The ultimate guide to volunteering

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By in Jobs & Careers. Updated February 2016.

Everyone knows someone who’s spent their gap year/summer break/weekends doing amazingly helpful things, making us all feel bad. Good news is that can be you too!VolunteeringFrom spending your summer volunteering abroad or completing a whole gap year of placements to a weekly shift down the local charity shop, volunteering comes in all shapes and sizes.

Not only is it good for the world and gives you a warm fuzzy feeling inside, undertaking volunteering can help give you the skills to boost your CV, bag an ace job and even get you some extra qualifications. Swish!

If you’ve ever been interested in volunteering in any form, then this is the guide for you. We’ve compiled all our worldly knowledge on the subject so you can make the right choices and have some great experiences.

What types of volunteering are there?

doggyYou’ve most likely heard the most about people who go abroad and help struggling communities, but there’s so much more to volunteering than that.

In fact, we could make a whole massive wheel filled with different volunteering ideas and get a dog to spin it. Oh wait, someone already did that.

You could fundraise, help a charity out with marketing, organise activities at a youth club, be an admin wizard, try your hand at manual work or well, do just about anything really.

Charities come in all shapes and sizes too, so don’t be limited by the names you see on the big TV campaigns.

You can also give as much or as little time as you want:

  1. volunteeringhandsFull Time: Whether you want to spend a whole year out or just fill up your holidays you can find a number of voluntary full time charity placements both in the UK and abroad.
  2. Part Time: If you’re looking to fit volunteering around study or other commitments you can always take on a part time role, from as little as a few hours a month.
  3. University Societies: You might not even realise it, but running a university society or sitting on the committee counts as volunteering, as does mentoring new students.
  4. Internet Volunteering: Okay, this sounds bizarre, but you can also volunteer without even leaving the room as some charities will offer e-opportunities you can feel good about while sitting on your bum.
  5. One Off: If you don’t feel you can give a set number of hours each week, then you’ll still find lots of one off events you can help out at. People always need extra hands!
  6. Casual: Similarly, if you don’t have the time to commit to regular hours but do want to stick with one organisation you can always ask to keep it casual or just ask them to call you when they’re stuck. 

What are the benefits of volunteering?

Seriously, there are tonnes of benefits to volunteering, besides having a positive effect on other people. Perhaps a few you might have not even thought of…

Experience and skills

skillzWhether you’re already in the midst of the graduate job hunt, a part-time gig or are just looking for some more experience to bulk out your CV, volunteering can help you. Yep, it’s better than wonder woman.

You’ll find that you can volunteer in a huge range of areas, so you can tailor it to the career you’re hoping to carve out for yourself or choose something totally different to prove that you’re a well rounded individual. Whatever that means anyway.

Qualifications and training

dogwithdegreePerhaps one of the best things you can get out of volunteering, aside from all the experience and fun times that is, is some real world qualifications for free.

A lot of organisations will offer training to you directly, which often leads to accredited awards, so always make sure to ask what opportunities there are available.

If you’re at university, you’ll also find that most will run training sessions or qualifications for their volunteers. The University of Kent, for example, will send a number of its lead volunteers on a Level Five Volunteer Management Course as well as offering a free extracurricular 15 credit module on volunteering.

Lots of universities also run a system where you can log time spent volunteering to receive awards and on a national scale vInspired allows you to log hours for awards.

Lovely people and social funtime

friends-drinkingWho doesn’t want another excuse to make more friends? Volunteering allows you to meet a totally different group of people to those you mix with on your course and chances are you’ve probably got shared interests if you’ve signed up to do the same thing.

You can never have enough friends after all.

Feeling fantabulous about yourself

Untitled-1By volunteering you’re helping improve the lives of other people and, even if you get nothing else out of volunteering whatsoever, this fact alone should give you a kick start to your day.

Seriously, you’re doing something awesome. Feel good about yourself already!

Volunteering in the UK

gerriukPerhaps the most common way to get involved in some volunteering goodness (union jack dress optional) is to do it in the UK. You’ll most likely find it much easier to secure a volunteer placement than find a job.

This said, knowing you lot, you’ve probably got a whole bunch of different questions, so we’ve put it all together for you right here.

What should you expect from a placement?

gimmeJust because you’re not being paid doesn’t mean you should expect a basic level of support from a volunteer placement. In general before you start a placement you should expect:

  • Out of pocket expenses (Eg. Travel, food, clothing)
  • A clear idea of what you’re role will be
  • Appropriate training and support
  • To know if you’re going to be covered by the organisation’s insurance

In a lot of cases this will be covered by a volunteer agreement, which shouldn’t be confused with a contract, but the organisation can choose to give you this info another way.

If you’re not getting any of the above or there’s something you’re unsure about, it’s not cheeky to ask. After all, you are going to be pretty much working there for free!

The rules on expenses and pay for volunteers are quite strict – you should only be paid expenses for things you needed to fork out for as a result of volunteering. You shouldn’t accept any other benefits or gifts or take expenses if you didn’t spend the money (fraud and all that).

Training doesn’t have to take the form of an official programme, but basically you should feel confident you know what you’re doing and who to ask if you feel unsure about anything. Don’t ever do anything you don’t feel comfortable with – you’re volunteering and free to leave at any time.

As you’re not employed, your rights as a volunteer do differ from that of someone who’s in a paid job, but as we said the flip side of this is you are free to leave at any time with no notice.

Where should you look for a placement?

detectivefindsAs we mentioned at the start of this guide there are hundreds of charities and community organisations, big and small, that could do with your help.

If you already know where you want to work then just contact the organisation directly or if you’re looking for something at uni, they normally have a list of opportunities too.

If you need some inspiration here’s just a selection of places you can find some.

  1. vInspired

    vinspired_fb_logoA nationwide charity specifically focussed on getting young people into volunteering, vInspired has a massive list of placements up and down the country.

    You can also sign up for their awards scheme when you complete 10, 50 or 100 hours of volunteering and receive a proper posh certificate and a CV boost.

    You’re also able to register for their cashpoint scheme where they can give you up to £500 of funding to get a good volunteering idea off the ground.

    Visit vInspired »

  2. Do-it

    doitAgain, another charity with the aim of getting people into volunteer placements and they claim to currently have more than one million placements on their books.

    Similarly to vInspired you can search placements depending on your location and your interests and they have a various resources and information.

    Well worth a gander.

    Visit Do-it »

Volunteering abroad

volunteerabroadAs you probably knew already, volunteering abroad is a completely different kettle of fish to doing it in the UK. Aside from the logistical difficulties, we’ve heard a lot recently about the ethics of “volunteer tourism” and whether travellers are actually causing more harm than good.

With this in mind we’ve compiled some advice especially for people looking to partake in ethical volunteering abroad. Because we all want to be good people ya’know.

What should you do before you go?

scarThere are such an abundance of volunteer abroad charities and businesses it’s pretty difficult knowing where to start to find a placement that won’t cost you the earth or do any damage to the people you want to help.

But, as long as you keep a few simple principles in mind, you’ll be sure to have an amazing experience.

Bear in mind that unlike in the UK you will probably have to pay to volunteer abroad. This could be through fundraising or direct payments to cover stuff like accommodation and training. The only exception to this is super long term placements.
  1. Research: The most important part of finding any volunteer abroad project is doing your research on every area of your trip. Research the company, their past projects, the area you want to volunteer in and anything else you or your dog can think of. No one ever complained of being over prepared. 
  2. Think about your reasons: Volunteering abroad is a big difference from helping out at the local charity shop so you really need to think about what your motivations and wants are. Sitting yourself down to have a long hard think about your skills and desires will help you make a search a lot more specific and fruitful.
  3. Go to your doctors: Alright, it sounds pretty boring, and well, it is, but it could save you from a horrifically nasty illness. As soon as you know where you’re headed speak to your GP about what jabs and precautions you might need to take.
  4. royalty-free-planning-clipart-illustration-1094458Think money: Different volunteer organisations work differently, and you need to have a clear idea of how it’s going to work before you leave. Some will ask you to pay them a fee and others will just want you to fundraise. Some will cover your flights and expenses while others won’t. Work out how much money you’re going to need to stump up, both before and while you’re there and get saving or raising.
  5. Meet before you sign-up: You should always meet someone from the organisation before you sign-up and leave, even if it’s just on Skype. You wouldn’t start a job without an interview would you? It allows you to ask specific questions and get a feel for the organisation.
  6. Think about your skills: To be blunt, if you haven’t got the skills to build a house in the UK, you shouldn’t be building one abroad. Think about volunteer placements where you’d actually be able to make a difference.
  7. Ask specifics: Don’t be scared to get into the nitty gritty with organisations. Ask for evidence of how they’ve helped communities in the past, what the timetable looks like and where the money goes.
  8. Find reviews: One of the best ways to get a real feel from a placement is to speak to someone who’s worked for the company before. If you can’t find someone yourself online or via research, respectable companies should be able to get you in touch.

What should you expect from a placement?

whatcatAs we said, you’ll be paying (or at least fundraising) for the organisation, so you can reasonably expect a good level of service from the charity or organisation you’re working with. As a general rule you should expect the following from a company and if you’re not, then it’s time to find somewhere new.

  1. Training and prep: Any decent organisation should be offering you training and materials, for example guidance on how to fulfill your role, integrate into the local community and cultural differences.
  2. Accommodation, Travel & Food: All reputable organisations will cover your accommodation and living expenses, some will also cover your travel. If they don’t, not only should this reflect in the price, they should be able to support you in making your own arrangements with planes, VISAs and similar.
  3. Varied schedule: You should always expect there to be other things in your timetable other than just your placement. Expect your organisation to arrange cultural experiences and social outings. Don’t settle for less!
  4. Transparency and track records: Any organisation that claims to be doing good should be able to answer all your questions about the programme, content and where your money goes honestly and openly. They should also be able to show you past examples of what they’ve done.
  5. Interviews or matching: In no circumstances should you sign up to go abroad with a company who don’t have an in-depth application process or try to match you with placements that fit your skills. Not only will you have a pants experience if you’re lumped on a generic placement, you won’t actually help anyone.

Where should you look for a placement?

  1. VSO

    vso-logo1Promoted by the government, VSO offer a range of long term, specialised placements abroad as well as opportunities for young people between 18-25.

    If you’re over 25 and are qualified in a profession you can apply to take part in a volunteer placement abroad for 6 to 24 months.

    Because VSO only accept fully qualified professionals on long term placements you can rest assured you’re not doing any damage by your volunteering and are actually helping the communities you visit.

    If you’re not yet 25 and qualified they also run a scheme for young people to spend 3 months abroad integrating with local volunteers on projects that have chosen to have a lasting impact such as run workshops or start social enterprises.

    In both types of placement VSO will cover your accommodation, basic living costs and flights and a range of other necessities, but you will be expected to complete some fundraising before you leave.

    Visit VSO »

  2. Quest Overseas

    questRecommended by none other than The Telegraph as an example of projects that really do make a difference, Quest have a mixture of projects which work in partnership with local organisations and volunteers.

    You will have to pay both a fee to the organisation and fundraise for charity too, but the fee will cover your accommodation, food, activities and insurance. The only thing you need to fork out for is flights.

    They have a number of set dates you can choose from in a range of South American and African countries on a number of different projects so are well worth investigating.

    Visit Quest Overseas »

  3. Grassroots Volunteering

    grassrootsAn odd one in the bunch of online volunteer opportunities, Grassroots Volunteering aims to link people with free and low cost organisations and social enterprises around the world.

    It features a vast range of volunteering projects around the world varying in terms of length, content and location and has a focus on ethics.

    While it doesn’t offer placements directly, it’s a great search tool to find what you’re looking for.

    Visit Grassroots Volunteering »

Remember, these lists aren’t the be and end all of volunteer placements – explore other sites, ask questions and have an amazing time. We’d love to know your experiences and tips, so get in touch below.

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