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Volunteer work: Doing good just got more complicated

As research budgets are cut, opportunities are increasing for volunteers. But travel firms should tread carefully, says Mark Rowe

Never mind the Big Society, research organisations are already on the look-out for "citizen scientists" to help keep environmental and wildlife projects afloat during the recession.

As funding streams dry up for many research projects at home and overseas, opportunities are increasing for willing volunteers to fill the gap and help with monitoring killer whales or turtles, for example, or supporting structural projects in developing countries.

"We've seen an increase in wildlife and science volunteering – much of it down to Kate Humble and her army of sofa wildlife viewers," says Justin Francis, founder of Responsibletravel.com. Projects endorsed by the company include some of its most popular activities, such as turtle conservation in Western Australia, whale monitoring off the Azores and orang-utan conservation in Borneo.

"The volunteering sector has grown enormously," he adds. "The recession has fuelled this. A lot of people are reassessing what they can do with their lives. Volunteering is a way of experimenting and gaining a taste for a career change, seeing if it's something they want to take further."

There's merit in this approach, according to Professor Lyn Beazley, a zoologist and the chief scientist of Western Australia, who stresses that volunteers need appropriate training if they are to provide real benefit. "This could provide a new role for zoos, to engage volunteers in release programmes and train them in data collection so they can make a difference," she says.

Professor Beazley highlights EcoOcean's whale shark project (whaleshark.org) as a good example of where tourists' passion for wildlife has been harnessed to bolster scientific knowledge and conservation efforts. "There is no end of work that, in a perfect world, could be done to proactively manage protected areas and wildlife," she says. "Scientists or tour companies on their own are not going to make as good a conservation contribution as they would by working together. They are interdependent."

Earthwatch (earthwatch.org) has worked for nearly 40 years to link the public with scientists, arranging paid-for placements with projects across the world. Earthwatch recently launched several new volunteering projects including an examination of the relationship between mangroves in the Bahamas with tourism, pollution and climate change.

"One of the reasons we were founded was precisely to fill the gap in scientific funding," said Jane Nijssen, spokeswoman for Earthwatch. "Over the years there's been a decline in such funding and we're filling that gap. We're one of the pioneers of the citizen scientists. We saw there was a real need, particularly for long-term funding."

Generally, qualifications are irrelevant, according to Nijssen; natural curiosity is more important. "These are tasks that everybody can do," she says. "You're measuring trees, photographing dolphins – but they are very important tasks."

But this work can sometimes be less than enthralling. "Monitoring turtles on a beach in Costa Rica sounds wonderful but it can be very tough work – you're walking up and down a large beach most of the night," said Nijssen. "It's physically demanding. A lot of monitoring tasks are also repetitive, but without them, our scientists wouldn't have the capacity to do the work they do – it would take up too much of their time to do the monitoring."

The validity of the experience is crucial, according to Professor Beazley. "Apart from an amazing experience, which can involve a behind-the-scenes look at conservation work, the volunteers need to have a real feeling that they have contributed to the future of the world we live in."

The travel industry also has a responsibility to tread carefully when it overlaps with serious scientific research. Francis points out that volunteers benefiting from the trend should be mindful that their chance may well have been the result of lost jobs for qualified scientists and other experts. "It's not all one-way good news," adds Francis. "We do some volunteer work at a wildlife reserve near our office in Sussex and the ranger there is fearful for his funding. The Government is asking for a Big Society and there seems to be an expectation that we will all take up our cudgels and do this work. But there's a feeling that volunteering doesn't just happen; it has to be organised and encouraged."

Another cautionary note comes from the Human Sciences Research Council, which has reported that some short-term volunteer projects are counterproductive, and often deny low-skilled jobs to locals. While such projects are often well intentioned, the South Africa-based council warned of "a real danger of voluntourists crowding out local workers, especially when people are prepared to pay for the privilege of volunteering".

There are several steps that would-be volunteers can take to ensure their efforts are genuinely useful, according to Francis. "Make sure the experience is requested by the local community – is there a real need? Has it been invented by the marketing department of the volunteering company? Look to see reports and audits on what has been achieved by previous volunteers on the project. Ask how much of your money actually goes to the programme and how much is taken as profit by the organisation, and speak to previous volunteers.

"There have been too many stories about people travelling to a project only to find there is no real job for them. That can be demoralising. Also, look to best utilise your skills – a good accountant may be best deployed helping the village to organise its finances rather than digging a hole or monitoring wildlife."