Big Beyond - Bespoke volunteer programs in Uganda and Ethiopia

Big Beyond

This organization has been expired and its programs are no longer offered.


Big Beyond offer bespoke high-impact volunteer opportunities taking you to incredible East African destinations many dream of. You’ll discover how it's easy to integrate right into the heart of the communities Big Beyond work and you’ll be astounded how your personal abilities will be transferred to solve real challenges in Africa. The team are experts at that.

You will experience being a genuine part of sustainable development and conservation projects, contributing to a range of innovative grassroots empowerment initiatives and the protection of national parks. A range of projects need volunteer support and there are roles suitable for all levels of ability. Your personal program can focus on one impact area or work across a few. Many programs are skills-based. All work is creative, engaging, fascinating and exciting.

UGANDA: Mountain gorilla conservation & community empowerment, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

ETHIOPIA: Hamar Tribe in the breathtaking Omo Valley



Yes, I recommend this program

From the moment I arrived in Ethiopia, I knew that I was in good hands. I volunteered for 10 weeks and I loved every minute of my time living and working with the Hamar tribe. The food, the people, the weather, and the culture are incredible... The staff will create projects for you based on your skills and preferences, so that you can help in the accomplishment of exciting and massive goals. There is also plenty of free time, and the pace of life is pretty relaxed. If you are thinking about volunteering then go to Ethiopia with Big Beyond, it was a fantastic experience for me and I would do it again in a heartbeat!

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No, I don't recommend this program

I volunteered with Big Beyond for 2 months, mid 2015. I am a seasoned traveller, who has been to Africa a number of times. I am also very involved with an NGO that works in Africa - but which has a strict policy of only people of the country work in the country. I wanted to feel what it was like working embedded in a community, and hopefully feel that I could offer something useful. I have also trekked in to see the Mountain gorillas twice, so felt this was a good place for me to do some give back!

So those are my biases!

I really wanted to find an organisation that knew the community it worked in well, because it had worked there long enough to have great community input. BB has been in the community well over two years and employs members of the community as project coordinators and as staff. However in the two months I was there it was not evident that there is large scale community rapport.

The business of volunteer tourism is a new model and I am sure a very tricky one to get right. There was a new management team when I was there - and this certainly may have been causing hiccups! But the comments in previous reviews about better lines of communication - should be heeded.

I have thought long and hard before putting up a review. My honest experience was that I had a lovely time meeting and getting to know craftspeople there - something I would never have been able to do in any other way. I 'worked' with the craftspeople in the area. I saw a little tiny slither of what life is like to live in a small remote African township. And I certainly enjoyed the landscape, birdlife, and long walks along dirt roads in the area - also the hairy scary bike rides.

But like it or not, BB has not broken the mould on 'whitey knows best' - there were way too many examples of the project coordinators not being respected as the thoughtful and innovative local leaders they could be. There was too little evidence that programs had grown out of deep community consultation or request - but a lot of evidence it was shaped around volunteer's interests - maybe great busy work for us, not so good for locals.

I worked with the crafts people. I carve bowls, and have a knowledge of many aspects of different craft areas - so I loved sitting with the carvers and seeing how they worked and what they did. I spent time with the weavers, beadmakers and a blacksmith - all delightful. We talked, I tried some of their skills, offered some of mine, and we tried some new designs. But seriously, they were not asking for a volunteer to come to them. They wanted us to buy the work they were producing, or tell them what to make so we would buy it from them, and there it stops. Volunteers roll through there, changing over all the time some rapidly, some stay longer, but what the craftspeople wanted was a good way to speak with management, and they did not have it.

The tricky thing is, Big Beyond must have happy volunteers - because that is what brings in the money to pay management, infrastructure costs and programs - so they need to make the volunteers feel useful and worthwhile, but what happens when the community doesn't want or need what the volunteers want to do??? For BB - who is your real client? the volunteer or the community? I don't envy the management team trying to resolve this dilemma - and they are trying. I wish them all the very best. They offer an access point into an experience which is unique.

Community lunch is a very successful induction activity - enjoyed by every volunteer as a highlight - in fact the first two induction days are excellent, whomever in the team planned those two days, should be congratulated and PLEASE get involved in how volunteers can be better integrated through language lessons etc, so the barriers get chipped away. If volunteers contribute nothing else, they could at least help break down the myth that westerners know more than the locals about what's best for a community.

Response from Big Beyond

Lesley, what a really really great shame you have left your experience with Big Beyond feeling this way. We take feedback seriously. Let me address your comments and help clarify for yourself and to others. I hope it sheds some light on what may have happened.

It’s been a long journey for Big Beyond! The rapport we have with the community here in Uganda is strengthening day by day, month by month, year by year. With our model that takes a lot of perseverance. We are fully committed to our model of fusing the invaluable human resource of our volunteers with that of local people, because we firmly believe, and have witnessed an enormous number of times, how powerful this can be. You’re right though, it does not work for everyone.

We do not offer financial or other tangible handouts for immediate philanthropic satisfaction because we strongly believe in the potential of local people here and don’t need the glory - we are indeed different as an NGO and are challenging what we consider unsustainable efforts from some other organisations that fly in and out of this area offering handouts of food, cash or whatever. The implications of this? Our ‘rapport’ with some members of the community take a longer time to build. It is a big community. We are small. The majority of people living here think only for today. They sometimes want us to donate them things not people. Those that have embraced opportunities with Big Beyond through highs and lows however, have gradually emerged thanking us for persevering with them. That to us is a result, we are experienced with these challenges and with the changes that can happen after time.

We cannot guarantee huge smiles and wide open arms for each volunteer every day with everyone they may work with in the community, it usually happens, but some people are lacking confidence and experience of working with volunteers and still in the short term mind-set. Some people who today say thank you, have taken years to get to that stage. It takes perseverance to share and guide. Not dictate. Patience is the key.

Our project coordinators, as you say are recruited from the village, they are passionate about supporting their community and the model of Big Beyond and are growing into being innovative local leaders - we are not quite there yet with all of them as they are training which is why we need our volunteer teams to work hand-in-hand with us to create this opportunity for them and their local community they serve. We are happy to create local employment. Most have been with us from the start and many have never had a job before. To see them grow and blossom has been incredible. We don’t require shiny degree certificates, we require potential, local respect and passion for what we do for the community and for our volunteers.

We have put years of research into understanding the needs of the community and it does not stop - it is a deep philosophy of ours to localise our bigger picture objectives of conservation and development with specific local needs. Lots and lots of work goes on behind the scenes to evolve this understanding and shape our strategies. Sorry you feel otherwise. We like to experiment, our model is trial and error and we learn and grow. We will definitely improve in communicating this to our volunteers. It sounds like there was a glitch in that, perhaps with our new manager at the time getting his feet firmly on the ground after being let down by our predecessor as you say. Honestly, we really apologise if that was the case. Taken on board.

Just for volunteers? We do tailor all our programmes around individual volunteer skills and passion but that is always aligned with the needs of our projects at that time. Whilst it may sometimes feel like it fits perfectly with some volunteer interests, then we have done something right. That does not mean it is just for them. Behind each programme is a very thoughtful process as to where a volunteer role or task will enable us as an organisation to head in order to achieve long term impacts we are so passionate about creating. And we mean long-term.

You did some fantastic work sharing talents with crafts people - thank you, from us and the people that were lucky to have spent time with you. It’s a big shame that you felt the crafts people did not appreciate or want your input, it is far from the truth. Yes they may sometimes hope for some additional sales of their items, but this is the nature of their business minds coming out, hoping for a benefit today, it’s the mind-set we are dedicated to changing for local benefit as I have said already - we will however definitely have a word to the people you worked with and feed back to them about your feelings to understand more, that of course doesn’t make us happy either. Our management has a very close relationship with all the individuals we work with, as do out project coordinators. We can’t meet them everyday which is why we have a team of volunteers. We are however launching a new community forum in a couple of weeks to encourage a more open communication channel - this should help tackle some of the issues around that.

Happy volunteers are so important to us - we want to offer them an enriching experience in return for their generous time and financial contributions to such critical projects in this part of the world. When the community doesn’t need or want our volunteers anymore we will fully hand over the management of our projects to the community. We are far from that point. On the contrary, many many people in the community ask us for a lot more volunteers to help them across the different sectors. That is more of our challenge.

Our ‘real client’? We don’t actually have clients. We have colleagues (the volunteers and permanent local team) and partners (the community and national park management). We work extremely hard to create a thoughtful link between the two. We fully believe that ambitions can be linked. Those of the volunteers to learn, share, sustainably impact, travel or whatever they may be, with those of the community to have greater security in life not just for themselves but for generations to come. It seems we did not succeed in your case - we are sorry.

Whilst Big Beyond is of course not perfect, we are human beings trying to develop a small innovative model in an undeveloped part of Africa familiar with handouts, we sincerely do not feel that ‘whitey knows best’ and whilst we love to share our ideas and offer an external perspective (that’s what it’s about) we fuse that with local knowledge to find the solutions. That is why we embed ourselves in the community, 365 days of the year. When it works well, is when we have the right volunteers. We know we offer far more autonomy to our volunteers than any other organisation and whilst we do our best to train people in a short space of time, there are some volunteers that naturally click and drive this approach and those that don’t. That is the risk we want to take. There are some volunteers that will be exposed to a ‘food for today’ mind-set as we work towards winning their hearts and minds by proving they can create sustainable change themselves. It’s the nature of our projects - this takes time and takes our volunteers being great ambassadors for our vision to make it happen.

Big Beyond is not for everyone - it is for those that align with our philosophy. Those that want to expand the proportion of the community that has a good ‘rapport’ with our model. It is for those up for the challenge. It is for those that are willing to support the real deal rather than support an off-the-shelf volunteer programme. It is for those that don’t want a project designed just for volunteers that trudge in and out as a number not a name. If we focussed only on volunteers our life would be much much easier, believe us - that is not why we exist. We exist because we want to see this community thrive. Happily, most of volunteers do click with our model, which is why we continue to invite volunteers to help us evolve and bring the much needed human resource into these neglected corners of the world. In return we want to offer an incredible experience. You’re right though, it is very tricky because not all do, and to manage the diverse personalities of both our volunteers and the community whilst trying to create the best results we can in development and conservation project, is a challenge. We do work against the grain at times. But we love challenges. Having the right volunteers is absolutely critical for this to work. We learn from every mistake we make.

Although volunteers may be exposed to reactions from the community they may not like so much, it is because these are real life projects, with real people, and they are not getting paid to work with you like many organisations out there. Big Beyond exposes people to the realities of genuine empowerment projects, as we continually expand our reach, including local people that are new to working with volunteers. We put more trust in our volunteers to do that than most organisations, which many embrace, but we as a permanent team stay long long after our volunteers leave and see the fruits of their perseverance and ours.

So from us we are so sorry and once again, thank you enormously Lesley from everyone on the team and on behalf of our community partners for all your time and support in the crafts projects in Uganda amongst others. And for your feedback. Kares an example of an artisan you worked with has done really well, you were part of engaging them to realise the benefits of our volunteer skills and their time, for their future benefit, he now uses additional income from craft sales for medical expenses and his bee hives - please see this blog… where you’ll see some of the work you were involved with.

Your contributions, Lesley, live on and your suggestions on how Big Beyond can improve are taken on board as we continually improve to strive for ambitions of everyone who engages with Big Beyond, be they volunteers, staff members or most importantly community partners.

P.S. Sorry this has merged into one paragraph. Not sure how to fix it! Hope it's legible.

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Yes, I recommend this program

This trip was a first for many things for me, my first time traveling alone, my first visit to Africa and my first experience volunteering. Going, I wasn't fully prepared for what I was about to experience (I packed a hair straightener!..there was no electricity) but I don't mean that to sound negative, this was without doubt one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, I can honestly say I've never felt more welcome and at home in any other country that I've visited.

What would you improve about this program?
More transport around..will be fine once the camp is set up fully
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Yes, I recommend this program

My time in Uganda was a truly heart warming, eye opening experience. It is difficult to write a fresh review as Its now been two years since I spent my summer out there. However I still find myself looking back to those experiences and they still influence the way I see my life now.

Looking back I honestly couldn't have changed a thing, having that opportunity to travel to this beautiful country, so far away from the well known tourist spots, having the ability to see, understand and experience rural Uganda. Then to be completely free whilst having all the support in the world was totally unique. I am a keen traveller and have been to many places and carried out tons of research on the topic and nothing I have ever come across has ever come close to what big beyond offers.

Having arrived out there, the ball was placed in my court and they asked me what I wanted to learn, what I was good at, what I wanted to do, what I wanted to get out of this experience and what I wanted to give back. Then from that point onwards my time was spent focusing on achieving those goals, and in that short time I did just that and so much more. My 4 weeks out there was just an appetiser of what could be possible, it was so rewarding seeing the way my skills had influenced people and improved their quality of life.

Being so heavily immersed in their culture you learn so much and make so many special friendships with people. It is a feeling unlike any other when you are accepted into their world as an equal, not just a passing tourist.

I learnt so much about myself during my time with Big Beyond, It has made me appreciate and enjoy my life on a totally new level.

Thank you Big Beyond, I will be back!

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Yes, I recommend this program

There are so many amazing experiences in the activity, so I believe that you will be able to enjoy them very much. Sometimes, you might be struggling with difficulties such as the inconvenience of access to the water or unfamiliar taste of foods though, it will definitely be great memory. Also African scenery is spectacular and wonderful. Beautiful sunset, strong sunshine, and uncountable shooting stars, those moments can release you from stress that you have in hometown.

In addition, you can enjoy working with BigBeyond staff and Hamar in Shele. They are very kind and nice guys! They teach you how to survive and to enjoy there.
When it comes to the activity, BigBeyond does not push you to do something. They gave us insight of local situations and it is totally up to you what to do. You can maximize your experience as much as possible.
I know it is a little bit (??) far from your home, but it is worth to visit. Hamar people will accept you as long as you have open mind.


This organization no longer has any active programs. Visit our homepage to continue your search.

Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

Amy Scarth

Job Title
Founder & Director
Amy has a big passion for the cultural and natural wonders of the world tucked away in it’s hidden corners. She has a degree in Human Geography and a Masters in Tourism Management, specializing in protected areas, community tourism and conservation in Africa. Previously a tourism analyst in London, she escaped the city to support a small community organization in Uganda and then followed her dream of bringing international volunteers to remote and rural communities in need of their dedication and inspiring different individuals to travel the world with an enriching purpose.

What position do you hold at Big Beyond and why do you like working there?

I’m the Founder & Director of Big Beyond which means I’m lucky enough to get to find, live and breathe the amazing places and people in Africa we support, to see the daily smiles and achievements of our incredible volunteers and to push the boundaries of volunteering and sustainable impact through innovating projects.

I love challenges! I love problem-solving with other people. I have the chance to inspire and help different people every day of my life, across cultures. I have the chance to learn every day from others too. Through my work, I’m privileged to become a genuine part of different communities. What could beat all of that!

What does the future hold for Big Beyond - any exciting new programs to share?

Well we launched Big Beyond Ethiopia this year which is an awesome achievement —for us, the communities and volunteers. We’re embedded into the Hamar Tribe in the Omo Valley and all the projects are pretty remarkable, as is the experience for volunteers. Our ambition is to take our model to other national parks in need and push the boundaries of volunteering and travel!

We have something particularly exciting on the horizon which I've sworn to secrecy about, ha!! We are excited to grow our BigBeyond family of volunteers who continue to return to their second homes and help us launch new project sites too.

How does your organization differ from other ones in the industry?

We’re often told Big Beyond is unique and unparalleled in this world! We like to focus on that. My goal was to invest human resource (ideas, knowledge, skills, motivation) in remote communities of Africa and then discovered self-funded volunteer programmes could enable this investment to be sustainable.

We do not just find a place, then find things for volunteers to do in a ‘destination’, we have a specific mission and then find volunteers to help make our critical grassroots projects possible. Our volunteer programmes are bespoke, shaped around each individual and the project needs at the time - no one has had the exact same programme in the history of Big Beyond! We absolutely love to wow every volunteer by creatively transferring their personal or professional abilities to real development or conservation work. We offer volunteers an opportunity to immerse, genuinely, in communities way beyond the tourist trail. Our volunteers are most certainly names, not numbers.

How does your program support sustainable projects within the community?

Sustainability is at the heart of Big Beyond. We have spent years researching the communities in which we work - understanding their needs, the culture and also the challenges of the wildlife parks alongside. Our philosophy is to invest in Africa beyond handouts and grow the potential of its own people through building capacity.

Our volunteers make this possible. We work across a range of sectors. In health, we focus on disease prevention rather than treatment. In business, we support local people in generating their own family income and learning to save rather than wait for donations. In education, we do not replace jobs but build the strength of local people to lead their own education opportunities in the long term. For the future of the natural world, we have a number of conservation initiatives in action. We always consider what happens if Big Beyond had to go tomorrow.

What is the level of cultural immersion your volunteers receive?

I’m confident to say that’s far beyond what anyone usually expects. We are fully embedded into the communities we support and work hand-in-hand with local people every day. Volunteers make genuine local friends in both Uganda and Ethiopia. They have the chance to learn about the depths of culture from day one and are free and encouraged to immerse at every minute of the day!

We create a very easy platform to make that possible. It’s actually what becomes the biggest impact on most volunteers’ experience with Big Beyond.

What's your one piece of advice for people who want to volunteer abroad?

Volunteering abroad is possibly the most personally enriching and positive way to travel the world - people are also allowed to have different motivations.

This may be to travel in a different way to their normal adventures, to experience and learn about different cultures or to see something they have dreamed of on the same trip. It may be to give back and help the people or wildlife in Africa. It may be to push yourself gaining personal and professional experience. It could be for a career or university break or even after retirement.

There are loads of options out there suited to different people and motivations - my advice is to do your research and ensure that the program you choose is in line with your philosophy, that they will create positive impact through projects whatever your personal motivations and that it will give you what you would like to get out of it too.