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Placement Advice from a Veteran Volunteer Abroad

Amelia takes a photo of Eeyore the donkey, an animal in DAKTARI's wildlife orphanage. Amelia McKinlay

Who? What? Where? A few tips on choosing an environmental volunteer program.

The most difficult thing about volunteering is deciding where to go and which organization to choose. After my first year of university, I volunteered at a conservation project in Costa Rica. It was my first experience volunteering internationally and although I thought I had done all the appropriate the research, it wasn’t quite what I had expected.

Since then, I have done several other volunteer projects, including my current placement where I am working as a long-term volunteer for a year.

Almost all the volunteer placements I have been involved have centred around the environment or wildlife. Since my first experience in Costa Rica, I have learned a lot about what to look for when choosing an environmental organization to volunteer for abroad.

Figure out who exactly you'll be volunteering with

The first thing to consider is how you heard about the opportunity itself. Was it through an agency, social media, or a friend? If you found it through a volunteer placement agency or volunteer-sending organization, it's essential to find out the name of the organization you are volunteering for in-country. You need to know exactly where you are going and what environmental NGO you will be working for before you go.

I have had experiences where you do not find out this information until you have left home and are in the country. If the agent is not willing to give you this information, I would suggest finding another project where you have the opportunity to be in contact with someone who is based at the project itself, not in an office in London or Toronto.

Do your research

Once you have found the organization you will be working for it is important to look at their website in great detail. Do you values align with theirs? Have there been recent volunteer reviews? Are they active on social media? These things are all useful to determine whether or not you will have a good experience.

If you are still unsure about the organization, or can’t decide between a few projects, you can always get in touch and ask to speak to a previous volunteer. It can be useful to hear from someone who has already experienced it.

Align your expectations with reality

Lastly, it is important to think about what work you will be doing there. Although you may think the work they are doing is great, is it what you want to be doing?

For example, maybe you are very interested in protecting turtles but does that mean you are willing to plant trees all day and walk for hours on the beach?

I have been at several volunteer projects where the volunteers are not happy with the work they are doing. If you don’t like doing manual labour or being outside in the heat, make sure you find a project in a more temperate climate or a position based indoors.

Determine if the project is ethical and sustainable

If you are looking at an organization that works with animals, it is crucial to understand why the animals are at the project and how you will interact with them. You want to be 100 per cent sure that you are not contributing your time and money to a project that is harming or abusing the animals in any way. If you are unsure about an organization be sure to ask lots of questions before you make the commitment to volunteer.

I found out about the organization I am currently volunteering at through a friend who had also been a long-term volunteer here. She gave me a great deal of useful information but I also did a lot of independent research before I applied to be sure that the organizations values were somewhat similar to mine.

If you have any questions about choosing an appropriate volunteer project, feel free to ask in the comments below!

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Amelia McKinlay

Amelia McKinlay is a master's student based in London, passionate about conservation and the environment. She has lived in five countries around the world. Previously, she blogged for Verge about volunteering at DAKTARI Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage in Limpopo, South Africa. Currently, she's researching tropical forest ecology in Borneo, Malaysia.

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