Our Approach to Ensuring Sustainable and Ethical Volunteering Abroad

Volunteers in Namibia

Volunteering for a local organisation while travelling abroad has become increasingly popular in the past years. This also means that more and more organisations and companies have found an opportunity to earn a lot of money on this particular market. While you as a future volunteer can have the best intentions to support and be part of a given organisation or programme, it doesn’t always mean that those projects you decide to support have the same honourable intentions. 

WorkingAbroad has been working with volunteers since 1997 and our main objective is to offer meaningful opportunities to volunteers, who want to make an actual difference in a local community. We place high importance on the quality of the local organisations that we partner with. Our partners are always fully registered, on-the-ground respected operators with well-trained staff, who will support the volunteers before and during their stay. We keep the prices fair and always have in mind what we offer volunteers in relation to food, accommodation etc, which we are not interested in cutting down on to get lower prices.

We are a smaller company, but have close relations to our volunteer partners abroad. We have all visited given programmes at some point, and taken part as volunteers whether it being alone or with our family. We thus not only have close contact with our project managers at the local organisations, but we also have the experience and know-how of being volunteers.

In February 2017, we took part in the first ever held Compass Ethical Travel and Volunteering conference. It was held in Birmingham and Charlotte from WorkingAbroad was invited to speak about what to look out for when volunteering abroad, what questions to ask volunteer agencies and companies, and how to stay critical. You can see the highlights from the conference here:


New Partners

When we decide to establish a partnership for a new volunteer programme, several aspects are considered:

  • What is the purpose of having volunteers? If we don’t believe that volunteers would make a sustainable impact, then we will not engage on a new partnership
  • We ask whether the organisation has had volunteers before or not. If yes, we would ask for references to ask previous volunteers about their experience
  • How is the volunteer programme structured, what is the price and what would be included?
  • If volunteers pay a fee to join the project, where is that volunteer fee going? We make sure that all of the funds are used for what is claimed, be that for accommodation/food, a donation to the project/local community, a donation to the host family if volunteers stay in a homestay and so on.
Wildlife conservation project

We don’t accept any kind of inappropriate interaction with animals e.g. cub petting, elephant riding or alike. We have since 2015 been a proud and active partner of the Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH). We have taken active steps to make sure that none of our projects, whether our own or in our database, have any relation to canned hunting. Neither are anyone who wants to advertise on our website allowed to do so on behalf of programmes that are directly or indirectly linked to canned hunting. We would immediately end a partnership that proved to part of the canned hunting industry. If canned hunting is something you haven't heard of before, you can read our blog "The Awful Business of Canned Hunting" here.

None of our own Elephant projects offer elephant rides or other tricks (painting/shows etc.) involving elephants. They live in the sanctuaries as free elephants, and we don’t allow any volunteer projects in our database that have links to the working elephant industry. Neither are any advertisers on our website allowed to have any direct or indirect links to this industry. You can read more about the ethical issues surrounding elephant riding in Thailand (and why it should be avoided) at www.thailandelephants.org

For our volunteering projects involving wild animals, there is no unethical interaction with wild animals at all. So, for most of our wildlife projects they involve only observing/studying wildlife from a distance unless absolutely necessary and accompanied by trained researchers or staff. 

At our wildlife research projects in the Amazon Basin of Peru, the animals captured (herpetofauna, avifauna and invertebrates) are only in our care for as little time as possible. This means only while taking measurements and taking pictures for cataloguing, which is done in a careful manner to not stress the animals during the process. The animals are then always released back in the same place it was captured. You can read more about how a “selfie” industry for tourists has developed in the parts of the Amazon located in Brazil and Peru, and how it’s hurting the native wildlife here. Please don’t ever support these places as a traveller abroad!

Child development in Argentina

We are also aware of the ‘industry’ of volunteer programmes at orphanages particularly in Asian and African countries. We regularly turn down offers to start partnerships with organisations offering volunteer opportunities at orphanages. It is unfortunate that in many cases, children are not actually orphans but are being exploited by operators to earn money from well-intentioned volunteers, who want to work with children. This is also the reason why we no longer send volunteers to any orphanage volunteer projects abroad, or list any orphanage projects on our volunteer database. This article on orphanages in Cambodia offers a good insight into the problems that can be associated with orphanage volunteering abroad. Please also take a look at this short video giving an insight into the issues:



DO Your Research – BE Critical – ASK Questions!

When making the decision to spend your money and time on volunteering abroad, it is important to do your research and ask all the relevant questions. We think the following questions are important to have clarified, and we have thus also provided our answers below: 

What is the purpose of your volunteering?
You will be able to find the goal and purpose of our programmes under each project description on the individual project pages on our website. You will be able to read in detail what  projects you will be contributing to and why you are there. You also have the email on the individual project coordinators, who will be able to answer any further questions you might have. 

Where's the money going?
At each programme on our website, you can find what the fee that you are paying goes towards and what you'd need to pay extra.   

How long has the agency been around?
VWIS was establised in 1997 and moved to the UK in 2000 renamed WorkingAbroad

Is there in-country and agency support provided when volunteering?
When you book a volunteer trip with us, you are always able to reach your contact person at WorkingAbroad, and you will have all contact information on the local project managers on the programme you are going to work on. 

Does the agency assess your application?
When you make an application to join one of our volunteer programmes, we will assess your application alongside the local project manager. The local project manager will have the final word on whether we will accept your application or not for the given project, as they are able to evaluate best if you will be suitable and effective for the tasks involved in the local community. This is to ensure that everyone on the given project has the right motivations, and is ready to make an effort to work and not just stay there for a holiday.

Do you partner with local organisations on the ground?
All of our programmes are established and managed independently by local organisations. We have thus created partnerships with these and assist them in finding volunteers for the programmes they offer.

Do the volunteer programmes have time commitments?
How much time you'd need to commit depends on the given project. In general, when it comes to wildlife and marine conservation programmes, you can stay from 2 weeks and up to several months. However, we have some teaching and community development programmes, where you are required to stay minimum 1-3 months. This is to achieve the best results from your time volunteering, and also not to have a negative effect on the children that you are engaged with. 

Is any feedback from previous volunteers available?
You can find feedback from previous volunteers both on our own Facebook Page and Website. We are also listed on third-party volunteer and travel sites, such as VolunteerForever and GoOverseas, where volunteers can leave their independent reviews of the programme. 
Volunteers in Ecuador


In all you should not be scared off from volunteering abroad based on the negative stories you have heard in the news and elsewhere. Many organisations around the World are reliant on volunteers coming to their project(s) to assist in achieving their objectives. Volunteering is a great way of experiencing a country and culture, while making a difference for a local community and on conservation efforts. Just make an effort in doing your research before going, so you know that you are having a sustainable impact on the programme and community you decide to join.