Volunteering guide for beginners
Fancy volunteering in your spare time but not sure where to start? We'll take you through all the volunteering options out there and how to best use your time to help others.
From spending your summer volunteering abroad to a weekly shift down the local charity shop, volunteering comes in all shapes and sizes.
Not only does offering your time to a good cause help people who need it most, but volunteering will also allow you to acquire new skills, boost your CV, 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 some informed choices and get involved in something that's right for you.
What's on this page?
Where can you do volunteer work?
There are so many different types of volunteering opportunities it can be hard to know where to start.
You could fundraise, help out a charity 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.
There's a charity for pretty much everything, too, so don't feel limited to the big names you see in ad campaigns.
You can also give as much or as little time as you want:
- Full time – Whether you want to spend a whole year out, or just fill up your holidays, you can find a number of full-time charity placements both in the UK and abroad
- 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
- 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
- Online volunteering – Okay, this sounds bizarre, but you can even volunteer without leaving the house. Some charities will have opportunities where you can offer support online or even over the phone
- One-offs – If you don't feel like you can commit to a set number of hours each week, that's ok! You'll still find lots of one-off opportunities where you can help out
- Casual – Similarly, if you don't have the time to commit to regular hours but do want to commit to a particular organisation, you can always ask to keep it casual or just ask them to call you when they're stuck and need an extra pair of hands.
What are the benefits of volunteering?
Besides having a positive effect on others and being great for your karma, there are tonnes of benefits to volunteering. Here are a few for you to ponder:
Gain experience and new skills
As volunteering is so varied, you can tailor what you decide to do to suit your chosen career.
Or, you can choose something that interests you but is totally unrelated to your studies. This is actually a lot more beneficial than you might think, as it demonstrates that you're a well-rounded person with diverse interests.
Achieve new qualifications and training
Perhaps one of the best things you can get out of volunteering (aside from all the great experience and fun times, that is) is some additional qualifications for free.
A lot of non-profit organisations will offer training to volunteers, which often leads to accreditation too, so always make sure you ask what opportunities are available.
If you're volunteering at uni, you'll normally find that they'll run training sessions for 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.
Meet new people
Who doesn't want an excuse to make more friends? Volunteering is an opportunity to widen your social circle and make some great connections in the process.
Who knows the sort of people you'll be mingling with when volunteering and the places they'll go later in life.
And if you make a great impression, you might even hear from them later down the line when a job opportunity pops up in their work that you'd be perfect for. Just sayin'!
Feeling good about yourself (and others, obvs)
By volunteering, you're doing your bit to contribute to a good cause, and the nice side effect of this is that it should make you feel pretty good about yourself.
Even if you get nothing else out of volunteering, the idea that you're helping out in some capacity should make it all worthwhile.
Seriously, you're doing something awesome. Feel good about yourself already!
Volunteering in the UK
The quickest and most straight-forward option for volunteer-y goodness would be to do it at home in the UK, of course. You'll probably find it much easier to secure a volunteer placement than get a job, but often you'll find you still have to fight for the best positions (yes, even though they're unpaid).
What do you need to know?
What to expect from a voluntary placement
Just because you're not being paid, doesn't mean you can't expect a basic level of support from a voluntary placement.
Before you begin, it's a good idea to clarify that you'll receive the following:
- Out of pocket expenses (e.g. travel and food)
- A clear idea of what your role will be
- Appropriate training and support
- Clarification over whether or not 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 as it's not as binding on your part), but the organisation can choose to give you this info another way.
If there's something that you're unsure or unhappy about, it's ok to ask! You're going to be working there for free, so it's important you at least have a clear idea of what's ahead of you.
Training doesn't have to take the form of an official programme, but basically you should feel confident that you know what you're doing, and who to ask if you feel unsure about anything.
Never do anything you don't feel comfortable with – you're volunteering so you can decline in these instances and are technically 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 to find volunteering placements
There are hundreds of charities and community organisations that could do with your help – you just need to know where to find them.
If you already know where you want to volunteer, then the simple answer would be to contact the organisation directly. If you're looking for an opportunity at uni, they'll normally have a list of what's available online too.
If you need some inspiration, here are a few suggestions to start with!
A nationwide charity specifically focused 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 where you tally up points for the hours you spend volunteering. When you complete 10, 30, 50 or 100 hours of volunteering, you receive a nifty little 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.
Again, an organisation with the aim of getting people into volunteer placements.
The aptly-named Do-it claim they currently have more than one million placements on their books.
Just as you can with vInspired, Do-it allows you to search placements depending on your location and interests, and they have various resources and information available on their website.
As you can probably guess, volunteering abroad is a completely different kettle of fish compared with doing it at home in the UK.
We've compiled some advice to get you started!
What do you need to know?
What to do before volunteering abroad
There's such an abundance of charities and businesses that specialise in opportunities for volunteering abroad that it can be difficult to know where to start. It gets particularly tough when it comes to finding a placement that won't cost you the earth, or even damage the communities that you want to help (unfortunately, this is a thing).
Bear in mind that unlike in the UK, you'll probably have to pay to volunteer abroad. This can be done through fundraising or direct payments to cover stuff like accommodation and training. The only exceptions to this are super long term placements.
Before you make any commitments, make sure you do the following:
- Research – The most important part of finding any volunteer abroad project is doing your research on every aspect of the trip. Research the company, their past projects, the area you want to volunteer in and anything else you can think of. No one ever complained of being over prepared, did they?
- Think about WHY you want to do this – Volunteering abroad is a big step up from helping out at your local charity shop, so you really need to think about what your motivations are and what you hope to get out of it
- Go see your GP – As soon as you know where in the world you're headed, speak to your GP about what jabs and precautions you might need to take
- Think money – Different volunteer organisations work differently, so you need to have a clear idea of how it's all 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/raising
- Connect before you sign up – You should always meet someone from the organisation before you sign up to a position abroad, even if it's just on Skype. You wouldn't start a job without an interview, would you? This will also be a great opportunity to ask specific questions and get a feel for the organisation
- 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 use your skills to make a difference
- 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
- Find reviews – One of the best ways to get a real feel from a placement or organisation is to speak to someone who's worked for the company before. If you can't find someone yourself, the company should be able to track someone down for you to speak to.
How much does it cost to volunteer abroad?
Volunteering abroad might seem like a great idea at first, but you might think twice when you see how much it could cost you. Most organisations will charge a registration fee and a programme fee, but prices vary widely.
Depending on the organisation you use, the country you're travelling to and the length of your stay, you could be looking at a few hundred to a few thousand pounds. For example, a two week placement could set you back anything between £150 - £2,500.
You'll also often have to cover additional expenses like flights and other travelling costs yourself. We'd advise considering carefully before forking out thousands of pounds on volunteering abroad - it's a big investment, and might not be as worthwhile as you think.
Between my first and second year of uni, I volunteered at a children's home in Belize. It was a great experience, but since then I've become unsure about the ethics of it all.
The amount of money I spent going out there and working (with very little relevant experience) would probably have been better spent training and employing people from the community.
This would have had a more tangible long-term impact, and wouldn't have meant an endless cycle of new people for a group of children who already had attachment issues.
Think long and hard about whether or not you can bring something valuable to the project, and not just whether it will be fun for you!
Tom Allingham, Save the Student's Lead Editor
What to expect when volunteering abroad
As we said, you'll be paying for the experience (whether through fundraising or out your own pocket, it doesn't matter) so it's reasonable to expect a good level of service from the organisation you're working with.
You should expect the following from a company, and if these things aren't offered, it's worth taking your money elsewhere.
- Full training – Any decent organisation should be offering you training and materials. We're talking guidance on how to fulfil your role, on integrating into the local community and understanding cultural differences
- Accommodation, travel and food – All reputable organisations will cover your accommodation if you're volunteering (or this will be included in your fundraising target), and some will also cover your travel. If they don't, not only should this be reflected in the price, they should be able to support you in making your own arrangements with planes, VISAs and other related issues
- Flexibility – You should always have in writing that you won't be expected to work long set hours each week and that you have plenty of time to explore the region and do your own thing
- Transparency and track records – Any organisation that claims to be doing good should be able to answer all your questions about the programme and where your money goes. They should also be able to show you past examples of what they've done, so ask for them
- 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 don't try to match you with placements that fit your skills. Not only will you have a rubbish experience if you're lumped on a generic placement, you won't actually help anyone (which kinda defeats the purpose, right?).
Best volunteering abroad programmes
Promoted by the government, VSO is aimed at qualified professionals looking for a change in profession, but they also offer a range of specialised placements abroad for young people between the ages of 18-35 (which they call International Citizen Service or ICS).
If you're over 25 and qualified in a profession, you can apply to take part in a voluntary placement abroad for 6 to 24 months.
If you're not yet 25, they also run a scheme for young people to spend 3 months abroad integrating with local volunteers on projects that are designed to have a lasting impact (e.g. running workshops or starting social enterprises).
VSO will cover your accommodation, basic living costs and flights, as well as a range of other necessities, so there's no need to have any cash to offer before getting started.
We're not so sure about the fact this company promote themselves as specialists in 'ethical adventure travel', as this seems to kinda miss the point, but they do have a mixture of different interesting projects that work in partnership with local organisations and volunteers.
You will have to both pay a fee to the organisation and raise funds for charity too, but the fee will cover your accommodation, food, activities and insurance. The only thing you need to fork out for yourself is the flights.
They have a number of set dates you can choose from in a range of South American and African countries, and on a number of different projects, so these are well worth investigating.
An 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 global voluntary opportunities, all varying in terms of length, content and location, and has a serious focus on ethics.
While the site doesn't offer placements directly, it's a great search tool to find what you're looking for.
Remember, these lists aren't the be and end all of volunteer placements – explore other sites, ask questions and have an amazing time.
Volunteering is one of many things on our university bucket list - how many of them have you ticked off?