When I tell people about my experiences volunteering, one of the main questions I’m asked is, “How did you find out about that?”
The answer is pretty simple…….Google.
One day while I was watching a program about wildlife and the struggle to survive on the Discovery Channel, I decided I wanted to help, so I jumped on the computer and started my search for volunteer opportunities.
That’s where I found Elephant Nature Park, and the rest is history.
Unfortunately not all volunteer programs are good. Once people found out that not only can they get free labor but they could also make people pay to work for them, they jumped at the opportunity. Now there are programs all over the world that prey on the good intentions of travelers.
So how do you know which programs are good and which are bad?
It’s hard to tell right away, but ask these few questions, and you should be OK.
1. Where does the money go?
This is the first question I ask when I’m looking at a volunteer program. A majority if not all of the money being paid to work should be going directly back into the program.
A few years ago I worked for an organization claiming it was for conservation, but I really felt like I was just giving them free labor and paying a hefty sum to do so.
I brought up my concerns with the coordinator and began asking where my money was really going……and I am so glad that I did!
I soon found out that all the money paid by volunteers went into the local conservancy which provided tags and equipment to further their research on that specific animal.
2. How are they helping the animal?
I keep hearing about “volunteer programs” that are raising animals to sell to various hunting or trekking farms but telling their volunteers that they are helping conserve the species.
This is absolutely disgusting!
Really ask what they are doing for the animals.
If a farm is continuously breeding their animals, it’s probably not in the best interest of the animal.
For example, a self proclaimed “Lion Sanctuary” in South Africa uses volunteers to work on their farm and help with the breeding program stating they are helping keep the species alive.
The dark truth is those particular lions are being bred for a tourist attraction where they let the masses come pet and handle the cubs. Then once they are too old to be considered safe for the public, they are shipped off to various game farms where rich “sportsmen” go to claim a nice trophy.
It makes me sick, but as long as they have people willing to work for them as well as tourist willing to pay to pet a lion cub, they will continue to stay in business.
3. What is going on behind the scenes?
This goes along with the last question, but I thought it should have it’s own spot.
If the program is legit, there should be nothing hidden from volunteers. I’m not saying you should be able to enter every room or enclosure. The fact is, domesticated or not, these are wild animals you are working with and because of safety, volunteers are not allowed everywhere.
BUT you should be able to ask what is happening and get an honest answer.
If you read my posts about Best Friends, you would have seen one about Rabbit Rescue Village. That particular area of the sanctuary is not on the map and for the most part hidden from the public. It’s not because they want to hide what they are doing. It’s because they want to keep the animals safe due to their severe illnesses.
Visitors can request touring Rabbit Rescue Village if they are of proper age, but Best Friends chooses to keep it off the map to avoid people just showing up and wanting to handle the bunnies.
It was the same with Dogtown. Certain areas were off limits to volunteers, again not because they wanted to hide it from the public, but because they want to keep both the animals and volunteers safe.
4. What are other volunteers saying?
Check out the reviews written by other volunteers.
Google the program and look for blog posts and articles written about it.
Discuss your concerns with other volunteers while you are there.
If the group approaches the coordinators as a whole, it’s harder for them to hide what they are doing.
Sometimes you will have to actually be there to realize the program is not doing any good. It’s unfortunate but true.
DO NOT feel bad about going there!
You followed your heart and wanted to help. There is nothing wrong with that.
If you do find yourself at a crooked volunteer program, report them as soon as you are in a safe place to do so. Obviously the people running the program do not have the best interests of anyone but themselves in mind, and you don’t want to get hurt.
The power of social media is very strong. Start telling all your friends and prompting them to share your posts about the organization.
That goes for good programs too. Tell your friends and family about the great volunteer opportunities you have experienced. Maybe you will inspire them to do the same.