Today is International Volunteer Day, a day recognized for the last 28 years by the United Nations to celebrate the contributions of volunteers all over the world. Whether it is serving a Thanksgiving meal at a soup kitchen or teaching children in a Moroccan village, volunteers give of themselves and frequently ask for little in return. More than 64 million Americans volunteered last year and hundreds of millions of people volunteered worldwide. The vast majority of Americans volunteer in the United States, within their community, but many Americans -- reports say up to a million -- volunteer overseas every year.
There is a lot to do to prepare for a successful experience. Beyond selecting a volunteer placement where you have the skills to succeed, reading about the culture and history of the place where you will volunteer and packing essential items like the right electronic plug adapter, there are a few specific things you can do to have the best chance of building goodwill along the way. In honor of International Volunteer Day, and in an effort to develop more impactful partnerships, I offer these five pieces of advice to Americans planning to volunteer internationally:
• Know where YOU fit into the big picture. You are representing not just yourself, but your hometown, your school, your family and your country. You're an unofficial ambassador -- a great responsibility and a great opportunity. Depending upon where you volunteer, you may be the first American people meet. Or you may be the first American from Pittsburgh who they meet. What makes you different than a drunk tourist or a character from a movie? Take that opportunity seriously and think about what type of ambassador you want to be and how you want to represent home.
• Have an idea about what you want. Why are you doing this? What do you want to get out of this? How can this experience move you along professionally? What does the experience have to be to make you happy? Time abroad can be a whirlwind, and the more you can mentally organize yourself for what you want from the experience before you go, the better your chances of achieving those goals.
• Jot down answers to those big questions. Even if it just bullets in a notebook or notes on your iPhone, listing out your goals and pre-departure ideas will help you measure your own growth and progress. Things can be challenging when you are immersed in a different culture and removed from your comfort zone. Even if your interests change mid-stream, you won't regret being able to trace your way back to your starting point.
• KIT. Give your family and friends a break, stay in touch, and let them know you are ok. More than that though, the more you share your experiences in real time with the people who count, the easier your re-entry will be; there will be less explaining to do. Especially if you have a cause (which you probably do), and you want to recruit people to your cause, the more they know over a sustained period, the more they will be interested in investing in your effort.
• Just because the road is less traveled doesn't mean it isn't worth taking. Whether that is volunteering internationally or choosing an international destination that most people don't know anything about it, like Tajikistan or Zanzibar, doing something different and discovering something new are empowering experiences. Do your research on the host community and the organization you're considering, find people to speak with about your ideas, and pursue the unknown based upon educated decisions (and not just a leap of faith).
Benjamin Orbach is the Director and Founder of America's Unofficial Ambassadors, an initiative that is increasing the number of Americans who volunteer in the Muslim World. He is the author of Live from Jordan (2007).