The Wildlife Conservation Society was founded in 1895. Back then it was called the New York Zoological Society and its main project was to create a zoo in the Bronx, fittingly called The Bronx Zoo. Today the Wildlife Conservation Society is an NGO (non-governmental organization). We hear all manner of opinions about NGOs, some good, some bad. There have even been a few documentary film-style investigations on the subject. As the name would suggest, they are not technically affiliated with a government, but that is slightly misleading. Many NGOs work with governments on specific projects or policies, though they exclude government workers from membership. Of course, when you are a large organization like Amnesty International or the Wildlife Conservation Society, politics are an inevitable part of the game, and that turns off a lot of potential volunteers. Let’s remember though, many NGOs do real, responsible work, and volunteering with one presents many potential benefits.
The first step, as I’m always saying, is to do some research. According to independent reviews, the Wildlife Conservation Society appears to be on the up-and-up. Their financial records are open to the public, as are their membership and staff lists. They also have a long list of accomplishments. They run and manage a host of zoos and wildlife parks throughout New York City and run many programs abroad with a focus on science, global conservation and education. They offer many volunteer positions at their New York locations (The Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo and Queens Zoo). They also offer positions with their international projects in Cambodia, Gabon and Sri Lanka.
Volunteering with a large, established organization side-steps many of the potential problems new voluntourists are confronted with. You won’t have to worry about a fly-by-night organization using your money for fancy cars instead of children’s clothes. You will be guaranteed an orientation, a living placement, and a network of people who can help if you run into problems. You will also be working on a large-scale, high-publicity project. If you have ambitions of your own, working for an organization like the Wildlife Conservation Society will look pretty fancy on your resume.
On the down side, your input may not be as valued as you might like. You may not be able to go to the director with your ideas and you may not have as much flexibility to orchestrate your experience around your interests. If you’re a real adventurer, you may find the control and organization of a large NGO is stifling to your plans of individual growth and adventure. As with all voluntours, picking a program is a personal choice. If you’re a first-time voluntourist without a lot of experience, traveling with an NGO may be just the thing. It will get you out there doing real work while educating you about the role of large organizations in the global economy. If you’re a student of politics or economics, you’ll probably get more out of an NGO voluntour than you did from your political studies classes.