When you decide to participate in a sustainable volunteering abroad program, it is probably because you want to give something back, learn about new cultures and have an enriching experience at the same time. But not all volunteer abroad programs are the same and the impact you are having on the community or environment you work in can sometimes be detrimental.

From projects that are run without taking into consideration the needs of local communities to accommodation choices that have a high impact on the surrounding environment, there are many ways that a volunteer experience can be unsustainable. So what are good measures of sustainable volunteering and how can you find out which organizations are doing the right thing before you commit?

What is Sustainable Volunteering?

Sustainable volunteering
Sustainable volunteering is about ensuring that the organization you are supporting is conducting themselves in an ethical manner, from administration through to projects and monitoring their long-term impacts.
But it is also about living in a sustainable manner that doesn’t leave a huge footprint on the environment. This might mean recycling and composting waste material, using renewable energy resources to power living spaces and opting for public transport or bicycles instead of private vehicles.

It is really important to do your research before you commit to an organization and decide whether it matches your values and ethics.

How to Make Sure Your Volunteer Program is Sustainable

There are a lot of different ways to measure whether your volunteer program is having a positive impact on the local communities and environment or leaving them in a worse situation than they were to begin with. Firstly, look at the history of the organization and whether they have a reputation and track record of conducting sustainable volunteering programs. Do some research to find out if their programs are being conducted with the consent and collaboration of local communities. It is easy for a volunteer organization to go into an area and impose what they think is best for the community and environment. But it is far more ethical to work alongside local communities and devise projects that take into consideration their needs and cultural sensitivities.

Perhaps the volunteer organization is run by local staff or they employ people from the local community in day-to-day activities. Maybe they’ve consulted village elders in devising a strategy for successful project management and to come up with goals that specifically target the community’s needs. Sustainable volunteering is about servicing the needs of the community or environment you are working within, not the volunteer organization’s bank balance.

Look for organizations that promote themselves as sustainable and have the evidence to prove it. Do they do what they say they will do or are they making false promises? Consider how they show respect for the local culture and communities and how they address specific issues for each destination. Also, find out exactly how the money you pay will be used, and if the organization’s not willing to be transparent, consider going elsewhere.

Sustainable volunteering
A good way to determine many of these things is to read online reviews from previous participants
in the organization’s programs. They are usually a great overall indicator of satisfaction and often highlight any issues encountered or situations that may have brought up ethical dilemmas for the participant. Keep in mind that there are always some people who just aren’t prepared for the reality of volunteer work, so be objective when reading about their experiences and consider how you would react to the same situation.

If possible, chat with previous volunteers who have participated in programs with the organization you are considering. Perhaps they go to the same high school or university as you do and you can find out first-hand about the sustainability of the organization and the experience they had. Ask them whether they think the project is beneficial for the local communities or if the environment is showing signs of recovery since the program started. Pictures and videos on an organization’s website only tell one side of the story and being able to speak with a previous participant will allow you to uncover a lot more information.

Also, try and find out about the accommodation where you will be staying and if it adheres to environmentally responsible principles. Perhaps you’ll be in a homestay with a local family and the money you pay for accommodation will go directly to assist them. This is a great way to really immerse yourself in the culture and language in an experience you’ll never forget.

If you’re staying in private accommodation, is it having a minimal impact on the environment through recycling, renewable energy resources and green cleaning products? Particularly in remote communities and sensitive environments, it is important that bringing in large groups of volunteers isn’t having a detrimental impact due to the added stress on resources.

Once you’re at the volunteer placement, you can also do your bit by trying to implement sustainable practices if they’re not in place already and adhere to those that are. Turn off lights and appliances when they’re not in use, take public transport, walk or cycle to the project each day and choose to shop for groceries and other goods in shops that support the local community.

Spreading the Word

Sustainable volunteering
If you do have a great sustainable volunteering experience, then make sure you share it with others when you return home. It might be as simple as posting about it on your social media pages or speaking to a wider audience at your school or university. Highlight why you thought the program was run ethically and sustainably and point others in the right direction as to how they can apply and raise funds for their own sustainable volunteering experience.

Build Abroad’s Commitment to Sustainable Volunteering

At Build Abroad, our ethos is centered around socially conscious volunteering and implementing sustainable principles wherever possible. The reviews from our previous participants are testament to the values we uphold in all of our destinations, ensuring our construction and building projects are beneficial for the communities and environment into the long-term future.