Some people volunteer abroad to immerse themselves in a culture and experience a different way of life. Others wish to add something to their CV or gain further experience in their field. While some may have dreams of making a difference or doing something that encourages sustainable social impact.
I was probably a mixture of all of the above. I wanted to experience travel on a deeper level and really get to know a community and culture. I was also at a crossroads with my career and wanted to experience something different that would help my personal development. But ultimately, I wanted to give something back and try to make a difference, however big or small that may end up being.
Regardless of what your reasons are for volunteering, there are some important things to consider before committing to it.
Choosing a volunteer project can be quite a lengthy process. However doing thorough research will help you find something that can be equally as beneficial for you and the organisation you choose to help.
Many of you have come to me with the exact same questions I had, so I wanted to share a few things that you should consider before volunteering abroad.
What skills do I have to offer?
This is probably the first and foremost important thing you need to think about. Remember volunteering is a two-way thing. It is not just about what you can gain out of it, but how the organisation/project could benefit too.
Unfortunately I've met a few volunteers whose intentions were probably not in the best interest of the organisation, but more about how it made them look and feel. It's important that you assess the skills you have and what you think you can bring to the table in a positive way.
Which volunteer programme do I choose?
I can't stress enough how important this is. When I was researching where to volunteer I came across hundreds and hundreds of organisations. It can be completely overwhelming at first but it is a good way to gauge what is available.
You may find that most seem to charge quite a hefty amount of money to volunteer for a short amount of time. And it is not always clear how much of this is going directly into the community or project.
While admin fees might be necessary for certain programmes, make sure that you know where your money is going. Organisatons should be transparent and be able to provide this information, so don't be afraid to ask for a breakdown of costs. Those who ignore or respond defensively should give you pause to reconsider. Comparing costs between organisations will help give you an idea of what is a reasonable expense vs what might be extravagant.
Is what I am doing sustainable and ethical?
Sadly there has been a lot of negative press on the volunteering industry lately. From stories of volunteers taking away much-needed labour work from local communities to "fake" orphanages enabling child exploitation, the online world is saturated with articles claiming that volunteering can inadvertently do more harm than good.
And while the above may be true in certain instances, thankfully there are many vetted organisations and social enterprises out there that offer responsible volunteering opportunities. So it is essential that you do your research to ensure what you are doing is not going to have a negative impact. As a starting point, Grassroots Volunteering is a great website for doing research into such projects.
Where do I go to volunteer?
The answer to this should largely be steered by your answer to question #1. Where are your skills most needed? All too often there are stories of volunteers picking a destination without thinking about this question, and then turn up to find there is nothing worthwhile for them to do.
For a project to succeed, the drive needs to address real community needs with local jobs protected and supported by the work of volunteers. So when researching volunteering opportunities overseas, shortlist potential organisations according to what their goals are. If their goals fit with your skills then you have probably found a suitable match.
What kind of commitment can I make?
This can be a difficult question to answer as we all lead busy lives with sometimes a limited amount of time to spare. However, if you are looking for a deep and immersive experience where your contribution will actually have an impact, then a one or two-week placement is unlikely to help.
There's a reason many organisations require a minimum stay of three months, because it can usually take some time for a volunteer to be brought up-to-speed before they are actually contributing. Shorter placements often result in more rework for the organisation or community and can be more of a hindrance than a help. Think about whether the length of time you can give will actually be of benefit.
Are there any cultural differences I need to be aware of?
One of the best things about travel and volunteering is learning about different cultures and celebrating our differences. However, I've seen first-hand where poorly prepared volunteers have swanned in with their own agendas and cultural norms, failing to consider possible differences and circumstances.
To increase your chances of having a positive impact on a project in a community, it's important to have some basic understanding of the local culture and customs. Speak with your organisation beforehand to find out about possible communication and cultural differences – this could be anything from the correct clothing or taboo subjects to gender roles and appropriate gifts.
If you are considering volunteering abroad then I understand that these questions might seem a little daunting at first. But with the correct research and awareness, this will help you find a project that will ensure a positive and rewarding experience for both you and the organisation you are helping.