Throughout 2018 our marine biologists here at Love The Oceans will be doing blog posts on topics of Named Days. To keep up to date, follow this blog, also found under the ‘News’ tab on our website. Without further ado, in celebration of National Volunteering Week 2018, I introduce our twelfth blog in this marine series:
To Volunteer or Not to Volunteer? That is The Question…
There are a lot of big questions in this world. If you are a student or recent graduate in marine biology or conservation then whether or not to volunteer is probably one of them. So in honour of National Volunteering Week we are giving you ‘The Brutally Honest Guide to Volunteering’!
As a volunteer you are buying a product: Whether you are paying or ‘just’ offering your time, you are in fact paying that organisation. So before you go off and volunteer you should decide what you are looking to buy and how much you are willing to pay:
(NB: Our guide is aimed at unskilled volunteers.)
What are you looking to gain from volunteering?
Most volunteers are looking to gain more experience in their field and make themselves more employable. Before you sign up, it’s worth researching which skills will give you a competitive edge. Read advertisements for your dream job(s) or browse LinkedIn profiles or CVs of people whose job you would like to have. You’ll soon discover reoccurring skills – these are the ones that volunteering should help you gain.
I’m looking for field experience: Great! What kind of field experience? If you want to work with polar bears learning how to study chimpanzees probably won’t help you… Species-specific opportunities can be amazing, but also fairly limiting in the long run. Instead look for transferable skills: Photo ID, acoustic telemetry, international survey techniques are just some of the methods that can easily be transferred between species and habitats.
I want to build my network: The unpleasant truth is that often, it’s not about what you know, but who you know. Choose an organisation that can connect you with the people you want to work with. Check out which other organisations, universities or researchers the organisation is associated with. Look at staff members’ CVs and social media profiles for clues: If the field specialist is BFFs with the supervisor of your dreams, he/she can probably give you an introduction…
A final note: Make sure the people training or supervising you are qualified to do so! Don’t sign up without checking the staff profiles. The project leaders, field specialists and site managers should all be qualified in their fields, otherwise there is no point in signing up to learn from them.
See our team profiles here.
Where is your money going?
Let’s be honest, paying to volunteer has gotten mixed reviews. However, it can be a good thing, and if you are paying to volunteer you should know where your money is going.
First, let’s look at what you are paying for: Most organisations will ask a fee to cover your stay, e.g. accommodation, food and transport costs. This is simply because it’s easier, cheaper and safer for everyone involved, if the organisation arranges everything. Lodging 20 volunteers at a time often allows the organisation to get a substantial discount – which essentially means you end up paying less. Quite often your volunteer fee also goes towards keeping research projects or conservation efforts running by paying for everyday commodities like petrol for boat engines and cars, and maintaining field research equipment.
Now, why should you pay to volunteer? In addition to cover your stay and help keep research projects running, you are also paying for your training. Keep in mind that as an unskilled volunteer you are not qualified to do your work without training or being supervised. You are paying and/or giving your time in exchange for training, so choose an organisation that provides you with as much training and supervision as possible.
How are you contributing?
Even as an unskilled volunteer, you should be contributing to the organisation’s work. If your work isn’t making a difference, choose a different organisation.
Long terms data sets require thousands of hours of fieldwork: Employing trained professionals to do all the fieldwork is too costly and simply not feasible for most organisations. NGOs therefore rely on volunteers to help with data collection, and most NGOs can attribute their successes to the contribution of volunteers. Imagine all the research, community and conservation work that would never be done without volunteers!
Be ethically sound!
A final thing to do before you sign up is to research the organisation’s ethical profile to make sure you are not replacing local jobs or engaging in activities that could impact local communities or habitats negatively. Stay clear of organisations that offer short-term commitments with orphanages or wildlife rehabilitation centres – children and animals need stable, long-term relationships with a few caretakers, not volunteers who come and go every few weeks or months.
Read up on Love The Oceans ethical volunteering guidelines here
Now, are you still not sure if you should volunteer? Take our test – ‘The Brutally Honest Guide to Volunteering’
Happy National Volunteering Week!