Originally published August 18, 2016.

Want to get involved in social, cultural, and ecological projects in Berlin? It's easier than you might think. You can find a volunteer opportunity no matter what language you speak, how much time you have or what skills you bring to the table. 

Our friends at vostel.de have brought a whole new meaning to voluntourism by connecting visitors with volunteer projects within Berlin. So far, over 2000 volunteers from around the world have contributed to 123 social good projects and counting. Locals are welcome to lend a helping hand as well!

Sit back, relax and read this article to gain some wisdom about how to make a difference. Then hopefully you'll be inspired to get up, go out and put what you've learned to action. Happy volunteering! 

What was your inspiration for creating vostel? 

With vostel we want to make it easy for everyone to get involved in local volunteering projects. It all started in 2013, although with a different idea: Berlin was covered with “Berlin doesn’t love you” stickers addressing tourists, indicating frustration amongst some Berliners being concerned about the on-going transformation from residential areas into party miles and the misuse of “living space” as holiday apartments.

During that time, my friend (and now also co-founder of vostel) and I were travelling through South America and experienced wonderful ways of community based tourism – a kind of tourism that doesn’t only “take” from a destination but leaves a positive impact on local communities – and we were sure that there were ways to bring the best out of tourism in Berlin as well. So what would have been more reasonable than giving tourists the possibility to share their skills and energy with the city they visit? That is when the idea of vostel was born – a platform for Berlin visitors that offers short-term volunteering activities that can also be performed by non-German speakers. 

When we launched our very first platform, a basic version of vostel.de, we immediately got a lot of requests – however, not only by tourists. Instead, the requests were coming from a rather young and to a large extent international community that appreciated the bilingual collection of volunteering activities. We also reached users that were extremely satisfied about the simplicity of vostel.de and the non-bureaucratic way to get involved, while others appreciated the possibility of short-term commitment. 

In a nutshell: By creating a volunteering platform for tourists, we have “accidentally” reduced barriers for people to get involved (language, time budget, bureaucracy) and reached a new and big target group with our offer. So we decided to focus on the general activation of volunteers by making volunteering accessible for everyone that wants to get involved. 

You partner with several organizations that need volunteers - how do you select the projects or organizations? 

Contrary to what one might expect, the legal non-profit status of the organisations we partner with is not the selection criteria. We focus and care about their work and its positive impact on society. We mainly look at their aims, target groups and measures in terms of meaningful impact. For this purpose, we usually approach the organisations personally and if possible visit the projects to get a deeper understanding of the project(s), their essence and to see the possible synergies. 

A great example for this selection process is a project called Pass the Crayon, an initiative that organises art workshops for kids living in refugee shelters with an aim to help them overcome their trauma. The initiative does not have the legal status of being non-profit (e.g. “gemeinnütziger Verein”), but their aim is clearly impact-driven. 

From your experience, what types of volunteer causes are popular among people who want to help out? 

For the past months, projects dedicated to the work from, with and for refugees were very popular, which is a reflection of the current demand across Europe. However, our mission is also to go beyond the current demand and promote projects that deal with other topics and target groups as well that might have lost a bit of their attention during the last month. 

Besides the will to work with refugees, the vostel volunteers are especially interested in working with homeless individuals in Berlin as well as projects/organisations focused on the work with children and animals. 

How are you funded? 

We spent almost a year with (rather unsuccessful) fundraising until we decided to create a business model that does not depend on public funding. By this time, we received several requests from companies asking whether we could support them with their Corporate Volunteering (CV) activities. Consequently, we developed a Corporate Volunteering program we now offer to companies in Berlin that drives to push both sides, their CSR as well as their HR development activities with the means of employee volunteering. 

You partner with businesses and set up Corporate Volunteering Days. What are some examples of corporate employees' biggest takeaways from these opportunities? 

I think most of all, it’s getting the opportunity to volunteer in general. Many of the corporate volunteers haven’t made any volunteering experiences before (due to various reasons like a lack of time or knowledge of where to volunteer). Within the Corporate Volunteering framework, they get in touch with that kind of work for the very first time. 

Moreover, we have frequently witnessed a change of the participants’ mindsets. Since most of our partner companies give extra hours or even days off for Corporate Volunteering projects, there is obviously also some corporate volunteers whose prior motivation is to get an extra holiday. Therefore, we have of course encountered that during our introduction round in the beginning of every Social Day there is – besides a super motivated and well informed group of people – always a small bunch of rather, let’s say, “unenthusiastic” employees. However, there hasn’t been a single CV event where – by the time of the wrap up in the end – not everyone was totally involved or emotionally bound to both the volunteering work itself as well as the social problem the organisation deals with. A great takeaway after such a social day with volunteering is that many of the corporate volunteers plan to continue helping as “private volunteers” during their free time. 

What has been your greatest social impact to date? 

The impact can be measured in the number of people that we have activated to volunteer with the help of our platform. Surprisingly, almost a third of our active users (2000+) had never volunteered before they got involved with vostel. We are especially happy about the number of people that have become long-term volunteers, and that have taken over responsible tasks on-site. Even though we cannot monitor every single “volunteer career”, we know cases were vostel volunteers ended up being employed by the organisation they supported voluntarily. 

A bit more difficult to measure are the experiences our volunteers make and the impact on their minds and hearts. Taking volunteering with refugees as an example, we have heard countless stories from vostel volunteers who said that getting in touch with newcomers instead of only reading about “the crisis” in the newspaper was mind- blowing for them. After having encountered people instead of only hearing about the refugees, they received a total different perspective on the topic in general and got rid of many (also unconscious) prejudices. 

What's in store for the future of vostel? Any exciting new projects? 

It is actually the first time we are making this exciting news public: vostel.de will – hopefully by the end of the year – also be running a platform in Munich.
It took us quite a long time to get to the point where we felt ready to bring the concept to another city, mostly because we were not sure whether it would work anywhere else apart from Berlin. Consequently, we thought about the crucial factors that needed to be fulfilled to make vostel successful in another place. These are (among many others), a high demand for volunteering options as well as a high density of social organisations searching for help and last but not least, a significant amount of an international population. After we did the math (and also took into account the soft factors like our gut feeling), we came up with the Top 5 Cities that will hopefully be able to use vostel.de within the next year(s). 

We also just started bringing the vostel community from the digital sphere to physical space by organising monthly Meet-Ups where alumni, current and future volunteers can catch up, find out about ways to get involved in Berlin, develop their own ideas and projects as well as have a secure framework to share potential doubts and also bad experiences. 

Any words of wisdom for those looking to make a difference through volunteer work? 

There are many, but I would like to focus on three general tips for those who really want to make a difference: 

1. Easy: Be reliable. 

If you have planned to do, let’s say, a shift in a shelter for homeless people on a Saturday morning, but wake up an hour before with a huge hangover, you might tend to cancel your shift – in the end, it is unpaid, but a lot of work that requires quite an amount of intrinsic motivation you might have lost with the last drink the night before. I feel you. Either way, the people on-site are waiting for you. They count on your help, and probably even prepared an introductory meeting and extra food to make sure you feel important and appreciated. If you do not show up, people have wasted valuable time preparing for you and moreover, there will be a lack of help. 

2. Intermediate: Consider being a long-term volunteer. 

Besides the fact that it is more satisfying for you if you know the tasks and the people you work with, of course, your impact is bigger when volunteering long-term. Not only that, but you are aware of the routines and do not need an introduction for every task (which saves a lot of time from the staff side on-site). Also, especially if you volunteer in direct contact with people, you as well as the individuals you deal with can highly benefit from a “long-term relationship” instead of a short-term “flirt”. So, if you really want to make a difference, “quick and dirty” does not suffice. 

3. Advanced: Be a changer 

Take heart! You might find yourself in some volunteering work that does not feel like it is the best way to actually help. Maybe you have an idea that would get to the roots of a problem instead of only scratching on its surface. Let me give you an easy example to show you what I mean: Your volunteering task is to pick up garbage somewhere around a river bench in order to protect it from pollution. Of course, at the end of the day it feels damn good to see some filled garbage bags and a clear river shore. However, next time you come back, it is the same mess again. So you can decide to either do the work all over again, or to think of something that prevents people from dropping their garbage - or maybe even encourage the reuse of garbage materials. In a nutshell: Don’t get trapped in a windmill, think big and share your ideas with the organisation you volunteer with. Possibly start your own project/ organisation/ Social Business to make an impact on a social issue you have discovered. 

What makes you a changer? 

We make it easy for people to get involved by providing them with a simple and user- friendly tool to find and sign up for volunteering projects. By doing so, we give people the possibility to become changers themselves and have an impact on their community. By evaluating the feedback our volunteers share with us after their experience, we support our partner organisations to improve their processes and “treatment” of the volunteers. This makes them even more attractive, attaining more volunteers who are able to help them fulfill their daily tasks.