The Internet is full of the usual advice about where to go and what to do on your gap year. And thereâ€™s no shortage of tips for volunteering on your year out. But how do you cut through the fluff and find the gold? And where can you get some insiderâ€™s insight? By reading Gap Year Escape, of course!
Here are some things that you probably didnâ€™t know about gap year volunteering, and they could change your whole trip…
1. Itâ€™s not necessarily better to go it alone
Thereâ€™s a lot of hot debate online about whether you should hand over your cash to a volunteering company, or arrange your placement independently and contact projects direct. So whatâ€™s the right answer?
Well, thereâ€™s no one best way, but Iâ€™d say that for most gappers going with a UK-based volunteering organisation is the better way to go. Why? Good British volunteering companies are able to supply regular and consistent numbers of volunteers to projects – which makes it easier for project managers to budget and plan what can be achieved in the medium and long term.
With a top volunteering organisation you also get experienced and knowledgeable co-ordinators on the ground to look out for you. These guys are sourced from the local community and liaise with the UK company back home if something goes wrong. If youâ€™re on your own, well, youâ€™re on your own – thereâ€™s no guarantee someone will look out for you.
2. Bigger isnâ€™t always better, either
So the bigger the volunteering company the better, right? Well, no. One of the big complaints about volunteering companies is that they just act as a middle-man, taking money that could go to the project. And this is often true. In some cases large companies buy up placements from smaller companies and sell them to volunteers. This means you could book a placement with company X but actually do the placement with company Y. Itâ€™s confusing.
The best approach is probably to book with a company that advertises the placement and has hands-on involvement with projects abroad in the form of local co-ordinators. You probably want to avoid companies that appoint non-local reps to drop off and collect batches of volunteers as if the placements are package holidays.
A complete booking-to-placement organisation will also usually stagger the sending of people, meaning that when you arrive there will be some experienced volunteers already there. Not just other newbies.
3. You can ask to do offbeat projects
When you browse around a volunteering site for placements, you see their full range of off-the-shelf projects. But what you probably didnâ€™t know is that some organisations are open to random requests, and will try and place you somewhere thatâ€™s tailored to your request.
Do you have certain skills or interests that you want to work on? Original Volunteers has sent people to projects specifically to plaster walls, cook porridge, fly a gyrocopters (seriously) and even work on Human Rights. Obviously, not all requests can be accommodated, but it doesnâ€™t hurt to ask.
4. You could take your whole class
If you think that you can only book individually or with a few friends, guess again. Some volunteering companies can take large groups out to projects. You can head out with all your friends, or even your entire sixth-form!
There are advantages to volunteering in large groups, too. In a lot of countries itâ€™s so much easier to get things done. In developing nations you can get a classroom or library built and usable in a week. For real.
5. You might be looking after the wrong kids
One of the most popular types of volunteer projects is orphanages. Volunteers are super keen to look after babies – especially in Africa – but the reality is that kids older than two are more in need of looking after, as after that age theyâ€™re far less likely to be adopted. Many face a life in orphanage-type care facilities. Thatâ€™s not to say that caring for babies and toddlers isnâ€™t worthwhile or rewarding, but think about who really needs your help.
6. You can do more than your placement
Speaking of who needs your help, the sad reality is that a lot of the people that need volunteersâ€™ help most are poor, underprivileged kids and families living beyond the reach of placements. Relatively, the kids on a lot of placement schools, care homes and orphanages are fairly well looked after.
Thatâ€™s why a lot of good volunteering companies will employ co-ordinators that will know the local villages and families most in need, and they will encourage you to go beyond the scope of your placement. You can get out there and make a difference by bringing supplies and mucking in with on-going work that needs doing – like helping someone rebuild one of their walls or dig a well.
You could also go further by raising money for a special cause or initiative that moves you while youâ€™re on your placement, like funding an operation for a kid youâ€™ve taught or looked after.
7. You should bring tampons, not toys
A lot of volunteers head out full of enthusiasm and carrying toys and other stuff that isnâ€™t whatâ€™s needed most. Many placements involving children will have plenty of toys and games. What people might really need is medicine, water filters and things that might not have really occurred to you – like underwear or hygienic items. So ditch the toy bears and stuff your backpack full of tampons!
About the author
Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor. He works in digital publishing, and has spent more than a year backpacking and volunteering around the world. He spent his gap year working in an African school with Gap Activity Projects, and later worked for advice and community site gapyear.com. His favourite countries are Bolivia, Sri Lanka and South Africa.