The Guide to being an ethical volunteer

Question yourself and sign up to the 'volunteer charter'

Are you ready to be an ethical volunteer?

So you have found an organisation that you like the look of. You have questioned them about their programmes and the way they run and you think they have the programme for you. Now it is time to think a little bit about your own motivations for volunteering and make sure you are ready to do a bit of ‘ethical international volunteering’.

The Irish development workers organisation Comhlamh (Gaelic for ‘solidarity’) have developed an excellent code of practice and charter for volunteers and sending organisations, and the following is based on their work (visit and

So here are some questions to ask yourself as a volunteer:

Q1. Are you willing to inform yourself as much as possible about the country and community you are about to travel to?

If you want to learn about a new country and a new community, then you need to be prepared to learn in every way there is. It is not enough just to turn up and hope everything will be obvious. It won’t be. Before you travel learn as much as you can about where you are going. Read books, watch films, find out who’s in government and what the leading football team is. There are loads of places to find information. The BBC website list news on every country in the world, Stanfords, Daunts and other specialist travel bookshops will be able to help you out- and as ever you can see what, from the brilliant to the total waste of time, the internet can offer you.

Once you arrive in the country you are visiting keep learning. Read the local papers, go to local events, follow the football team, keep up with local and national news and of course talk to people. An amazing number of travellers and volunteers manage to stay oblivious to what is going on around them. History, politics and culture will not simply reveal all their complexities to the volunteer who, however interested, can’t be bothered to do any research.

Q2. Do you feel ready to take on the volunteer job you are applying for?

Be honest about what skills you feel you have to offer and take on a role that is appropriate. If you have never taught before then just because you speak English and have travelled to a foreign country doesn’t mean you are suddenly going to know anything about teaching. Maybe you are looking to develop new skills, but then choose a role where you will be a teaching assistant, or running an after schools programme. And if you really want to teach- well then do a course, for example a TEFEL, volunteer in a school in your home country before you leave.

The same principle applies to any job you might take on, be it medical work, construction, tourism or so on, if you are taking the volunteer placement because you want to learn new skills then make sure you are not expected to bring any skills with you.

Q3. Are you ready to travel as a learner and a guest?

None of us become international volunteers for purely altruistic reasons. Rather we do it because it is exciting, because we might learn something, because we want to meet new people who live lives different to our own and because, just maybe, we might have something to offer. By acknowledging why we volunteer we tell our hosts not that they should be the grateful recipients of our altruism, but rather that they are people we can learn from and with. We ask them to be our teachers, not just tell them to be our students. The best volunteers are those who feel they have as much if not more to learn as they have to give.

International volunteering can be a great way for people from different cultures and communities to learn about one another. But for this to happen, as the volunteer who has the privilege to travel, you need to be ready to share yourself and learn from those you visit. As the head of international volunteering as VSO states: “volunteers [must] adopt the humility and the commitment to learning that will be crucial if they are to be effective.”

Q4. Are you prepared to be professional?

International volunteering is not just a ‘cool’ way to go on holiday. You are making a commitment to those that send you and those that host you. The worst volunteering experiences tend to occur when the expectations of the sending organisations, the volunteer and the host organisation do not match up. Having secured a basic job description from your sending or host organisations are you ready to commit to taking on this role? Turning up late, leaving early, taking holiday without arranging it first or without making sure it fits in with where you are working (e.g. if in a school then during term time) can all be very disruptive.

Are you prepared to work in ways that may be different to what you are used to but may be locally appropriate and ‘normal’? You need to be ready to be flexible and to be professional.

Q5. Are you prepared to be flexible?

In becoming an international volunteer you have chosen to leave your home country to go and work in another country. You have chosen to go and meet and work with people who are ‘different’ from yourself. So you need to expect things to be different. This may mean different approaches to communication, to time keeping, to organisation; it may mean different ways of managing projects and different expectations for project outcomes- and you need to be ready to work with these differences.

Ultimately this means being humble enough to learn from others, and open enough to say when you don’t understand. If you want, or expect things to be just like they are in your home country then why are you travelling abroad?

Q6. Are you ready to take responsibility for your own health & safety?

Many international volunteers travel a long ways from home. In doing this you need to be ready to take responsibility for your own health, mental and physical. Your sending organisation won’t always be able to anticipate every situation, and it is important that you feel up to making decisions for yourself in the situation you are entering. Be aware of the differences between volunteer programmes that work with teams and have permanent supervision and those where you might be on a lone placement- choose what feels right for you. Make yourself aware of local health issues and make sure you have adequate insurance.

Q7. Sign up to the Comhlamh code of conduct for Volunteers

If you feel you are ready to be an international volunteer, and what to do the best you can to do things in a fair way then sign up to the ‘volunteer code of conduct. Find the code of conduct at print a copy, sign it and send it back to your sending organisations. Let them know that you intend to hold them to high ethical standards and you are prepared to hold your self to such standards too.

Finally, enjoy & learn

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questions to ask yourself...

Are you willing to inform yourself as much as possible about the country and community you are about to travel to?

Do you feel ready to take on the volunteer job you are applying for?
Are you ready to travel as a learner and a guest?
Are you prepared to be professional?
Are you prepared to be flexible?
Are you ready to take responsibility for your own health & safety?
Sign up to the Comhlamh code of conduct for Volunteers


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Last modified on: July 18, 2006

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