11 top tips for first-time volunteers at conservation projects
[This post has been contributed by our fabulous new Eco Journalist Arran Moran. You can check out his adventures on his Youtube channel linked at the bottom of the post]
Making the decision to volunteer and travel for the first time is extremely exciting but nevertheless a very overwhelming choice as we all know. So that’s where we come in! Here are our very own expert top tips on how best to navigate through the world of your first volunteering experience abroad.
1.Time for a bit of research
There’s nothing better than hearing about the real-life experience of someone who’s already been and done a project by reading reviews and blogs of other volunteers’ experiences. But it’s easy to become swayed by other people’s opinions and enthusiasm. It’s important to spend the time thinking about what it is you want to achieve through volunteering. Make a list and prioritise it. Don’t be afraid to email organisations to ask questions or even give them a call to speak with someone – this is often the best way to get a feel for whether the experience is right for you.
Asking questions can also help in making sure that the money you spend is really having a positive impact on the local communities and conservation projects where you’ll be based, and not just going into one man’s pocket.
Find out if:
- The project is driven locally: has a local organization identified the need/ project?
- It doesn’t erode any local jobs: someone local isn’t able to do it
- It is focused on sustainability and skills: there is a clear demonstration as to how your project will create a social and/or environmental impact
One more thing before moving on. It’s very common for volunteers to have some down time and naturally want to spend that time experience a range of local activities as part of their stay. Before jumping into all the excitement that comes with activities such as swimming with dolphins or elephant riding, it’s important to have a look into which tour providers and types of activities are genuine, both from an ethical and environmentally beneficial point of view. Remember, getting up close with animals that should be in the wild usually means there is exploitation and cruelty going on behind the scenes.
2. Learn what you can about your project
You won’t always be able to anticipate exactly how your experience will go, since most volunteering projects are based around the needs of the community at the time. However, it is certainly important to fit in some preparation for your chosen experience before you get there.
So, if you’re going to be doing some teaching, have a think about the what sort of activities you could do with the kids. If you’re going to be with a marine conservation organisation, it would be good to have a look into some of the current issues facing the area and some information about the marine species living there.
While it may seem like a lot of extra effort now, it will certainly help you feel like you’re in your element when you do get there and allow you to add that extra spark of creativity to the project you’re working on. #Knowledgeispower
3. Pack with purpose
So, you’ve decided on a volunteer experience that seems like the right fit for you. What now?
If you’re going to be frantically shoving items into your luggage the night before your big adventure, ideally you want those items to be useful to you when you get to your destination. First off, you will want to look into what type of clothing is appropriate for the destination you are travelling to. Whether that’s thinking about the weather or the cultural norms of the country. Whilst the organisation you volunteer for may provide a list of things to bring, it may be a good idea to pack some extra clothes which you don’t mind leaving behind for the communities where you’ve stayed, so light shirts and trousers often make a great contribution to the communities you’ve stayed in.
In addition, if you want to earn some eco traveller brownie points for that extra save the planet feeling, have a think about the environmental impact that your toiletries might have. Try seeking out some plant-based options which are low in parabens and use minimal packaging (but don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t substitute everything in your arsenal of toiletries).
4. Find a way to contact your loved ones
Whilst it may be good to escape society while you are volunteering, everyone from home will likely want to know what you’re up to and more importantly whether you’re still alive. So, before the big leaving day, make sure you have some method of communication set up which doesn’t leave you wasting time strapping post-it notes to carrier pigeons. Downloading apps such as Skype or WhatsApp can allow you to jump on your phone quickly to tell people back home the recent developments of your awesome journey.
5. Set some goals for yourself
Volunteering will undeniably be an exciting and exhilarating experience, with days flying by filled to the brim with daily activities, cultural experiences and meeting a whole bunch of new people from across the globe. Which is why it can be a great idea to spare some time for writing down a few key things that you want to get out of the experience before you head off.
Having an idea of things like:
- Which skills you want to learn or develop?
- Where do you want to visit?
- Who do you want to meet and get to know?
- Which animal(s) you want to see?
And whilst there will probably be all sorts of things which you could have never anticipated happening during your adventure, it’s always good to check back on your original thoughts every now and then, just so that you don’t steer too far away from the reasons you decided to come originally.
So now you’ve finally done it: you’ve booked your volunteer placement and you’ve read up on what to expect! There’s nothing else to think about now other than the terrifying packing day or week and that plane journey to other side of the world. Now for the experience itself …and with that comes just a few things to think about.
6. Always be flexible
Don’t forget that your experience won’t always go perfectly to plan. Some days will be filled with people and experiences you could never have planned for, whereas some days might be completely different with plans all over the place and nothing you aimed for getting done.
The important thing to remember is that no matter what happens, it’s all a learning experience and each moment provides you with more awareness of the new culture you’re volunteering in. Whether that’s challenges faced in travelling, cooking or even weather events, each moment teaches you more so just go with the flow and learn as much as you can along the way.
7. Have a chat with everyone
Whilst this might seem to go slightly against the stranger danger rule your parents taught you, volunteering is a new and exciting experience filled to the brim with learning and exploring. The best way to get the most out such an experience is to connect with as many people as possible.
So, get chatting with the other volunteers, try to start conversations with the locals and the staff behind your project. You’ve already stepped out of your comfort zone getting here so why not go one step further and learn even more about the people and the community surrounding you.
This can often be where your pre-trip research comes in handy. Applying your newfound language skills and cultural awareness to become a fan favourite within the communities you visit (some call it teacher’s pet but we prefer becoming a true champion of eco-travel).
8. Look after your health
It might seem obvious, but when you’re surrounded by exciting scenes and sounds, it can be easy to forget the simple things in life, such as, well…. your health.
Make sure you keep on top of your health as poor hygiene can end up coming back to bite you in the ass. Things, like eating well, staying hydrated, sleeping regularly and showering daily, are all important routines which can make sure your experience remains enjoyable. Plus, nobody wants to be known as the smelly one in the group, now do they?
9. Have some time to yourself
There’s no doubt that you will be meeting lots of new friends who share your interests and spending the most part of your experience with them.
But don’t forget to occasionally have some time to yourself, go for a walk, or sit on your own overlooking some spectacular scenery, and allow your thoughts to run wild in complete peace. It really does do wonders for your mind.
10. Document the experience
Has an experience really happened if you have no way of showing it off?
In all seriousness though, its great to have memories of a new experience, so whatever your style, whether that be writing, photography, movie-making or creating some sort of PowerPoint presentation; make sure you spare some time to record your memories.
This will not only help you relive the experience but is also great for explaining what you experienced to your adoring family and friends back home.
11. Enjoy every second of it
As simple as this sounds this could be the only time you ever have this experience in your lifetime so just take it all in and never look back.
You have also now officially earned yourself bragging rights among your friends and family. Try to use this power with care when you’re back as you can lose friends from bringing it up in every single conversation (speaking from personal experience). But that doesn’t matter to you because you’ve been having the time of your life!