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Responsible volunteering

Volunteering overseas is a powerful way to tackle poverty and inequality. However, if volunteers don't make the right choice, they can find themselves in poorly-managed projects, inadvertently doing more harm than good.


A 3 minute video produced by VSO in Cambodia, highlighting the pitfalls of going unprepared to volunteer.

Putting local people (not volunteers) first

When carried out responsibly, international volunteering is a great way to help address poverty in communities around the world. Volunteering can also provide opportunities for personal development as well as helping build lifelong friendships.

Researching on laptop
© Shutterstock/Sfio Cracho
Some 'volunteering' can be harmful. Take the time to research volunteer placements and providers.

But, there has been a surge in projects where the wishes of overseas volunteers are prioritised over the needs of communities. In these cases volunteers can unwittingly cause harm to the communities they aim to support.

Often, these 'volunteering' experiences are packaged with leisure and travel activities and sold as an (often eye-wateringly expensive!) package, giving rise to the term 'voluntourism'.

Responsible volunteering is not about quick-fix solutions. Responsible volunteering is sustainable. It requires long-term work as part of a bigger plan to address real needs of communities.

What isn't responsible volunteering?

Not all volunteer projects help to make the world a fairer place.

Whilst many volunteering initiatives provide a valuable contribution to local communities, there are forms of volunteering that can be more harmful than beneficial. An example of this is the trend for combining overseas travel with a volunteer placement in an orphanage.

80% of the children in orphanages are not true orphans. They could (and should) be reunited with their families. In places such as Cambodia, the number of orphanages has been growing, not due to a rise in abandoned children, but from a rise in tourists paying to work in them.
Source: Friends International and the UN

Volunteering in orphanages can be harmful

Research shows that children placed in orphanages suffer emotionally, educationally and developmentally compared to children raised in family-type settings. Despite volunteers’ best intentions, orphanage volunteering can perpetuate poverty, inequality and discrimination.

ICS has made a commitment to support ending volunteering in orphanages. We plan to work with young volunteers to raise the awareness of the unsustainable nature of these volunteer programmes.

Read more about our pledge to help end orphanage volunteering.


Volunteers in Uganda

What is responsible volunteering?

Responsible volunteering projects are based on the needs, priorities and aspirations of communities where they take place, and delivered in collaboration with the community, with sustainability in mind. They are responsibly managed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the community as well as of volunteers. 

The most impactful volunteering projects work because they've been designed in such a way that volunteers add real value, rather than engaging in superficial or dangerous work. Otherwise, volunteers may find themselves doing work they are unqualified and unprepared for - or inadvertently taking away a job a local person could do.

Volunteering overseas - the checklist

At ICS, we want you to make an informed choice about the type of work you choose to undertake as a volunteer overseas. Here are some key questions to keep in mind before choosing an organisation to volunteer with.

Does the organisation:

  • Work with local partners?
  • Provide training before you go?
  • Provide support through experienced local staff?
  • Provide medical insurance?
  • Ask you to fundraise? If so - where does the money go?
  • Explain the value of using international volunteers? 
  • Have a long-term plan for the communities they support?
  • Conduct safeguarding checks for volunteers who work with children? 
  • Offer you the opportunity to talk to volunteers who have been on placement?


Do know someone considering volunteering overseas? Share our checklist with them: 


ICS commitment to responsible volunteering

ICS is committed to responsible youth volunteering for development. ICS brings together young people from the UK, young people from developing countries and members of the communities they work alongside, to make a valuable and sustainable contribution in some of the poorest countries in Asia and Africa.

We develop long term partnerships with local communities, ensure that volunteers are responding to the needs of local people and that volunteers are trained and supported throughout the volunteer placement by professional staff.

Volunteer in Tanzania
© Andrew Aitchison
ICS is committed to promote and deliver responsible volunteering.

At ICS, we also seek to make a long-term impact which lasts beyond the duration of the volunteers’ placement.

ICS actively avoids ‘voluntourism’ which focuses on fulfilling the wishes of the volunteer rather than meeting the needs of the community. Our projects contribute directly towards ending poverty in line with the sustainable development goals, through a focused and sustainable approach.


We recommend anyone considering volunteering overseas review the guidance on gap years, volunteering overseas and adventure travelling provided by the UK Government.

Below are a some more resources on volunteering overseas that you may find useful:

Orphanage volunteering


'Don't Create More Orphans' by Friends International
The Love You Give - the untold story of orphanages

Further reading and reference:

Volunteering responsibly


30 minute documentary asking volunteers why they decided to volunteer, how their experience is going and if they think they are having an impact on local communities.

More about ICS

volunteers in classroom
© ICS / International Service / Katie Barraclough

About ICS

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Funded by the UK Government

ICS is funded by the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID) which leads the UK’s work to end extreme poverty.

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