Volunteering and Gapyearing

It's becoming the time of year when the national printed press bash volunteering on a gap year. No that's no quite true. There's certainly a debate to be had about the value of volunteering with certain projects around the world, but really it's part of the broader debate on approaches to development work in general. For example, the charge of "new colonialist" is something that could be levelled at any number of developmental projects across the globe.

Judith Brodie, VSO Director, origin of the "new colonialist" quote issued another press release this year- hammering home her message in case we'd forgotten:

"Last year VSO warned that gappers risked becoming the new colonialists if attitudes to voluntary work in the developing world didn't change. It argued that the gap year market was increasingly catering to the needs of volunteers, rather than the communities they claim to support."

Dutifully papers like the Daily Telegraph, The Times and Daily Mail printed the whole of the press release pretty much slanted in such a way that the message seemed to be that volunteering abroad is basically an ineffective guilt soothing waste of time. Daily Mail reader Mike from Dunstable better sums up this school of thought than I can:

"I don't understand why all of a sudden students seem to think it compulsory to have a "gap year" which appears to be a waste of time. Why can't they go straight off to university and waste their time there instead."

Unfortunately none of the papers printed what the VSO Director seemed to be basically saying which was: if you're going to do voluntary work overseas research it well. VSO produced an interesting checklist that serves to ensure volunteers should have, rightly, high expectations of their volunteer management:

1. Will you be given a defined role and purpose?
2. Will you meet face to face with your provider and attend a selection day to assess your suitability for the volunteering opportunities and gain detailed information about the structure of your placement?
3. How much will it cost and what does this pay for?
4. How will you be supported with training and personal development needs before, during and after your placement?
5. Is the work you do linked to long-term community partnerships that have a lasting impact? And how do volunteers work in partnership with the local community?
6. Does the organisation you are going with have established offices overseas that work in partnership with local people?
7. Can your organisation guarantee you 24 hour a day health, safety and security assistance?
8. Does the organisation have a commitment to diversity amongst its volunteers?
9. How does the organisation encourage long-term awareness of real development issues?
10. How will your work be monitored and evaluated so that others can build on what you have done?

If we want to improve standards in volunteer management, educating potential volunteers about what the ingredients to a worthwhile volunteering experience are, is surely an important part of this.

There's certainly an interesting debate to be had and it's worth reading the case studies in The Guardian (last year!). There's a firey debate after The Times article. The Guardian this year asks rather facetiously whether gap years should be for 'backpacking' fun?

The pick of the crop is this thoughtful article blogged by Alex Klaushofer at AlertNet titled "Are gap-year do-gooders wasting their time?"

What certainly comes through is that volunteering certainly is a hot topic which has a wider appeal than many give it credit for. The challenge for us is how to help ensure high standards in volunteering are ensured. Last year Dr. Kate Simpson launched the initiative Ethical Volunteering which takes anyone interested in volunteering through three steps to finding and discerning ethical and valuable volunteering experiences.

I have to declare an interest in this issue as someone who volunteered abroad for eight years. Much of the polemic comes from companies selling volunteering experiences. Tom Griffiths, Founder of gapyear.com, a portal for finding gapyear placements, questions VSO's neutrality making the point that VSO is itself a competitor working to attract gapyearers. It's interesting to ponder whether when the volunteer is a paying customer who the actual beneficiary is in the equation.

One point I'd agree with that comes through is that research is key and paying an agency should not be seen as a way of shortcutting this time consuming process. Often you'll be handsomely repaid for every hour you spend doing you research, looking into opportunities, communities, personal skills, etc., whether or not you volunteer via an agency.

People should not rule out doing this research in situ and build in a certain period of time for getting your bearings (learning language, finding your way around, meeting the people) before starting to volunteer. So often the most interesting opportunities are advertised word of mouth and can only be found once you're there. In addition, organisations will inevitably listen more to anyone who's already in the country and you'll be better placed to say realistically what you're able to offer.

In summary, it comes back to the guidance from ethical volunteering:

1) Look for an ethical organisation

2) Question the organisation

3) Question yourself

As JFK (who set up the Peace Corps) said (almost): ask yourself what you can offer the community through volunteering, not what the community can offer you because you're volunteering.

Keep this to heart and your volunteering during your gapyear (whenever you take it) could well be one of the most rewarding, minute for minute, of your life.

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2 thoughts on “Volunteering and Gapyearing

  1. I first got into volunteering through a 'gap year' although mine was taken two years after I graduated. Without that experience I would probably still be stuck in the legal profession.I then worked in the gap year industry for about 4 years – both in this country and in the countries we worked in, offering 3 month placements on conservation projects. Did those 3 month placements make a difference? Individally not a huge amount. But collectively as part of a longer-term 3 -5 years project then yes. And in the remote areas we worked in, our projects and volunteers did boost the local economy.However, in my time, the market increased rapidly with a number of new organisations starting up offering 'volunteering' opportunities which seemed to be glorified holidays more than anything else.Increasingly the need overseas is for skilled volunteers rather than a set of willing hands (ie what I was) but I still think there is a place for 'unskilled' volunteering overseas in gap years – and let us not forget the personal benefits the volunteers get and the financial boost the local economy receives – but maybe greater regulation is needed.I would be interested to know why VSO has raised this issue at this time. If it is to raise awareness of the importance of researching the organisation then good on them. Except that the questions they put forward are nothing new -  the Year Out group, which was set up in the late 1990s as a form of self-regulatory body, already has an extensive list of questions potential gappers should be asking.

  2. The term 'voluntourism' kind of suggests that what people do on gapyears is some kind of subclass of volunteering. The key here is that it depends on the quality of the volunteering opportunity, the volunteer managers in place as well as the volunteer themselves. For sure, often volunteers are unskilled relative to paid equivalents- but isn't that sometimes the case in volunteering in general? The answer is to put proper induction and training support in place- not rubbish the concept of volunteering wherever it is taking place. It's also about championing the fact that part of the value of volunteering is that it's about learning new skills and discovering new experiences.Another segment of the criticism is that volunteering abroad is only for the rich. There are barriers to volunteering whether it takes place- there's no question. This is something any volunteer manager recognises and at the same time does their best to overcome. Many people work, fundraise (an education in itself) or commit for a length of time with an organisation before they are able to volunteer abroad.The debate though verges on questioning the value of volunteering abroad in a country that not your own, or in some cases of volunteering per se. It's worth having a look at the most popular comments on the BBC discussion of the topic and they are all, without exception, cynical about the value of volunteering. There's plenty of comments of the flavour, "why don't people get a proper job?" and "these people should pay their taxes".Finally it's important to note that not many argue so vehemently against taking a year out to travel- what seems to rankle with people is that gap year volunteers are having a great time while saying they're helping others. It's healthy for anyone in any kind of work to ask their beneficiaries how effective the service they offer is. But really we should be celebrating that volunteering offers a way to benefit others, as well as yourself. If people believed this, how many more would opt to volunteer in the UK? =============Patrick DanielsOnline Volunteering – YouthNet

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