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Projects Abroad response to the volunteering debate

Volunteers in Argentina

If you are entering your gap year, or are a parent of a gap year student, you may be concerned about recent news stories concerning the merits of gap year volunteering.

It was reported in the press that VSO had criticised volunteering on a gap year for being “a waste of time” and for doing “nothing to help developing countries”.

The first thing we wish to say about this is that VSO were misrepresented to some degree in what they said. What they actually meant was that there were organisations which ran good projects and there were organisations which ran bad projects, and that gap year volunteers should take care to make sure they signed up with the good ones.

Volunteers in Costa Rica

This is, of course, good advice, and it is particularly relevant at this current time because these last few years have seen a huge number of new gap year companies arriving on the scene, and the standard of what is now on offer to gap year volunteers can vary dramatically.

So how can you tell a good gap year organisation from a bad one? One way that VSO came up with is by assessing how well they can answer their Gap Year Checklist, which consists of 10 questions. Here are our answers:

1. Will you be given a defined role and purpose?

All our volunteers choose a project to work on, whether that be Teaching, Care, Sports, Conservation & Environment, or one of the many other projects we Volunteers in Mongolia offer. Within each category there are a number of different types of placement, and we will discuss with the volunteer what is available to them and what this involves before they leave. When they arrive in the destination country they will meet with our staff and their placement supervisor before starting work.

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?

Volunteers can but are not obliged to meet with us face-to-face before leaving the country. We do not run selection days because our volunteers fund us – why should they be expected to pay and go through a selection process? This is very different from VSO, who are funded by the government.

3. How much will it cost and what does this pay for?

We are very clear about our prices, and provide everybody with a breakdown of where our money is spent.

Volunteers in Nepal

4. How will you be supported with training and personal development needs before, during and after your placement?

We believe that, whilst training days are a nice idea in theory, the reality is that team games and discussion groups in a hotel conference room in Birmingham are simply not going to prepare you for the realities of day-to-day life in a school in Mongolia or an orphanage in Bolivia. For this reason we put the majority of our efforts into supporting our volunteers “in country”.

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?

All our projects have links to local organisations, which may be schools, orphanages, hospitals, sports clubs, community groups, businesses or something else, but Volunteers in Sri Lanka what they will all have in common is that they choose to take on our volunteers, and at no cost to themselves. We have been working with some of these organisations for as long as 15 years now, and will hopefully continue to do so a long time into the future.

6. Does the organisation you are going with have established offices overseas that work in partnership with local people?

We have established overseas offices in all 21 of our destinations, all of which have autonomy regarding the placements they find and allocation of volunteers.

Volunteers in Thailand

7. Can your organisation guarantee you 24 hour a day health, safety and security assistance?

When our volunteers are “in country” they can call on our local staff at any time of day or night.

8. Does the organisation have a commitment to diversity amongst its volunteers?

We have sent volunteers from 34 different countries. We have taken many steps to make our projects accessible to a wide range of people, including providing help with fundraising, and working with our partner charity “The Reconstruction Project” to provide scholarships for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Volunteers in Romania

9. How does the organisation encourage long-term awareness of real development issues?

Once our volunteers return from their projects we will often stay in touch with them through newsletters, emails and in various other ways. In this way we hope they see the continuation of the development work they were involved in.

10. How will your work be monitored and evaluated so that others can build on what you have done?

Now we are in our 16th year we have a number of placements where we know there will be a steady number of volunteers, and it is on these that we have developed systems of information exchange and sharing of “best practice”

These 10 questions are all well and good, but we believe that the true test of an organisation is its transparency. Projects Abroad has always tried to be as clear as it is possible to be about all areas of work that we are involved in. This is why you will find, right here on our website, more information about who we are, more detail on our projects and more volunteer feedback than you will find on any other gap year website.

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