The Guide to being an ethical volunteer

Step One: Look for an ethical organisation

When trying to find an ethical volunteering organisation step one is to look at the way the organisations presents itself and markets its programmes.Step two is to question them more specifically, and step three is to question your self.

There are lots of things you can look for when picking a volunteer sending organisations. Most people concentrate on the cost, what country they want to go to and when they want to travel. But picking a good volunteer sending agency isn’t like picking a good holiday company, or at least it shouldn’t be. To find a good volunteer organisation you need to look at what’s in it for the host community, for the people you are off to work with.

Here are some ideas that will provide some clues to the way an organisation works, and the quality of its volunteer placements.

1. Look at the pictures and words the organisation uses to tell you about their developing world partners.

If you want travel with a good, ethical organisation the most important thing is the quality of the relationship the sending organisation has with the host organisation. You want to look for an organisation with a respectful not a patronising or colonialist attitude to their developing world partners- and there are lots of clues to be found in the pictures and words an organisation uses to describe the developing world.

Watch out for organisations that use lots (or even only) pictures of children to illustrate their projects. In colonial times the developing world, and particularly Africa, was seen as ‘childlike’ an idea that seemed to give Britain the ‘right’ to take charge, to be the parent and to know best. This sense of ‘child’ and ‘adult’ is still held onto by many people in the west, and encourages a patronising approach to the developing world. Whilst many tourism organisations rely on images of children to make the developing world seem friendly, innocent and so on, most international development agencies by comparison are very careful about using images of children in their advertising. So, if you are looking for a volunteer sending organisation that is more interested in international development and less interested in tourism look at the pictures they use. Are they all pictures of children been ‘helped’ by westerners? Where are the images of young westerners working along side people of their own age? Look for an organisation that represents the developing world in a positive way.

Words are as important as pictures. Again you want to find an organisation that describes the people they work with in positive, respectful ways. Avoid organisations that make it sounds like you will be ‘changing the world’ (you won’t be). Watch out for those that describe where you go as a place ‘of poverty and need’, there are always resourceful active people dealing with their own problems in every community in every country in the world.

2. Be wary of the BIG sending organisations

Big is not always best. Many of the better sending organisations are small. They work in specific countries, with specific partners whom they know well.

3. Look for an organisation that matches volunteer skills to the project

If you don’t know how to do something at home in your own country then you are unlikely to know how to do it in someone else’s. If you have never taught before or been a nurse, or run a charity then be wary of sending organisations that will ask you to do something you will not have the skills for. There is a risk that international volunteer work becomes a way for people from the west to go and practice, have a go at, things that they would never be allowed to do at home. This is using someone else’s country as a place to experiment, somewhere to play- this is when international work becomes colonialism. By all means if you want to work in a school then do so- but if you don’t know anything about teaching don’t volunteer to teach. Be a classroom assistant, help with after school programmes etc- match your skills to what to host is looking for. So look for an organisation that does this. Be wary of a sending organisation that will let you do anything you wish to sign up for. Rather, look for the organisations that are interested in who you are, what skills you have and then will match you to a placement – even if that means going to a country that might not have been your ‘first choice’.

4. Does the organisation ‘select’ its volunteers?

A good organisation will want to make sure that they are sending the right people not just the right number of people.. This means that finding suitable volunteers will be about more than making sure their cheques don’t bounce. Organisations that have some form of interview or selection process are probably more interested in the quality of the volunteers they send and the programmes they offer than those that don’t. So, though a selection or interview process might seem a drag – its existence is a clue to the ethics of the sending organisation.


5. Pre-departure and return briefings

As an international volunteer you are probably off somewhere new to do something new. The better prepared you are the better volunteer you will be. Look at what pre-departure training and support an organisation offers. Some of the smaller ones may not run specific training but they should want to meet you or speak with you before you go. Those organisations that offer de-briefings when you get back home show they still have an interest in you after you have paid your money and completed your placements- one again this gives you a clue to the ethics of the organisations.

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Last modified on: September 15, 2006

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