Volunteering abroad - what to consider

Volunteering abroadPic: AFP/Getty

Volunteering abroad has become an increasingly popular form of travel for those looking to help others less fortunate while experiencing new countries and cultures.

It is essential that anyone looking to volunteer in the developing world knows exactly what they're getting themselves into, where they will be of most help, and that their good intentions are not, in fact, causing more problems. If you are planning such a trip, here are a few pointers on how to make sure both you and the communities you want to help get the most out of your trip.

It is unlikely that you'll jump into volunteering on the spur of the moment, but nevertheless, it's important to do your homework. Being informed about where you are going and what help is needed is a must in order that you can prepare yourself ahead of the trip. In some cases, volunteering in poor communities can be a harrowing experience, so read up on your chosen destination before you get there.

The right organisation
On the face of it, most charitable organisations seem legitimate but sadly that's not always the case. Research those that you are leaning towards online and make sure that you agree with their philosophy and goals. If it's a charity that is based within your chosen location, check that they are registered in the country of origin and with the local government.

Make contact
Once you've made your choice, it's a good idea to email the organisation well in advance of your planned trip. They will be able to provide you with useful information about the country, travelling, and any extra requirements that you may need, such as a police check. Then ask where and how you can help. Although you may have very specific skills, you may find that you can be of the most help by doing anything from building houses to shovelling mud. There might even be small but essential items that would do the power of good, so check whether there is anything you can bring with you to help out.

Even with the best intentions, the money and help from volunteers can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help, and in some unfortunate cases, communities or orphanages can be made to look poor to encourage donations, money that never gets to those who need it the most.

Consider the situation and how you can really help. For instance, how much money, that could otherwise go to good use in the community itself, is being spent looking after volunteers? Is it likely that you will be taking a job that a local worker desperately needs? Once again, informing yourself of the situation, problems and requirements at your chosen destination can help you decide whether to sign up or not.

Realistically, most organisations would like long-term volunteers who are prepared to give up their time for anything up to three months. There are some who will happily find two weeks, or even one or two days' worth of work you can do, but remember, if you go for only a short time, you may find the induction accounts for half of your time abroad.

If that's the case, why not consider doing a little fundraising before you travel? Donations or essential items brought from home will almost certainly be welcomed, and it will allow you to give to the community even if you can't spare the time for a long-term commitment.

Have you volunteered abroad? What tips would you give to those considering a trip? Leave your comments below...