Q&A: "Volunteering really can make a difference"

Posted on 2nd May 2017 in African Conservation Experience, Q&A, Volunteering Abroad

Ellen from African Conservation Experience answers your FAQs about volunteering abroad


What should gappers consider before they choose to undertake voluntary work?

It is important that gappers think about what they want to achieve by volunteering. They need to understand that volunteering – if it is to achieve something – can be hard work and challenging. When joining a genuine project, the project’s work also usually takes priority over the “personal agenda” or interests of a volunteer, so any potential volunteers need to be honest with themselves if they are up for that. That's not to say they won’t have any fun – they do! – but when there is need, days can be long, hot and tiring, and some of the work might really present a personal challenge.

What skills might a gapper pick up as a result of volunteering on their gap year?

Some skills will be very specific to the project that the gapper chooses. At an African Conservation Experience project volunteers can pick up skills in veterinary medicine and animal care, but also field research skills, such as telemetry tracking, or how to set up a camera trap! There are also transferable skills that a gapper will gain from volunteering: working in teams, cross-cultural communication, budgeting and fundraising (in preparation for their trip).

Where are volunteers needed most?

This is difficult to say: African Conservation Experience make it a point only to work with projects that have a genuine need for volunteers. However, there are certain times or locations when volunteers will really make a difference: Wildlife Rehabilitation Centres in South Africa often need additional volunteers during November-February, as this is “baby season” when a lot of orphaned or abandoned infant animals need intensive care.

You might also consider supporting a destination that has suffered recent upheaval – as soon as it is safe to go back, of course. Destinations that rely on travellers for employment and income can really struggle when travellers stay away. Amongst the partner projects of African Conservation Experience, for example, the Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage in Zimbabwe had several very difficult years during the early naughties, when the project was kept running only through the dedication of the Wilson family, who have been managing Chipangali for 40 years! Volunteers have been absolutely vital in getting Chipangali back on their feet and being able to make the investments that they needed to care for the animals.

What are your most popular gap year options?

The most popular projects are the Wildlife Care and Rehabilitation Centres, as they offer a very hands-on experience – and access to lots of different wildlife species!

What kind of time frames are available for volunteering placements, and how should you choose which time frame will be best for you?

Volunteers can join ACE projects for any timeframe between 2-12 weeks. It really is a personal choice whether to opt for a shorter or longer placement. A short placement is a good option if gappers want to combine it with further travelling, while a longer placement of course gives them much more scope for learning further skills and forming closer friendships with other volunteers.

What is the application process like for securing a voluntary role and when should gappers think about applying?

African Conservation Experience have an online application form, which is usually the starting point. The application is not competitive though, there is no deadline for submitting the form and we don’t compare applicants with each other. The form is far more important for getting to know a potential gapper a little bit, as we then have a personal chat with them. In this chat we talk in detail about the projects they are interested in and together we make a plan as to which project – or projects – are the best choice, when they want to go and how much time they will spend there. Only then do we set up a placement and ask the traveller to commit to their trip.

How much does volunteering abroad generally cost?

Volunteering abroad varies hugely in costs, as there are so many factors to consider, such as destination, duration, inclusions etc.

A placement with ACE starts at £1,375-£2000. There are no doubt cheaper options out there, but I would urge volunteers to consider both how much support they will receive (Will they be met at the airport? Do they need to find their own way to a project? Is there a “real person” to look after them in country or just an emergency phone number?) and how much support the money their pay can generate for the project. If you only pay £200 / week, and that includes food and accommodation, how much funding can be left over for conservation or community development?

What are the key points that gappers need to remember when it comes to staying safe while volunteering?

You should definitely make sure that they travel with a reputable organisation: check out how long they have been operating, if they are ATOL bonded and if they are happy to put the volunteer in touch with other travellers for referrals. A bit of preparation goes a long way – especially if the gappers are planning on doing some independent travelling as well! Check out which areas are safe to visit, what some of the local laws and customs are. A visit to a GP or travel nurse to make sure that vaccinations are up-to-date is also a must, as is adequate travel insurance! And finally – don’t leave your common sense behind!

What are the ethical concerns surrounding the volunteering industry?

You definitely need to do your research! Volunteering really can make a difference: it is a great way to generate funding, awareness and ongoing global support for a huge number of very worthwhile projects. A lot of initiatives would not exist without the support of international volunteer travellers. That said, there are also some less-ethical projects which exist only to take volunteers, and where the volunteer does not actually get to help out with any worthwhile work. And of course there are some types of projects that should be rejected out-of-hand: The “cub petting” industry for example, where volunteers are enticed to “walk with” or hand-rear baby lions.

Are you seeing an increase in older gappers or people taking a career break?

We have definitely seen an increase of more mature volunteers. When African Conservation Experience started in 1999, it worked almost 100% with “traditional” gap year students – aged 17 or 18, and students during their university career. Now about 25% of our travellers are professionals aged 25+, including quite a few retirees!

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