Doing good, badly: a crash-course in unethical volunteering

So you want to donate your valuable time to a good cause? Great! But before you set off to save the world, have you stopped to make sure the work you sign up for will actually be doing some good? Most volunteer organisations work with careful consideration of their impact on a community, but there are some out there that miss the mark when it comes to working ethically. That’s why we’ve put together a handy crash-course in some common ethical pitfalls – so you can avoid them:

  1. Go in blind

A great start to unethical volunteering is not checking out the organisation you’ll be working with. If you don’t do a few simple checks, you could end up working somewhere you’re not needed, or even being a burden on the charity or community in question. This wouldn’t just be bad for the charity but would make for a bad experience for you too.

If you go through a placement company, make sure they have a good relationship with the host charity, and not just taking money from well-meaning volunteers to place them somewhere they’re not needed. There are also plenty of low-cost ways to volunteer by contacting small charities directly – but again, forgetting to do some simple checks is a surefire way to risk unethical volunteering!

  1. Go way over your pay-grade
Another way to volunteer on the blurry side of ethics is to bite off more than you can chew, and take a role you’re just not qualified for. While enthusiasm and a willingness to learn is a great basis for many kinds of volunteer positions, that doesn’t mean you can try your hand at medicine or engineering if you’re not qualified. A good NGO will match your skills and experience to job in hand.

  1. Go with the NGO that asks the least questions about you

If an organisation offers you a position without trying to find out anything about you, they could be leading you down an ethical dead-end. Application processes may seem like annoying hoops to jump through, but they are a sign of an organisation’s integrity – plus an interview over the phone is a great chance for you to find out more about them too.

  1. Don’t think about the community
Well-meaning NGOs can get into an ethical mess if they impose themselves on a community, rather than working with them and listening to their needs. A good NGO will have local involvement – not just in running the project, but having a say in its aims and aspirations too.

Before signing up, check the NGO is providing a useful service for the community, with local involvement, and that it’s valued by those it seeks to help.
  1. Do a local’s job for free

If you get stuck into some hard work on the ground, with the best intentions in the world, what if your well-meaning toil actually puts a local laborer out of work? This is especially a danger of low-skilled volunteer labour, which would otherwise be paid work for a local.  Do your homework first and make sure you won’t be digging yourself an ethical black hole.  

Volunteering abroad will probably be the most exciting and rewarding thing you can do in your life. But if you’re not careful, you could end up turning your good intentions on their head. Make sure you avoid these common pitfalls for a good experience for you, the charity and the host community. For more tips on best practice, check out the guide at Ethical Volunteering.

If you’re interested in volunteering with HOOP in Arequipa, Peru, then get in touch! (

Words/photo Tom Hornbrook

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