In my last post I shared with you my concerns about irresponsible volunteer organisations and orphanage tourism. Today I’d like to tell you about a great volunteering organisation that take a very responsible approach.
Getting to know ‘people and places’
As my regular readers will know, I work for The Gambia Experience (a tour operator in the Serenity Holidays group). They have recently teamed up with the award-winning volunteer organisation, people and places to offer ‘packaged’ volunteer trips giving volunteers the same security as someone booking a package holiday – a great option, especially if you are not used to independent travel.
The day before my last visit to The Gambia I met up with Sallie, Katie and volunteer, Diane, from people and places and I was genuinely impressed, not just with what they do, but also with the way they do it.
As a volunteer organisation people and places take their responsibilities to both the local community and the volunteer very seriously, ensuring that both benefit from the experience. The volunteers always work alongside the community and never instead of. The volunteering is all about exchanging skills. For example, volunteer teachers always work alongside a local teacher and if the local teacher doesn’t turn up for a few days they are under strict instructions not to work until they return. This ensures that the school hasn’t dismissed the teacher thinking that the volunteer will do the work.
So often, in other organisations, the volunteer does what they think a community needs rather than what the community actually needs and the host community is too polite to say ‘no’ and will say ‘yes’ to any suggestion, irrespective of whether they actually think it will be useful or not.
In each country people and places work in, they have a local partner, chosen in part because they have an understanding of the volunteer’s cultural background as well as that of the host community. This ensures that they will understand what preconceptions and concerns the volunteer may have. In The Gambia the local partner is a well-known sustainable tourism expert Adama Bah. Both he, and his assistant Lamin, have studied in England so are familiar with our culture.
Why do you have to pay to volunteer?
Applying to be a volunteer through people and places probably takes longer than any other volunteer organisation but that is because they do their homework, from finding out about the skills that a potential volunteer has to offer, to discussing with their in-country partner how that volunteer may be best used. Inevitably there are administration costs involved with this but it is an essential part of the process.
Each volunteer also donates £200 to the project that they will be working with. The project, the volunteer and the local partner decide together how the donation is to be spent.
Further more people and places are the only overseas volunteer organisation that I know of who, at their own request, has had an independent advisor audit their organisation to show that they are actually doing what they promise to do – from looking at their accounts to see that money goes where they say it will go to following the email trail showing that the local community have been fully consulted and are in agreement with every volunteer project and placement.
Ensuring continuity between volunteers
New volunteers are given access to all the reports from previous volunteers to that project so that they can understand what work has been done before and build upon it. This is also useful for returning volunteers so that they can see what has been done since they last visited. Volunteers are encouraged to talk to each other be that on the phone, by email or face to face at social events. I’ll be going to one of their get-togethers in November and I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the volunteers and finding out about their experiences.
For further information on this and other responsible volunteering opportunities with people and places, winners of the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award for Best Volunteering Organisation in 2010, please visit their website, travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk or if you live in the UK and are considering volunteering in The Gambia, visit Gambia.co.uk/volunteering.