South Africa is the sixth most searched volunteer destination on Google and high on many ‘top volunteer destinations‘ lists. With its big variety in volunteer programs, wildlife, nightlife, history and surfing opportunities, it’s obvious why — you get all the excitement of traveling while making a difference.
However, to really make a difference, there are some crucial things you should consider before booking a volunteertrip. Dutch filmmakers Loeke de Waal and Steffi Posthumus made #doinggood, a documentary on the effects of the booming voluntourism industry, and came up with a practical list of things to keep in mind before booking your trip abroad.
It may seem like the obvious thing to do, but it can be incredibly hard to find clear information on a lot of volunteer programs. Don’t be afraid to ask questions — What is it you’ll be doing on a daily basis? Where? With whom? What kind of introduction will you get? How many other volunteers are there? What skills do you need?
If the agency or project can’t answer your questions, you might want to reconsider booking your trip with them; after all, you want to make the biggest impact possible. Another thing you could do is try to find out through other volunteers. A lot of volunteers keep a blog during their trip and will be super enthusiastic to share their experience with you and give you some great advice and tips!
Worldwide, the amount of volunteer programs has increased by 800 percent over the last ten years. Not so much because there are more people in need, but more so because of the profits people are making off of it. The ‘all-in-one’ volunteer trips most for-profit travel agencies offer might be the easiest way to go, but keep in mind that they get a percentage of your money. If you book directly through a charity, you can be (almost! Don’t forget about number one) sure your money is going to the project, and you’ll probably find that it’s much cheaper.
To really make a difference, sustainability is the keyword. And how sustainable is a project ran by foreign volunteers? Usually not very. That’s why you should absolutely think of the involvement of the local community. Even though it might feel like you’re doing ‘more’ when you’re in charge, it may be better for the people/community that you’re working for to be more of an assistant to the locals at the project. They are the ones who should be able to keep it going once you’re gone.
Everyone has seen them: pictures of (mostly white) boys and girls and cute (mostly black) kids. The voluntourism industry wouldn’t be as big as it is now without them. But what message do you want to send across, and how genuinely altruistic are your motives if you constantly post pictures of yourself while doing good? More importantly, how would you feel if you were in the position of the kid(s)? Even though they often like taking a picture with you, they don’t have a clue what it entails to be on the world wide web, pictured as the ‘poor,’ ‘helpless,’ ‘needy’ kid. Think about what you should and shouldn’t post. Does your picture help spread the word about the project? Go ahead. Does it help your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Vine look cuter? Just don’t.
Before you book a trip, think about what you’d like to be doing and if you have the skills to do so. Of course, a trip like this is also a great way to learn something new. But keep in mind that you only have a certain amount of time. Could you really be a teacher/construction worker/caretaker/ranger within a couple of weeks? And how much time and effort would you be willing to put in, preparation-wise? Again, an assisting role could be a lot more useful in the long run, and you’ll still learn plenty of new things.
This point goes hand in hand with number five — getting to learn a new language and culture is awesome. But keep in mind that it might make your chances to really make a difference harder, as it will take more time to communicate and adjust to the other culture.
Be realistic about the amount of time you have. Are you going for (half) a year? Sure! Than you can definitely grow into it. But if you just have a couple of weeks, there’s only so much you can do. Keep that in mind when booking your trip!
A lot of volunteers struggle with their expectations versus the reality. By doing your research (number one) thoroughly, you can minimize disappointments. But realize that sometimes being disappointed inevitably comes with traveling. And that’s actually a good thing because it’s one of the main things from which you could learn. Besides, if you’re open to it, the reality might even exceed your expectations!
Before you even start doing your research, set out your goals. Why do you want to volunteer? Who do you want to do it for? What do you want to do? Why do you want to do that? And how could you do that in the most productive way? If you make it clear for yourself what it is you want to do, you’ll notice you’ll get a lot more done during your time as a volunteer. Again, be realistic about your time and skills and set achievable goals like ‘I want to teach the teacher and the kids a children’s song from my own country’; ‘I want to help a local with writing an application letter’; or ‘I want to cook my favorite meal for everyone in the orphanage so the caretakers get some real quality time with the kids.’
Last but not least — enjoy it! Volunteering can be a life-changing experience — most definitely for yourself and if you do it mindful, you might just make a sustainable change in someone else’s life as well!
With #doinggood, Loeke and Steffi want to open up the debate on voluntourism and stimulate youngsters all over the world to have a (more) critical look at their motives to want to volunteer abroad. Want to help to make that happen? Support their crowdfund campaign so they can submit their film for international film festivals and spread the word! Or if you’d like to see the film, visit www.hashtagdoinggood.com.
By Steffi Posthumus and Loeke de Waal