Seven years ago (2006) I began looking for a wildlife conservation project to volunteer with. I wasn’t looking to specifically work with cats or monkeys – but something with scientific validity & that really made a difference.
I assumed it would be a simple matter to find a good project to go on. But instead found a plethora of confusing choices & options – websites were full of vague weasel words, PR spin & green-washed commercial ventures.
It was confusing and impossible to make a rational judgement between different organisations based on the information they provided.
There was no independent or reliable system for judging how effective an organisation was & I was amazed at how few organisations even bothered to explain what achievements their projects had made.
I also began picking up stories about phoney volunteer projects – counting the same turtles week after week, mapping the same coral damage, painting the same school building & even families renting their children to pretend orphanages for westerners to care for.
Outcomes seemed to be a concept that few organisations had even thought about – when I asked organisations most answered that their outcomes were – sending 1,thousands of volunteers to hundreds different projects.
Essentially, recruiting volunteers was the objective & sending volunteers WAS the outcome.
I thought Social media websites might hold the answer but they were very disappointing. They were full of people asking:
“What is the best project to volunteer with?” – responses were invariably meaningless “this one is awesome”, “my friend had a great time at xxx” or “I’m planning to go on this one.”
There was no rational criterion for judgements or recommendations, it was just social chit-chat.
So, being a writer & a researcher with a geeky gene I began comparing what was available & eventually drew up a research proposal to analyse & make sense of wildlife conservation voluntourism. I discussed the idea with Bradt Travel Guides – a very forward thinking publisher who commissioned the book as a guide.
During writing I talked to hundreds of academics, researchers, volunteers as well as trade professionals.
Initially the publisher & I thought it would be possible to identify & rank the best projects & the best organisations. But the more I looked the more complicated it became & simplicity went out of the window.
There are so many different types of organisation working under the conservation volunteer banner. The smoke & mirrors, PR green-washing & simple bullshit became ever more apparent.
Key issues in creating a guide were:
Simply comparing organisations & projects was a chalk & cheese issue – almost impossible & potentially unfair or misleading.
Initially I thought that I could create a definitive guide but soon realised that that would only be true for ME.
The biggest problem with designing a quality & good practice audit was that volunteers don’t all want the same thing. Different volunteers seek different experiences & value different things – so what’s important to one person may be unimportant to someone else.
Cost, safety, pre-departure training, lots of hand holding, less hand holding, being with similar people, working with local people, other activity options available, learning/CV, entertainment, comfort, adventure, scientific validity….
Different individual expectations are enormous.
So my guide is not a top 50 best organisations but a comprehensive audit of various factors that enable volunteers to review those factors that are priorities for them.
The core audit looks at 9 criteria:
1. PUBLIC PROFILE
Awards won, media coverage, membership of key organisations and third party sponsorship or endorsement
General organisation, previous volunteer contact and field planning
3. PRE-DEPARTURE PREPARATION
Training, aims and objectives, clear job specification and volunteer liaison
4. WHERE THE MONEY GOES
Cost, extras, drop out penalties, in-country spend, project benefits
5. IN THE FIELD
Clarity of purpose, project longevity accommodation and work/leisure ratio
6. ENVIRONMENT and CULTURE
Carbon offsetting, environmental impact and cultural preparation
7. SAFETY MEASURES
British Standards Institute BS8848:2007 status, explicit details and comprehensiveness of safety procedures
Verifiable public record (publication) of past activities and tangible conservation achievements
9. POST-TRIP FOLLOW UP
Evaluation, level and extent of follow-up and post project support
The audit criteria alone are insufficient – it’s just a summary.
The book includes a series of templates to assist prospective volunteers in exploring key issues so individuals can choose what would be the right project for them:
Analysis & assessment of 50-60 organisations & a framework to assess others
How to plan?
How to choose?
How to identify what’s important to you?
Where to go?
What animals you could work with?
In addition there are also first-person features stories about volunteering & a mixture of volunteer experiences.
01 March 2012