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What is ethical volunteering

Article by Tasneem Johnson-Dollie

Tasneem Johnson-Dollie

Posted: December 19, 2022

6 min read

There are plenty of reasons for volunteering abroad, but to make sure your good intentions translate into a meaningful experience, you’ll need to be clear on why making an impact ethically is a top priority. 

Ethical volunteering can be examined in two parts: the person volunteering and the organisation offering the volunteer opportunities. The first part is simple. Before you volunteer, make sure you’re wanting to do it for the right reasons – you’re not looking to gain any form of money, social or professional gain, or get pictures of you with wild animals or vulnerable people such as children. 

The second part is more challenging because a number of organisations that offer volunteering abroad programs make their programs sound ethical when they aren’t. This is why it is important for you to dig a little deeper and look at the company’s policies about ethically volunteering with animals, the environment and people. You should check that:

  • The projects offered align with relevant global issues, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
  • The local community is involved with the various projects.
  • There are policies in place for responsibly and safely volunteering with children and animals.
  • There is clear communication about the organisation’s values, where your money goes and how participants’ safety is ensured. 

To make it easier to determine whether a company is ethical or not check out these two blogs for a list of questions you should ask when volunteering with animals and children.

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Sustainable programs are set up so that progress continues to be made even when volunteers are no longer around.

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After decades of research, global organisations like the United Nations (UN) were able to identify the biggest challenges faced by communities worldwide, and develop recommendations on how best to address them. 

In 2016, the UN launched the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), which put emphasis on global efforts, sustainable approaches and dynamic solutions. This global blueprint put into perspective why some volunteer efforts of the past had failed. 

The UN SDGs changed the course of volunteer programs by providing a new perspective on reasons to volunteer abroad. And organisations wanting to offer the best volunteer abroad programs began to take the UN’s advice. 


Ethical volunteering can improve the volunteer experience for participants as well as the communities, animals and environments they assist. Here’s how:

Sustainable impact 

Of all the reasons for volunteering with an ethical volunteer organisation, making a sustainable impact may be the most important. Sustainable solutions are able to fully address the challenges faced by local communities over the long term while also preserving resources for future generations. 

For example, ethical volunteer organisations make sure to partner with local organisations when getting involved in environmental conservation. 

This means that local people and volunteers share knowledge and gain relevant skills that allow them to achieve global goals. So, local people would be just as capable of continuing environmental conservation efforts as volunteers would be. And since they are experts in their own context, they can help ensure that programs are set up to succeed. 

Community development

Ethics is an important part of community development. In community volunteer programs, a meaningful volunteer code of ethics sets the scene for:

  • Collaboration: local communities and organisations can work together to set and achieve goals 
  • Equitable partnerships: knowledge and responsibilities can be shared between volunteers and the community 
  • Support: activities can take place in a supportive environment that encourages independence and self-empowerment
  • Representation: all parties are encouraged to be conscious of their actions and carry themselves in a way that encourages respectful communication and engagement. 

Responsible animal interactions

While a community of people can speak out about what their needs are, and what they consider fair treatment, the same can’t be said for animals. 

Because of this, every ethical volunteering abroad program that involves animals should be necessary to further scientific and conservation goals and be implemented ethically. This is the only way to ensure that volunteers have a positive impact when it comes to the well-being of animals. 

Personal development

Whether you’re working with animals or getting involved in the community, programs that follow a volunteer code of ethics give you the chance to build on your personal and professional development in the best ways possible.

Getting involved in ethical volunteering can improve the way you interact with people, and give you valuable insight into what ethics is and how it’s practised in a real-world setting.

Online short courses in making an impact ethically are also a great way to add to your professional development in a way that encourages you to make ethics an inseparable part of your career. 

Global perspective 

By volunteering abroad in an ethical setting, you’ll learn all about how to apply ethics in a real world context while gaining an appreciation for new cultures. When you return home, you will be able to apply your new found knowledge and skills to continue making an ethical impact.

How you can make an impact ethically

While there are thousands of opportunities to volunteer abroad, not all of them can ensure an ethical volunteering experience. 

It helps to know for yourself what making an impact ethically is all about, and to find out the ethical stance of the volunteer organisation you’re looking to sign up with. Check out our ethical commitments. If you like what you see, sign up to help us make a lasting impact.

By Tasneem Johnson-Dollie

Tasneem Johnson-Dollie is a travel writer living in South Africa. She has experience in public health nutrition and worked as a dietician before launching her writing career. She loves bringing her passion for public health and sustainable development to every article she writes. Her travels around South Africa as well as to India, Australia, and Saudi Arabia have fueled her passion for exploration.
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