Volunteering for a charitable project abroad may ease your conscience, but make sure your choice really benefits those in need, says Rhiannon Batten

What's the attraction?

Going abroad to volunteer for a charitable project used to mean committing to many months or even years away. Now, though, just as almost every other element of our modern lifestyles has speeded up, so too has philanthropic travel, or "voluntourism".

Now volunteer holidays are no longer the preserve only of skilled medical or teaching professionals, or even expertise-poor, but time- and enthusiasm-rich gap year travellers. The idea that holidaymakers might want to give something back was first harnessed in earnest by the US-based organisation Earthwatch (01865 318 838; www.earthwatch.org). It organises volunteers for dozens of research projects, from helping wine growers enhance wildlife on a working farm in France to documenting cultural resources in Mongolia.

Will my help be meaningful?

Not guaranteed. Some critics believe the needs of the volunteer can take precedence over the needs of the communities they are visiting. Volunteer travel was born out of a genuine need for skilled assistance with projects on foreign soil. Organisations such as the international development charity VSO (020-8780 7500; www.vso.org.uk), which has been co-ordinating such ventures for more than 40 years, rarely considers them to be holidays or tourist experiences. However, the number of students taking gap years in recent years has led to the reinterpretation of volunteer travel, incorporating giving labour or expertise on a holiday.

There are, therefore, problems created by transience, with waves of well-meaning tourists parachuting in and out of projects; and of local unemployment being created by volunteers carrying out work for free that a local person might otherwise be paid to do. Organisations might also fail properly to vet the experience and suitability of prospective volunteers. The answer is to research your trip with care. The website www.ethicalvolunteering.org offers information. You can also book through an operator that subscribes to a responsible volunteering policy, such as those listed here.

How does your garden grow?

Unlike longer volunteering projects, where expert skills are often needed, short-term voluntourism trips often make use of everyday talents such as reading with children or, in this case, helping a school gardening project.

On World Expeditions' 10-day "Aberdare Ranges Primary School Vegetable Garden Project" trip in Kenya, participants spend three days helping children from families displaced from their homes after the country's elections in 2007 as they tend allotments to provide sustainable food sources. The rest of the trip is spent wildlife-watching around Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and Hells Gate National Park. The next departure is on 24 June. The price of £1,390 per person includes local transport, accommodation and most meals, but not international flights, which are likely to raise the total cost to close on £2,000 (0800 074 4135; www.worldexpeditions.co.uk).

Early adopters

In response to the perception that volunteering trips are becoming increasingly popular with families, tour operator The Adventure Company has launched a new "Hands on Adventures" programme for groups with older children. Its 16-day "Monkeys in the Jungle" group tour in Sri Lanka offers families with children aged eight and above the chance to enjoy the island's wildlife, beaches and temples, plus two days spent observing torque macaques, purple-faced langurs and Gray Langurs at a primate conservation camp. The idea is to instill a taste for conservation work, rather than making it the prime focus of the trip.

Prices in the August off-season start at £1,779 for adults and £1,629 for children, inc. flights, transport, accommodation and some meals (0845 287 1198; www.adventurecompany.co.uk).

Smooth with the rough

For some, the big attraction of volunteering is the opportunity to step temporarily outside day-to-day life and share a more frugal existence. That's not likely to be the case for those joining ITC Classics' new voluntourism programme. Launched in April, ITC Giving is the first such programme offered by a luxury tour operator. The company is working with the responsible volunteering organisation People and Places (0870 046 0479; travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk) to ensure its projects are properly managed. ITC Giving itineraries include a 12-night trip to Morocco, combining three nights at Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot and five nights at La Mamounia in Marrakech, with four nights helping with healthcare and education projects in High Atlas villages. Prices start at £3,150 per person, including flights, transfers, accommodation and some meals (01244 355478; www.itcclassics. co.uk/itcgiving). Note that, following last Thursday's terrorist bombing in the centre of Marrakech, the current Foreign Office advice warns of further possible attacks aimed at foreigners.

Experiential Tours, a new brand of volunteering holidays launched by Explore earlier this year (0845 013 1537; www.explore.co.uk) also works with People and Places.

Seeing the sights differently

Helping out on holiday doesn't have to mean working in a different culture, or even country. Sighted volunteers with the UK charity Vitalise sign up to help visually impaired travellers get more out of their holiday, from describing various sights on the itinerary to giving more hands-on help on the charity's activity breaks. In return they receive a reduction in the cost of their own trip in return. Current destinations range from a six-day walking trip on the Isle of Man to a 12-day tour of Borneo. A three-day break in Venice costs £599 for the visually-impaired, but only £369 for sighted holidaymakers. This includes flights, transfers and three nights' B&B (0845 834 0352; www.vitalise.org.uk).

Home is where the big-hearted are

If a week or weekend is all you've got – or you want to try a trip closer to home before committing to something more ambitious – there are plenty of UK voluntourism opportunities out there, especially for those with an inclination for wellies and hard work.

The National Trust (0844 800 3099; www.nationaltrust.org.uk), National Trust for Scotland (0844 493 2590; www.nts.org.uk) and BTCV (020 7278 4294; www.btcv.org.uk) all offer conservation-minded trips that involve anything from weed-clearing weekends to longer trips combining photography with fencing. Alternatively, sign up for a canal camp with the Waterway Recovery Group. For between £56 and £80 per person you spend a week restoring a section of the country's canals with like-minded folk. Price includes basic accommodation and food; trips to swimming pools and cinemas are also arranged (01494 783453; www.waterways.org.uk/wrg).

What Google will tell you...

A recent poll by Projects Aboard ( www.projects-abroad.co.uk), suggests that 47 per cent of Brits believe they are too busy to volunteer abroad. Peter Slowe, the company's director says: "There is a popular misconception that volunteering is only for students with a lot of free time on their hands, which is simply not the case. There are many projects available that run for just two weeks, which can still offer valuable help to developing countries but also provide a meaningful experience to the volunteer." ( www.mapthegap.co.uk)

What Google won't tell you... until now

"The best way to assess whether an organisation is concerned with the volunteer issue or more interested in the money is to ask for evidence of tangible achievements from previous volunteer activity," says Peter Lynch, author of Wildlife and Conservation Volunteering: The Complete Guide (Bradt, £13.99). "A genuinely philanthropic organisation will be able to swamp you with detail. Some organisations spend up to 70 per cent of a volunteer's fee on and around the project in the country you go to, whereas others spend as little as 10 per cent."

Who said that?

"Travel for British people is culturally embedded. For nearly 700 years the British have been going abroad and trying to 'do good' and bring their way of life to other people. Whether it be missionaries, voluntaries or colonialists, it's been happening for a long time – and it won't change" Kate Simpson ( ivolunteerproject.wordpress.com)

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others"

Mahatma Gandhi