunteer organisations out there.

Our work  brings us into contact with some pretty  marvellous people ( I'd use the word "Awsome" if it wasn't so abused!) – some of whom may have made one or two of the following mistakes – 



1. Most important of all - Not asking questions – just about every organisation that recruits volunteers now lists questions volunteers should ask…..

2. Believing... - just because an organisation tells you the questions you should ask that they are going to answer them fully or honestly. Beware smoke and mirrors!

The answer to “where does the money?” go is easily whitewashed by allocating a whole load of costs to “project development” – yeh but what does that mean and where does it happen…in the host country or in a cosy office in the UK or USA? Is the well paid chief exec’s whole salary allocated to project development? Are the orphans in the orphanage really orphans? ( if you need a reminder about the questions you should ask here they are)

3. Taking “stuff” – let’s face it luggage allowances are low and if you are going for a month or so ( or making it part of a longer trip) you will need the whole of the allowance for yourself . Please do not be tempted to take things with you for your project unless you have been advised to do so by the project or placement organisation.

In many instances the “stuff” can be purchased locally for at least the same price if not lower – and you are adding to local wealth –  BUT most important of all  is it sustainable? – will the project be able to repair it or replace it when you are gone (so often we hear that perhaps a battery driven appliance would be a good idea if the project has no electricity - mmmmm but who’s paying for the batteries?) and indeed do they have the skills to use it? Is it culturally appropriate? You see it’s a minefield!

4.Making unrealistic plans  - our advice to our volunteers  is to ” take what you think you may achieve and halve it – then halve it again – and then reduce it by 50%”….and remember, your reality is not necessarily the reality of the project you will be working with.

You have skills but just about without exception you do not have MORE skills than local people just DIFFERENT skills from local people – and many of your skills just ain’t relevant skills in that environment.



1. Trying to do too much too soon – watch and listen first….be gentle with yourself and with local people .

2. Taking on too much – try to remember the goals that were set for you ( if you travelled with a responsible organisation – then you should have been given some goals!!!)

3. Making promises that cannot be kept – it’s so easy for misunderstandings to arise – when you think you have said “I will try to do that” local people may well have heard “I promise I will do that” – you can imagine the distress this can cause.

4. Not complaining as soon as a problem arises. It will be a very unusual volunteer placement that does not result in at least one problem – all too often volunteers do not draw this to anyone’s attention at the time – probably because they are uncomfortable and don’t wish to ”create a fuss” .

If you have travelled with a responsible organisation there will be someone you can discuss your concerns with, who you are not working with each day. Don’t let an issue that could be resolved spoil the experience for you and the people you seek to serve.  



1. Not allowing for the emotion of leaving your project – that cliche “it was life changing” is always true to varying degrees –  again, a responsible organisation will have some feedback and support systems in place for you.

2. Inappropriate giving  – WARNING – nearly all the countries you are likely to volunteer in do not have good postal services – if you post something you will lose it…and at best it will get stuck in customs and the project will not be able to afford to get it released! Again, responsible organisations will be able to advise you on the best way to continue to support your project, if that’s what you wish to do.

3. Not reporting bad experiences – we hear repeatedly from people who volunteered (not with us I hasten to add!) who were poorly served by the organisation to whom they paid their hard earned money. When we ask them to post their experience on the web or write a piece that we can publish, they “don’t like to cause a stir” – well if we don’t draw attention to BAD practise it’s going to make it pretty difficult to replace it by GOOD practise.

Here are acouple of sites to post on irresponsibletourism  abroadreviews and dont forget facebook.


So that’s my take – now it would be good to hear from volunteers – what do you think were the mistakes you made?