Lots of people want to give back to the community and volunteering is one of the best ways to do that. A popular trend is to combine a love of travel and give back to the society you’re visiting by volunteering abroad. While there may be good intentions behind gap year students and others taking part in ‘voluntourism’, it’s always important to find out as much as possible about the organisations you’re volunteering with as there are some easy traps to fall into, which mean you may be causing more harm than good.

Here are some important questions to ask yourself and the organisation you’re planning to volunteer with to make sure that you’re volunteering responsibly.

Time constraints are an understandable limitation for most people, whether you’re taking time off work or taking a gap year you have plans and commitments that you’ve got to work around. When thinking about volunteering and how long you’re going to be able to contribute you need to focus on the project. How long will it take for you to make a difference? If you’re there for 3 weeks and it’s going to take 2 weeks for you to learn the skills you need to start contributing, how much are you really able to help? If you’re not there long enough to make real progress, perhaps it would be better to find a different way to contribute to a cause you care about.

It’s also important to think about the people you’re interacting with while you’re volunteering. A constant flow of new faces arriving, spending time together, and leaving a few weeks later can leave locals feeling abandoned and have detrimental effects on their mental health, particularly if you’re working with children.

There are a few really important things to take into consideration here. Firstly, the local community has to be the priority. Is this a cause that is genuinely helping, that they want you to help with? Often organisations can look at the project from the outside and impose what they believe is the solution without speaking to the locals about what they want. For example, outsiders may decide to build a new school for the locals, however locals would prefer for this money to be put towards new books and more teachers and aren’t worried about going to school in an old building. So, make sure that it is a cause that the locals support, and that they are comfortable having strangers in their community.

Secondly, what is your role in this project? What skills are you providing that locals cannot? If volunteers visit a community and provide free labour, then they may actually be taking the job of a local person. This reduces cashflow into the local economy and has a negative impact on the community. Similarly, volunteers bringing ‘gifts’ for locals such as shoes and water can divert business and income from local markets.

Thirdly, are the skills you have applicable to this project? We wouldn’t hire you to build a house in the UK without appropriate experience, so why would you travel abroad to build someone else’s house? If you don’t have the right skills, this can lead to the completion of unsatisfactory work and create more problems further down the line. This isn’t just professional or technical skills, but also applies to having the emotional and cross-cultural skills to handle the difficult situations you may be in.

There are a lot of organisations who act as a middle-man to help you volunteer abroad. You can be charged up to £2,000 to volunteer abroad for a month or 2, but where is your money really going? You would hope that this goes towards the running of the project, providing materials, food and supplies sourced from the local community. This is why it’s important to make sure it’s a Non Profit Organisation. Some organisations may be driven by generating a profit rather than providing a meaningful solution to the problems a community is facing. This leads them to disregard many of the things we’ve already discussed – placing inexperienced or unskilled volunteers into projects that the community doesn’t want, just because this will provide the organisation with an income.

There is also a danger that the allure of money will encourage local communities to claim the issue is worse than reality. For example, in some areas of Nepal communities have recognised the desire of volunteers to come and work in orphanages, donating money to them as well. This has lead to ‘ready-made’ orphanages which are set up with kids who may not be orphans just to generate an income.

At Our Sansar we’ve thought long and hard about all of these questions in an attempt to make sure we’re supporting the local community and doing as much good as possible. The project started by seeing a local issue and talking to the community about what a solution would be. Birgunj is near the Indian border and there are many children living on the streets, with huge trafficking issues across the border. There are no other organisations there assisting street children and that’s why we decided to work there. Initially the community was apprehensive, as with any new venture, but now that we’ve been there for a while we have full support and are well known in the area. The Child Helpline is a joint project with the local government so there is huge involvement from local businesses, police the municipality and the mayor.

We don’t have a set plan of how many volunteers we need in Nepal each year. When someone applies as a volunteer, we interview them and match their skills with what needs to be done on the ground – this means that we make sure they have the right skills to ensure that the work volunteers are doing is worthwhile. We always make sure there aren’t too many volunteers there at once as this can be disruptive for the boys, and they are our priority. Birgunj is a completely different world, it’s very rural and there are no modern facilities so volunteers need to be mentally prepared for that and know what sort of environment they’re going to be visiting. It’s important to us that the boys don’t feel like the volunteers are just arriving and leaving regularly, so we encourage the volunteers to stay in touch with the children, and many come back to visit when they can. 

We don’t charge our volunteers anything to volunteer at the Birgunj Children’s home. Once they’ve been approved to volunteer all they have to do is arrange their flights and Our Sansar cover the accommodation and food while they are in Nepal. We are also entirely volunteer lead in the UK – this means that any money that is raised and donated goes directly to running the home, helpline and our local workers from the community.

Volunteering is a great thing to do and can provide huge benefits to local communities as well as the volunteer, it’s just important to make sure you’re doing it in the right way. If you’re interested in volunteering with Our Sansar either in the UK or in Nepal (once we can travel safely again), we’d love to talk to you and find out what skills you have that can help at the Birgunj Children’s Home.