5 Steps to identify unethical volunteer projects

Volunteering abroad may be one of the most exciting and rewarding things in your life. The following simple steps assure that good intentions translate into a good experience.

Tom Hornbrook from HOOP Peru shows us the best way to avoid participating in unethical volunteer projects.

There is a big focus on best practice in volunteering these days. More and more enthusiastic do-gooders are taking the extra time to make sure they’ll genuinely be doing good.

But there are still volunteering roles out there that miss the mark when it comes to working ethically. That’s why Tom Hornbrook from HOOP Peru has put together a handy roadmap of the most common ethical pitfalls in the busy world of volunteering – so you can avoid them.

1. Go in blind

Failing to do a few simple checks could leave you working somewhere where you’re not needed or even being a burden on the charity or community in question. Of course, this wouldn’t just be bad for the charity but would make for a bad experience for you too. If you choose to go through a placement company, make sure they have a good relationship with the host charity, and that they’re not just taking money from well-meaning volunteers to place them somewhere they’re not needed. There are also plenty of low-cost ways to volunteer by contacting small charities directly – but again, going in blind is a surefire way to risk being an unethical volunteer!

2. Bite off more than you can chew

Another route to volunteering on the blurry side of ethics is to take a role that’s way above your pay grade.

While many organizations will ask you to be enthusiastic, with good people skills and a willingness to learn, that isn’t a green light to try your hand at medicine or engineering if you’re not qualified.

A good NGO will make sure your skills and experience are appropriate for the volunteering role. If they ask you to do something you’re clearly not qualified to do, that is a good sign to ask questions about the organization.

3. Lack of assessment

If an organization offers you a volunteer position without trying to find out anything about you, they could be leading you to an unethical volunteer project. While a detailed application form, references and interview process might seem like unnecessary hoops to jump through, they’re important to make sure the position is a good match for you. The selection process is also a great chance for you to ask any questions you have and to make sure you’re happy that the organization is working ethically and transparently.

4. Imposition and Actionism

An NGO that imposes itself on a community rather than working in partnership with them is certain to get you into a project without real social perspective. A good NGO will have local involvement – not just in running the project, but also having a say in its aims and aspirations. Before signing up, check if the NGO is providing a useful service for the community, with local involvement, and if it’s valued by those it seeks to help.

5. Do someone’s job for free

What could be more morally righteous than traveling to a community in need and helping to dig a well or build a school? But what if your well-meaning toil actually puts a local laborer out of work? Volunteering in low-skilled work can be hugely rewarding and bring projects to life that would otherwise not have existed, but do your homework first and make sure you aren’t taking jobs from the local community. Otherwise, as well as digging a well, you could be digging yourself an ethical black hole.

Volunteering abroad will probably be the most exciting and rewarding thing you can do in your life. And, if you follow these simple steps, you can make sure your good intentions translate into a good experience for you, the charity and the host community.

For more tips on best practice, check out the guide at Ethical Volunteering.

What do you think about this tips? Are there helpful? Have you had a similar experience when volunteering abroad? Please share it with us. We are looking forward to your feedback!


This post is brought to you thanks to the contribution of Tom Hornbrook. He is the Director of Communications and Development at HOOP in Arequipa, Peru. HOOP is not affiliated to any religious or political ideals. We work with the impoverished people in the Flora Tristan community. Flora Tristan is a shanty town located on the outskirts of Arequipa composed of haphazardly constructed shacks with a lack of basic services, such as electricity or running water.

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