Uninspired by Volunteering Placements? Create Your Own!

by Andrew Tipp

Choosing a volunteer project abroad isn’t the same as picking a product off a supermarket shelf. Many voluntary organisations are far more flexible than people realise when it comes to tailoring placements. With a little initiative, perseverance, and luck, you can craft your own bespoke volunteering placement to suit your interests and skills.

View this amazing sight of elephants gathering together in Pinnewala, Sri Lanka.
View this amazing sight of elephants gathering together in Pinnewala, Sri Lanka.

The volunteering industry has grown significantly over the last decade, but the range of placements haven’t. While some independent providers might offer some quirkier options, volunteering organisations are still based on the staples of teaching English, caring for orphans, and looking after animals.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s what most volunteers are interested in. A lot of people just want to spend voluntary time abroad rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in. They want to wash walls. Dig ditches. Clean out elephant enclosures. These types of volunteers just want to do some good, and that’s fine.

But some people aren’t as into that. And if you’re interested in volunteering, but can’t find a project that excites you, you mustn’t give up. While they might not advertise it overtly, some organisations will be happy to tailor a project to your interests.

How it Works

The way it works is really very simple. Say volunteer organisation X has a project in Tanzania where they send people to work as classroom assistants. Well, instead of working in a classroom, organisation X agrees to allow you to do your thing in the same location.

You could end up teaching dressmaking in Ghana for three weeks this summer, and spend your time in Africa showing young people how to make clothes from material such as pillowcases. Although not advertised, this type of project would be a great way to show people how to make inexpensive, ethnically-tailored clothes of their own, especially if it suited your passion and skills. And this actually happened for one innovative international volunteer, and she even went on to create her own charity out of it.

Doing something like teaching people how to sew in Africa and then working to send sewing machines to poor regions, where people can learn to save money and become more independent by making their own clothes, is an excellent form of sustainable volunteering.

Volunteering in Numbers

What about group volunteering? When it comes to businesses, a lot of companies think the only thing they can do is send people on the same old boring team-building exercises (that hardly ever actually build a team).

Well, someone at the holiday company Butlins came up with the idea of sending a team away to volunteer instead. So earlier this year, 30 employees of Butlins were dispatched to Kenya to build a school library; from scratch, in five days. And they achieved it.

Again, such a specific idea for that kind of group was never promoted. Anywhere. And yet through a little enquiring and persistence, something original, positive, and literally constructive happened.

The Endless Possibilities

These examples are only the tip of a very large volunteering iceberg. There are examples where people have asked about getting stuck into water and sanitation, and ended up producing big boreholes in Africa. Such activities could end up providing clean drinking water for a community that had been sourcing water directly from a dirty lake.

A newly qualified dentist who visited Nepal on holiday, could get in touch with a volunteer company and ask to stop by a children’s home to do some impromptu check-ups.

A woman wanting to volunteer in a school teaching placement in Uganda, but lacks the confidence to teach the children, could instead prepare meals. She could serve porridge to 100 kids every day and love it. The help is just as needed and just as important. 

Inspiring stories are everywhere along the volunteering grapevine: a law student wanting to work voluntarily in Human Rights in South America; a helicopter pilot eagerly enquiring how to ply his professional skills voluntarily in a holiday window!

Taking the First Steps

Obviously, not every volunteering organisation can accommodate every request. It’s not always safe, cost-effective, or logistically feasible. And it’s hard to recommend a selection of volunteering organisations you should contact, as clearly bespoke projects aren’t something that many offer. Original Volunteers, for example, has helped many individuals who had similar requests as outlined above; although they too can’t entertain every suggestion.

The key point is that if you have a particular set of skills or interests, you can get in touch with placement providers and see if you can work something out. Whether it’s out of curiosity, mission commitment, or simply a way to stand out from their competitors, many volunteering companies will listen to you. They can only say no.

So with a little inspiration and hard work, who knows what you could end up doing on your volunteering trip? To get started, all you need is an idea.