6 mins

How to be an ethical volunteer

Taking a trip of a lifetime doesn’t have to mean blowing all your savings, Wanderlust explores the options open to the traveller wishing to give something back...

Don't do it to make yourself feel good, give something back (Projects Abroad)

Every year thousands of travellers head off around the globe on volunteering trips. Even mainstream holiday companies have jumped on the bandwagon, offering a wide range of volunteer weekend breaks and overland tours. But is all this ‘doing good’ really helping people, or is it just making travellers feel better about their holidays? 

In recent years there has been a growing backlash against ‘voluntourism’ – a kind of casual volunteering that focuses more on providing a rewarding experience for volunteers than improving life for people overseas. The director of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) recently suggested that short-term volunteers may do more harm than good and The Guardian even described volunteering as the new colonialism, with armies of well-meaning idealists forcing their world-view onto developing communities across the planet. 

“There’s a presumption that all volunteering is inherently good,” warns Dr Kate Simpson from the organisation Ethical Volunteering. “But you have to look carefully at the work you will be doing and how it affects local people. Many agencies over-emphasise the impact that volunteers can have. If a project sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Finding an ethical organisation

With so many volunteer agencies competing for each ethical pound, volunteers need to choose carefully. Most charities and NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) are looking for people to do specific jobs. Agencies that allow volunteers to do jobs without the right qualifications rarely have the best interests of the host community in mind. 

The easiest way to find a placement is through a volunteer-sending agency – but be warned, some agencies are little more than glorified holiday companies. The Ethical Volunteering website (www.ethicalvolunteering.org) has some excellent guidelines for choosing an ethical sending agency. There are also plenty of books on volunteering, though only a few have an ethical focus – check out How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas (Penguin) by Joseph Collins, Stefano Dezerega and Zahara Heckscher.

Do it yourself

There are loads of organisations that can match you with a project, but many volunteers find a placement on their own and save hundreds of pounds in agency fees. However, finding a good project can be tricky without an agency to point you in the right direction. 

“A placement might look great on the web, but the NGO could have no money and the work you end up doing could be nothing like the work you originally signed up for,” warns Katherine Tubb at the small agency 2Way Development. “It can be very hard to assess a project if you can’t visit in person, so check all organisations thoroughly before you sign up.” 

One way to get round this is to find a project after you arrive. Many schools in the developing world welcome applications from volunteer teachers who can cover their own costs and commit to a year of teaching. Local volunteering organisations can also put you in touch with charities and NGOs. 

The following websites have extensive listings of grassroots volunteer projects and sending agencies worldwide: TimeBank (www.timebank.org.uk); Working Abroad (www.workingabroad.com); WorldWide Volunteering (www.worldwidevolunteering.org.uk); Volunteering England (www.volunteering.org.uk).

What can I do?

The image of the volunteer as saviour of the rainforest and educator of lost tribes is badly out of date. Today’s volunteers work in fields as diverse as biochemistry, sports coaching and accounting, as well as more familiar roles in teaching and conservation. Reputable agencies will only send volunteers to projects that need their skills, so look for a volunteer position where you can use the skills you use every day at work. 

Doing something different may provide a change from the daily routine, but this is rarely the best way to help local communities. If you don’t have the skills to do a job at home, why should you be qualified to do the same job overseas? This is particularly relevant for teaching. Many schools accept volunteers from any background, but children learn more from teachers with real classroom experience.

Remember, ethical volunteering requires more than good intentions. Most aid projects are looking for volunteers who can commit months or even years to working with disadvantaged people. If you only have a few weeks to spare, you need to choose your project carefully. Constructing a new classroom may do more good than a week of teaching English to unruly six-year-olds. 

Volunteering can broadly be divided into development and conservation. Development projects cover a huge range of activities that help people, from teaching and healthcare to construction and management training. Conservation projects focus on monitoring wildlife and environmental education. Volunteer sending agencies usually specialise in one field or the other; agencies that cover both may lack expertise in either area.


Many environmental charities and NGOs have openings for skilled and unskilled volunteers – mostly in the fields of conservation and education. As well as skilled scientific positions, volunteers can find work monitoring endangered species and teaching local communities about conservation and environmental tourism. Many national parks and nature reserves need office staff and rangers, as well as people to tidy walking trails, repair signs and fences and clear up litter.


Development is a vast field, covering everything from digging wells to running clinics and teaching business English. The job opportunities are as varied and diverse as the global job market but unskilled positions tend to be restricted to building work and acting as an assistant to project staff. For more challenging jobs in business, healthcare and education, you need time, skills and experience. 

Some agencies do place unskilled volunteers in skilled positions, but this rarely benefits the helper or the host communities. There are even reports of agencies paying villages to accept unwanted volunteers. Teaching positions are best left to teachers with TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training or mainstream teaching experience.

Skilled vs unskilled

Most development and conservation projects are looking for skilled volunteers. Labourers are rarely in short supply and unskilled volunteers can actually take work away from local people. Look instead for projects that use skills you have developed at work. There are as many openings for IT technicians and bankers as there are for English teachers and environmental campaigners. 

Perhaps the most famous skilled volunteer programme is Voluntary Service Overseas 

Related Articles