Sustainable Seawolf: How to ethically volunteer

With freedom on the horizon, many soon-to-be graduates may wonder what they should do after they walk across the stage. For a portion of them, domestic and international volunteering will factor into the plan.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18.4 percent of people aged 20-24 volunteer each year. That’s almost a fifth of us putting our skills and labor out there for different organizations. According to the same statistics, that percentage only goes up with age, meaning that more of us will continue to give our time throughout our lives. For those who do, establishing sustainable volunteer practices early on sets the stage for whether or not your time actually makes a difference.

Volunteering locally

Volunteering locally is the most sustainable option, as it causes the least emissions from transportation. It also offers a longer-term solution to social issues.

While you may not be able to volunteer locally for as many hours per week, you can carry on volunteering for an overall longer period of time. By showing yourself to be a consistent volunteer, many organizations will be willing to invest time in training you for new skills. Local volunteering also offers you the chance to see the benefits of your hard work. Seeing lives or movements change in real time can be a rewarding experience.

The downside to local volunteering, for some people, can be limitations in what’s needed. Your particular set of skills may not be in high demand for local aid. If you find yourself in this boat, then you can consider starting out as a volunteer in unskilled positions (taking inventory, serving food, etc.) while working on building your skillset.

Volunteering abroad

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With a combination of traveling and helping out, volunteering abroad seems too good to be true. Unfortunately, that’s because it sometimes is.

In recent years, reports of malicious organizations abusing the good intentions of volunteers have surfaced. In some cases, companies required volunteers to pay the company for housing and food while putting them to work on a project that had already been finished, torn down, and restarted. In other cases, volunteers were placed in positions that would have had greater benefit if given to a local.

The easiest way to spot these companies can be found on their websites. As a general rule of thumb, any company promising that you can make a difference in two weeks with no applicable skillset, it’s likely a business first, volunteer organization second. For sustainable, ethical volunteering, you have to be willing to put in a significant length of time and have applicable knowledge for the project.

However, that does not mean that volunteering abroad is always bad. If you have a special skill, such as nursing or agriculture, you can make a difference by volunteer teaching locals. This allows them to continue work in their communities long after you leave. Being able to teach through demonstrations also allows you to get projects started and staffed before your departure.

Volunteering can be a great way to help out communities while pursuing your passion, but that doesn’t mean that it should be taken lightly. Research any organization that you volunteer with to make sure that they are not the parent company to an unethical group. If possible, follow up with past volunteers and patrons of these companies to find out their perspectives.

And of course, don’t forget that volunteer work, while unpaid, can make a change for the better when done right.