I have met volunteers from all walks of life while managing volunteer-based community and conservation projects for the past few years. Everyone has something to offer, bringing different invaluable skills and experiences, providing manpower, coming up with suggestions and recommendations to solve problems, etc. It is about having a wonderful volunteering experiences, not just to share and contribute but also to gain insights and experiences working with the community in conservation.
Putting fun aside, there were also times when having volunteers is challenging. I often asked volunteers the reason(s) they volunteer. Volunteers who did their research about the projects before signing up had a better idea of what they would be doing at the project. But, there were also those who came because they or their parents thought volunteering would look good on their CVs, they just wanted to volunteer but were not keen on doing much, they had some time while travelling and did not know what to do or where else to go, they wanted to help turtles but did not know it involves patrolling on the beach at night, etc. Then I wonder, why would they sign up to something without knowing what they were signing up for?
I am writing this as I think that there are a few things people who plan or want to volunteer should know before signing up for it. This is so that projects and volunteers can meet each other’s expectations.
First of all, ask ourselves why do we want to volunteer and what do we want to gain?
This is important because it helps us to know what to look for while searching for projects and decide whether or not a project is suitable. For example, if we dislike children, we should not volunteer for a project that requires us to spend time every day with children. Not only will we struggle to work with children, the children also sense it that we don’t like hanging out with them. The reason we want to volunteer will be our motivation that decides how much (more) we want to be involved while volunteering. If we are there just to pass time, that is what we will do. However, if we want to learn about something, we will make sure we utilise our time there to gain those skills.
How much budget do we have? How long can we volunteer?
Look for projects that are within our budget. Anything less than one week is probably not sufficient to learn or contribute much, especially when it involves work that needs specific skills. Most work that the projects carry out require a certain level of skills and experiences, which can be acquired through training (with time). Unless we have the skills and experiences, we need to allow us some time to go through the training and practice. For example, it is overly ambitious to think that we could get certified as an open water diver and do dive surveys in one week period, even if the project tells you otherwise. Some people are natural divers but some become one with experience, plus it requires training to do surveys for research. Understanding this means we are able to tell if we have the skills and experiences to volunteer for a certain project, or we probably need to pick up the necessary skills first and if not, stay longer.
How much time are we willing to spend on volunteering every day?
Not many people put much thought about it. At most projects, it is a full working day every day. However, if we have in mind, from the beginning, that we only want to volunteer half a day and have the rest of the day free to explore the area, then look for a project that gives us the flexibility to do so. Some projects have more rigid schedule that requires volunteers to follow through a fixed itinerary. Find out as early as possible whether or not certain arrangement can be made.
Once we know what we want, do the homework!! There is no shortcut to have a good volunteering experience. In most cases, volunteers do not have a pleasant experience because the project has not met up to their expectations. At the same time, projects also feel the pinch as they have to put up with unhappy volunteers. This could happen because volunteers do not receive full information about a project, finds out later that what is happening on ground is far from what it is on the brochure/website or they do not take the effort to find out more about the project. Be more cautious of anything that sounds too good to be true. If we are booking through agents, make sure we get the right information. I personally prefer to get in touch with the project I am interested to volunteer with, rather than booking through an agent. Look online, find out more about the project and read up reviews by past volunteers (if any). Project’s website only explains briefly what they do and agents probably tell us what we want to hear but it is from volunteers’ reviews that we know more about the day-to-day work and living conditions. Every volunteer has his/her standards so be smart in gauging the reviews.
Good projects tend to have certain requirements when looking for volunteers. Be honest. For instance, if we are not swimmers, don’t say that we can swim. This is because for projects that do snorkel surveys, instead of us helping them in the surveys, they have to constantly look out for us and make sure we don’t drown. Projects have risk assessments and safety measurements but it is also our responsibilities to inform them about our health conditions so that they can take appropriate measures when necessary. Not all projects have good or any medical facilities in proximity.
All of this is essential, if we are serious about volunteering. Take the initiative to get in touch with the project before arrival to find out if there is anything else we should know or prepare. Every project differs, some are organised and some not, which is why we should take the time to look for projects where we can share experiences and learn new skills. Lastly, having the right attitude is utmost important while volunteering. Volunteer because we want to help. Having say that, Happy Volunteering!!