find the best gap year volunteer program


Manuel Delgado


Aug 2017

Volunteers and African school children walking away from camera

Volunteering is one of the most fulfilling and beneficial ways to spend your gap year. Working on a gap year volunteer program, especially in developing countries, is a fantastic way to expand your understanding of the world, to put things into perspective, also to find new purpose in helping others.

Choosing the right program

Choosing the best gap year volunteer program has to be one of your biggest priorities. It is something that shouldn't be taken lightly, because your desire to help can be exploited or misinterpreted.

In the same way if all you want is to take some "slumfies" to gain some credibility with your mates, you can do that in any street in Malawi, Cambodia or Peru.

My main priority in this article is to help you to choose the best gap year volunteer program for you and to clarify why you should volunteer on your gap year.

And you might be forgiven for thinking that wanting to help is the only requirement...

The problem is, a lot of companies around the world now use this desire to help coming from gap year travellers to not only to retain substantial fees that in no way contribute to the gap year volunteer program, but to exploit the local community with ad-hoc projects made for tourists which outright damage to the situation of the locals.

So what I would like to achieve here, is to help you choose the best gap year volunteer program out there, by giving you the resources that you need to contact a volunteer program yourself. 

The best gap year volunteer programs, in my experience, are the ones where you pay just for your expenses, as you are putting your time an hard work, and anything that you fund-raise or contribute goes directly into the project itself.

5 reasons why you should volunteer on your gap year

gap year volunteer program

There are plenty of reasons why you should volunteer on your gap year..let’s take a look at some of them. Here are five reasons why I think you should find a gap year volunteer program: 

1. First-hand Experience

When backpacking through a country and staying in hostels you can get an idea of what somewhere is like, but only when you are actually working within a community can you then see what life is really like. In a gap year volunteer program, you will get to experience things you never could as a tourist.

2. To Make a Difference

There are always going to be volunteer opportunities as people, animals and nature will always need help to improve their lives. Volunteering is a great way for you to have a positive impact on this planet and give something back.

3. Enhance your CV

Volunteering looks great on your CV. If you can volunteer in a field that complements your study and career aspirations, then even better.

4. You Can Start your Gap Year Alone

Most volunteer programs will have other volunteers there and you are likely to share accommodation, or at least some mealtimes with them. This makes the prospect of going on your gap year alone not so scary.

5. It's Challenging

If there is one thing you should do on your gap year, that is challenge yourself. Be brave and chose a gap year volunteer program that puts you out of your comfort zone a little and by the time you have finished you will feel on top of the world.

Research your gap year volunteer program

You should spend time thinking about and researching the kind of volunteer program that you want to be involved in on your gap year.

Not only should the project suit your aims and objectives, but also those of the community you will be volunteering in. There is always the danger that your gap year volunteer placement will not make a positive difference to the lives of those that you are supposed to help.

For example, volunteering in orphanages, which is one of the most common types of volunteer placement, has become big business and is known as “orphanage tourism”, which is considered to damage and exploit children.

Some gap year volunteer programs will fabricate unnecessary placements with menial, and potentially pointless tasks just so they can take your money, and others will take in volunteers for roles that could easily be undertaken by somebody in the community, essentially taking employment away from the local people.

If you really want to make a positive impact on the world through volunteering, it’s essential you pick the right volunteer project for the right reasons.

Simon Lloyd, director of non-profit recruitment specialists NFP Resourcing, agrees that employers aren’t impressed by a vague desire to “change the world.” You need to be able to state your motivation of why you chose a certain project much more precisely.

The Brutal Reality of Orphanage Exploitation

One of the worst instances of ‘voluntourism’ is one that unfortunately affects children in very vulnerable positions.

The exploitation of orphanages in Cambodia has become a shameful travel phenomenon, where orphanage tourism has become a popular ‘thing to do’ in Cambodia, selling the feelgood factor of visiting children in need at the expense of the kids’ mental wellbeing.

Orphans, and children in general, need more stability than the fleeting time that ‘voluntourists’ most likely offer, entering their lives without thinking about the renewed feeling of abandonment the children will feel when they leave.

What’s more, many of the children in these privately managed orphanages actually have one living parent, who is most likely too poor to take care of them and sends them on one of these orphanages because of the demand from the tourist industry, hoping that this will give them a better quality of life.

This situation forces families apart, and experts argue that the money spent by voluntourists to visit these orphanages would be much better spent in funding families and the local community at large to enhance their quality of life, thus helping the families stay together.

In short, as the article above says, the wonderful feeling of fulfillment that you might feel when helping children does not match the negative impact you are making on the children’s lives.

If you do genuinely want to help at an orphanage, the easiest way to ensure that you are not contributing to this exploitation is to choose to work at orphanages that do not operate an ‘open doors’ policy (without any minimum work time required or background checks) and avoid those who openly advertise to tourists.

Be a Conscious Gap Year Volunteer

A lot of harm can be done (and is done) by enrolling in the wrong kinds of volunteering enterprises and by being oblivious to the detrimental effects of this involvement.

People have come to see this practice of sending unskilled young people to take jobs from locals as a kind of new colonialism, and something that you, as a conscious traveller, should avoid at all costs:

All it takes to be a conscious gap year volunteer is a bit of research, and to have your heart in the right place. Volunteering can make a long lasting beneficial effect on the communities you engage with, but it needs to be done ethically. But what does that mean, and how do you go about it?

Do you Have to Pay to Volunteer on your Gap Year?

It might be tempting to take the easy route and pay one of the many ‘voluntourism’ agencies to connect you with projects in your area of interest.

But paying to be a gap year volunteer usually means that the majority of your money goes to the agencies, not the project, and there is a higher chance of those gap year volunteer programs being actually targeted to tourists and being detrimental to the community.

It is entirely possible to find your own gap year volunteer program for free or for a donation fee that goes direct to the project, if you put in the necessary research.

Spending some time researching, or even just finding projects while you travel as you meet and engage with the local community in person, can help you make sure that your money isn’t wasted on agency fees which often do not contribute at all to the volunteer program itself.

A great place to start looking is Grassroots Volunteering, an organisation who lets you search and contact directly local-minded projects that will not waste your money for the wrong reasons.

Volunteer South America, specific to....well, South America, lists free and low cost volunteer opportunities.

Volunteer Forever is a great platform not only for finding ethical volunteer programs opportunities around the world, but also for you to fund raise your way there!

By simply finding a volunteer program on the website and then creating a profile to inspire people with your nobility of soul, you can raise money to go off on your volunteering experience of choice.

gap year volunteer programs

Grassroots Volunteering

Empowering travellers to connect directly and consciously with the causes and communities.

volunteer gap year programs

Volunteer South America

An extensive list of FREE South American Projects collated by a man with a vision.

volunteer programs on your gap year


A fundraising platform helping individuals find and fund their volunteer project.

How to Find the Best Gap Year Volunteer Program

gap year volunteer program mural paiting

Okay, so we've established that you've got the motivation to be a volunteer on your gap year and you've got the necessary mindset.

Now, all you have to do is find the best gap year volunteer program for you. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately not, it's a minefield out there. Let's look at some things you should be asking the project, as well as yourself.

The 4 Questions you Must Ask the Gap Year Volunteering Program 

Whether you are going direct to the volunteer program or through a provider such as a gap year company,  you must establish if it is clear in its marketing and intentions.  

Does it let foreign travellers decide for the community, or does its purpose stem from a genuine need in the community?  how does it support this claim?

As I have mentioned before, there are unethical practices when it comes to getting gap year volunteers involved and you must establish that the project is genuine before signing up. 

Here are the four more  important questions you should ask any gap year volunteer program, which will help you determine whether the work they are doing is ethical or not.

How much of what I pay goes directly to the project?

Responsible organisations are very transparent with their costs and they will be able to answer this question if they haven’t got it published on their website already.

A fair percentage of your money should reach the host project.

What I will be doing and what happens when I leave?

Well run projects with clear goals and long term plans will be able to explain in detail what work you will be doing, and how your role will fit into the wider picture and how your work is continued after you leave.

You could also ask how long has the organisation existed? Do your research to determine that it is credible.

Can I speak to some former participants?

When it comes to making sure the project you want to work on is genuinely helpful to the community, you really can’t beat the feedback of someone who has done it before you.

There are many ways you can contact previous gap year volunteers: many companies have Facebook groups which you could join and use to speak with people who have already been away with them, or you could do a simple Google search and dig out some reviews.

You can even ask the organization itself if they can put you in touch with former volunteers, which would also be a way to check if they have a long history of volunteering and are happy to have them share details with you, or if they don’t and are just getting started or are afraid for their reputation.

What if something goes wrong?

Is there someone you report to or who you can talk to if you are having a hard time? in the case of emergency what are their contingency plans, if any? Make sure that you are comfortable with the level of support available for gap year volunteers. 

The 4 Questions you Should Ask Yourself

gap year volunteer turtle program

Let's face it, volunteering isn't a totally altruistic act. Of course you want to help others and the environment, but volunteering is a two way thing and you are probably looking to get something out of the experience also. What things should you consider when choosing a gap year volunteer program?

What type of project suits you?

Choose something that resonates with your interests or what you want to study, and through volunteering in that sector you will be sure to find out whether it is the path you want to follow. 

If you speak the native language or want to improve it, or have a cultural interest in that part of the world these are generally good pointers to start with, and from there you can select projects that reflects your interests.

How much time do you have?

It is important that you have clear expectations of the time that you have available to volunteer on your gap year and that the project is aware of this and that they are happy with the time that you have to offer. 

Many placements are super short, but generally speaking the longer the better. You have to ask yourself what kind of impact you are really going to make in a short space of time.

Are you qualified/under qualified?

Often, gap year volunteers engage in work that they are in no way qualified to do. Bricklaying to build a new school? Helping to nurse children?

Engaging in these activities if you are not qualified to do them can be dangerous and demonstrates the little regard some travellers feel about the dignity and humanity of the people they are supposedly trying to help – not caring, for example, that the building you are helping to construct may not be up to housing standards.

Not to mention that by doing this you deprive a qualified local of the chance of employment.

This might sound like basic common sense, but this rule should always apply: if you wouldn’t dream of doing something at home, don’t do it abroad.

Are you in it for the right reasons?

Volunteering is not about you. Do not broadcast your activities, especially the people and children you are helping, on social media.

Even if you feel that you need to share what you are doing, this would be akin to appropriation of their pain and need for your own emotional reward .

If, pushing that to its extreme, your primary reason to want to help others is to look good, don’t do it in the first place .

Your attention as a gap year volunteer should be focused on the people in the community that need your help and the project you are engaged in, not on expanding your ego or the esteem that other people, especially people back home, hold you in.

Be Prepared for Your Volunteer Program

As a final word of advice, this TEDx Talk on the volunteering industry by Daniela Papi has an important underlying message: learn first, volunteer later.

What this means is that you should be knowledgeable not only about the community you are trying to help and their needs, but also about the job you are attempting to do, before you set out to do it.

To do otherwise is to fulfil a cycle of exploitation and stereotyping of other cultures as well as the damaging of the local economy and community. As Daniela Papi says, ‘sympathy volunteering’ needs to be swapped for ‘empathy learning’. 

If you do all of these things, you will be a successful and ‘conscious’ gap year volunteer. Someone who wants to get to know a new place like the back of their hand, and is genuinely invested in the local community’s well being.

Somebody who seeks out authenticity – real experiences rather than fake culture packaged up for tourists – and appreciates local distinctiveness, the things that make a place unique and special. 

Ethical volunteering will allow you to feel not only that you have made a lasting impact on a community’s future, but that that community has made an impact on you.

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