8 Things to Consider when Choosing a Volunteer Project

One of the best ways to start a career in conservation – or just to find out if you really want to pursue a career in this sector – is to volunteer on one of the many interesting projects worldwide. How would you know which one to choose? Here are 8 key considerations…

Team Seagrass


1) What are your interests?

The most obvious and important factor to consider is what interests you. Conservation is a huge field with organisations that work in virtually every corner of the earth. There are projects working with bats, birds, plants and mammals. I even remember seeing a volunteer opportunity for an expedition in the Antarctic! Perhaps you are intrigued by the unique biodiversity in Australia or passionate about tigers or primates or plants.

Look for a project that lets you discover and learn as much as possible about your area or organization of interest. Volunteer work does not mean easy work! If you sign up to work on something you are genuinely interested in, chances are high that you will find it easier to cope when the going gets tough and most likely leave with a wonderful experience.

In my case, my interest was in a particular conservation organization that I had always longed to work for. When an opening came up in their tiger conservation team, I jumped at it. It turned out to be my best work experience to date! 

2) What skills are they looking for and what skills do you have?

Although many organisations welcome volunteers with no specific skills as long as they are willing and open-minded, they are also looking to get the job done. Someone trained in communications might not be able to fulfill the requirements of a project finance position for example. If you have very specific skills such as in engineering, law or accountancy, you might want to look for opportunities that allow you to put them to use.

However, if you are looking to acquire some new skills or have limited training, do not be discouraged! Some organisations provide on-the-job training, and are used to adapting their work to newcomers.

3) “Hello? Do you understand me?”

Another aspect to consider is language. Organisations often pick volunteers who are able to speak and understand the basics of the native language where the work will be done. If this is not stated, ask yourself if you would be comfortable living and working in a community that does not speak your language or understand you. If you aren’t sure, check with the project leaders or organisers who would be able to advise you.

4) Can you afford it?

Many volunteer positions do not pay. Some organisations provide volunteers a small stipend to cover their basic needs such as food and drink, while some provide only basic accommodation. In addition, unless you are choosing to only opt for local projects, a substantial part of a volunteer’s expenses is often travel related (airplane or train tickets can cost a lot especially to far-flung places).

All in all, a volunteer experience can become an expensive affair so consider your finances carefully. A useful way to decide if you can afford it is to ask the organisers for an estimate of how much you would need. If you are not able to afford it, one possibility is to look for “sponsors” (family members, friends or even your workplace) to help cover some of the costs.

5) How much of your time can you give and for how long?

Another essential factor to consider is the amount of time you are able and want to give. This could depend on your family, and work circumstances or how much time you have from your university break. Some projects ask for only a couple of weeks’ commitment, while others stretch up to months or even a few years. Choose an opportunity with a time frame you are comfortable with to avoid having to abruptly leave a project. Short experiences can be just as meaningful and wonderful as those that last a longer time! Volunteer assignments can also be for mid to long-term for a few hours or days a week.

6) How would this help your career?

Many of us look for volunteer opportunities as a way of getting a foot in the door of conservation as a career. If you have your mind set on working for a particular organization, watch out for volunteer opportunities with them or similar organisations. Having volunteered with them and gaining valuable contacts there is certainly going to give your future application a huge boost. Perhaps you are hoping to work in a certain region (South America, or Asia for example) or in a certain field (policy work, fundraising, research, or monitoring and evaluation for example)? After spending over a year volunteering with my tiger conservation team, I was fortunate to have gained enough contacts and experience that has today helped to get me job interviews amidst a sea of competition.

A note of caution: Be aware that some organisations cater their work to wealthier individuals who are looking more for a touristic encounter than a true hands-in-the-mud (or on-the-keyboard!) experience. If advancing your career ranks highly on your list of project goals, you might want to avoid these opportunities.

7) What is their reputation in giving a positive and memorable experience?

As a volunteer, I want to give my all, and feel like I am contributing to the goals of the project. In return, I hope to have an experience of a lifetime! While some “roughing it out” might be expected in field positions, in all cases, you should feel welcomed and expect always to be treated with respect. Most importantly, you should not feel like your safely is being compromised.

Ask the organisers also about their plans in case of an emergency. Many organisations blog or publicly share the experiences of their former volunteers on their webpage. Another good way to find out if the organization you have picked has a good track record is to ask to get in touch with former volunteers who can share their experiences. Bear in mind though that each project is different and we all react differently to circumstances.

8) Are they what they claim to be? Are they ethical? 

Volunteer expeditions have become increasingly popular in the last decade. In reality, many organisations that offer volunteer experiences in serious conservation work turn out to be what some have called ‘voluntourism’, where volunteers fork out huge sums of money to work in projects that have little, if any, conservation value. Many volunteers are poorly treated, and end up feeling disappointed and cheated.

Some questions you might want to ask include: What is the legal structure of the organization and where they are registered; do they have formal links to the local government, universities; are they part of any membership organisations such as the IUCN (for conservation) or Year Out Group (for volunteering); what safety practices are being followed? When it comes to choosing an organization and project to volunteer with, the more questions you ask the better your chances of coming home satisfied.

About the author

Karen Sim

This post was produced by Conservation Careers Blogger Karen Sim Clerc. Karen is passionate about nature and nature conservation. She has worked in the defence and government sectors in her native Singapore, as well as at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, before deciding to pursue a career in the environment. She has volunteered and worked for the WWF in tiger conservation, and has spent the last 2 years in the sustainability sector. Her main interests are in wildlife trade, global warming and its impacts, and sustainable agriculture and consumption.

Careers Advice, Volunteer & Internships, Top Tips