Volunteering guide for beginners
Fancy volunteering but not sure where to start? In this volunteering guide for beginners, we'll take you through all the options out there and how to best use your time to help others.
From spending your summer volunteering abroad, to doing 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.
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 in this guide?
Where can you do volunteer work?
There are so many different types of volunteering opportunities out there.
You could fundraise, help a charity with marketing, organise activities at a youth club, be an admin wizard, try your hand at manual work or do just about anything else you could think of.
There's a charity for pretty much everything, too, so don't feel limited to the leading organisations you see in ad campaigns.
Types of voluntary placements
As a volunteer, you can choose from a number of different types of work placements:
- 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 university studies or other commitments, you can always take on a part-time role, from as little as a few hours a month.
- University societies – You may not even realise it, but running a university society or sitting on the committee of one will count as volunteering, as does mentoring new students.
- Online volunteering – You can even volunteer from the comfort of your own home. Some charities will have opportunities where you can offer support online or over the phone.
- One-offs – If you don't feel able to commit to a set number of hours each week, that's ok! You'll still find lots of one-off volunteering activities where you can help out. These are sometimes known as 'speed volunteering' opportunities and can usually be found online.
- Casual – Similarly, if you don't have the time to commit to regular hours but do want to volunteer for a particular organisation when you can, you could always ask to keep it casual or request they give you a call any time they need an extra pair of hands.
What are the benefits of volunteering?
As well as having a positive effect on others and being great for your karma, there are tonnes of benefits to volunteering, including:
Valuable work experience and new skills
As volunteering is so varied, you can choose what area to do unpaid work in based on your dream career.
Or, you could 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.
Free qualifications and training
Perhaps one of the best perks of volunteering (aside from all the great experience and fun times, of course) is getting 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 development opportunities are available.
If you're volunteering at uni, you'll often find that they'll run training sessions for volunteers. The University of Kent, for example, offers its students 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, so ask at student services to see which opportunities are open to you.
New friends and work contacts
Who doesn't want an excuse to make more friends? Volunteering is the perfect opportunity to widen your social circle and make some great work connections in the process.
Who knows who 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 that you'd be ideal for.
Improved self-esteem and confidence
By volunteering, you're doing your bit to contribute to a good cause – and a great 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.
Be proud of yourself!
How to start volunteering in the UK
The quickest and easiest way to start out as a volunteer is by doing it locally in the UK. Alternatively, you can look for virtual volunteering opportunities.
You will probably find it much easier to secure a volunteering placement near you than get a job, but you'll likely find the best opportunities are still competitive (yes, even though they're unpaid).
What to expect from a voluntary work placement
Even though you're not getting paid, you should still expect a basic level of support from your managers on a voluntary placement.
Before you begin, it's a good idea to confirm that you'll receive the following while working as a volunteer:
- Out of pocket expenses (e.g. travel and food)
- A clear idea of what your role will entail and what is expected from you
- 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, don't be afraid 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 so that you can help out to the best of your ability.
Training doesn't have to take the form of an official programme, but 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 say no in these instances and are technically free to leave at any time.
As you're not employed, you don't have the same rights as someone with a paid job. But, as we said, the flip side of this is that you can leave at any time with no notice.
Best places to search for UK volunteer roles
Here are the top websites to try if you are looking for student volunteering opportunities:
Do-it aim to get people into volunteer placements and their website features a huge range of unpaid work opportunities (including online volunteering) for people around the country.
On Do-it, you can search for placements depending on your location, interests and weekly availability.
They also have handy resources and information available on their website to help you get started as a volunteer.
If you have particular skills that you'd like to utilise as a volunteer, have a look for opportunities on Reach Volunteering.
This site focuses on skills-based volunteering, and you can filter through roles on the site based on your strengths like photography, fundraising events, graphic design or research.
Other search filters on the site include if you'd like a short- or long-term project and whether you'd prefer to work inside or outside of business hours.
vInspired.com has a massive list of placements up and down the country. It focuses on helping young people find volunteering work.
Unfortunately, vInspired (the charity that originally set up the site) closed in 2018 due to funding cuts, but the website still runs with loads of volunteering opportunities.
Similarly to Do-it and Reach Volunteering, you can search for opportunities that suit you best based on your location, interests and availability.
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of charities and community organisations that are looking for voluntary help. These sites are great to help you find volunteer placements you may not otherwise come across.
But, if you already know where you want to volunteer, then the easiest thing to do is contact the organisation directly. If you're looking for an opportunity at uni, on the other hand, they'll usually have a list of available online volunteering roles online too.
How to start volunteering abroad
As you can probably guess, volunteering abroad is a completely different kettle of fish compared to doing it at home in the UK.
We've compiled some advice to get you started as a student volunteer abroad...
How to prepare for voluntary work abroad
There's such an abundance of charities and businesses that specialise in opportunities for volunteering overseas that it can be difficult to know where to start.
It gets particularly tough when it comes to finding a volunteering placement abroad that is cheap or (better yet) free. And, it's important to be mindful that some volunteering roles abroad can, unfortunately, damage the communities that people want to help.
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 things like accommodation and training. The only exceptions to this are super long-term placements.
Things to do before travelling overseas to volunteer
Before you commit to any international volunteering placements, make sure you do the following:
- Research – The most important part of finding any overseas voluntary 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.
- 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.
- See your GP – As soon as you know where in the world you're heading as a volunteer, 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 financially 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 (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 for a position abroad, even if it's just a phone or video call. This will be a great opportunity to ask specific questions and get a feel for the organisation.
- Choose a voluntary role based on 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 the organisation about all of your queries – Ask for things like 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 know what to expect 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 may 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 massively.
Depending on the organisation you find a placement through, 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 to volunteer abroad. 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 cheap flights and other travelling costs yourself. We'd advise thinking carefully before forking out thousands of pounds on volunteering roles abroad – it's a big investment, and might not be as worthwhile as you think.
Dangers of voluntourism
Be wary of 'voluntourism' roles, which are generally where people travel to developing countries to help build communities. While you can, of course, do amazing work as a volunteer abroad, issues arise when you lack the necessary skills to have long-term, beneficial impacts.
Even the most well-meaning people can find themselves causing issues for communities by doing voluntary work that they're unskilled and unprepared for.
Think about whether you have the know-how to contribute positively to a community abroad, how your involvement would directly impact the development of a project and if the money you intend to spend on volunteering could help more if it was invested in other ways.
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 working with 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'll be fun for you!
Tom Allingham, Save the Student's Head of Editorial
What to expect when volunteering abroad
As we said, you'll likely be paying to volunteer abroad (whether through fundraising or out your own pocket) so it's reasonable to expect a good level of service from the organisation you're working with.
You should expect the following from an overseas company you are volunteering with, 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, learning some of the local language and understanding cultural differences.
- Accommodation, travel and food – All reputable organisations will cover your accommodation abroad 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.
- 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 achieved, so ask for them.
- Interviews or matching – In no circumstances should you sign up to go abroad with a company that doesn't have an in-depth application process or doesn'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, but you also won't actually help anyone (which kind of defeats the point).
Best volunteering abroad programmes
Here are the best volunteer programs to check out if you'd like to go abroad:
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 aged 23–35, you can apply to take part in a voluntary placement abroad as a team leader for three to eight months.
If you're not yet 23, they also run a scheme for young people to spend three months abroad integrating with local volunteers on projects that are designed to have a lasting impact (e.g. running workshops or starting social enterprises).
UPDATE: At the time of writing, the ICS placements are paused.
We're not so sure about the fact this company promote themselves as specialists in 'ethical adventure travel', as this seems to slightly miss the point, but they do have a mixture of different interesting projects that work in partnership with local organisations and volunteers.
Quest Overseas have a range of projects in South American and African countries, from student volunteering opportunities that take place over the summer to gap year placements that last a few months.
You'll have to 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 travel costs (our guide explains how to get cheap flights).
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 and sustainability.
While the site doesn't offer placements directly, it's a great search tool to find what you're looking for. Some volunteering placements on the site are a bit outdated, but it's still worth having a browse since there are some great available opportunities listed.
Apart from their virtual and online volunteering opportunities, GVI also has some fantastic programs for volunteering abroad.
They have over 20 years of experience creating some incredible international sustainable development projects – all while making sure your work will create the maximum positive impact.
GVI has a variety of different volunteering opportunities, from wildlife and marine preservation to education and public health. Some of their trusted partners include WWF, PADI and the Kenya Wildlife Preservation.
Remember, these lists aren't the be-all 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?