Whether you’re about to start searching for a volunteer position, or you’re in your final stages of preparation before you leave, there are many important things to consider before, during and after your placement. It can be as little as arriving with a positive mind-set and being ready for when things don’t go to plan, or realizing that volunteering doesn’t have to end when you leave the project. Before you start, here are our suggestions for squeezing every last drop of volunteering goodness from your experience and ensuring that it’s both enjoyable and meaningful.
How to Prepare for Volunteering
Research Your Volunteer Organization
It’s unlikely you’ll have signed up with an organization without understanding their work and their values. But being 100% clear about EXACTLY what they do and what your role will be can make you feel more prepared and ensure you won’t receive any surprises when you arrive.
Thoroughly researching the volunteer placement is also essential to make sure that you’re signing up to work with a reputable organization. Unfortunately, while 99% of social organizations are working hard to change the lives of people around the world, there are some rogue organizations with less genuine intentions.
Detailed research, either through reading their website, speaking to their volunteer coordinator or contacting a previous volunteer can make you feel more confident about choosing the right organization.
Plan What You’ll Pack
Research can also be useful in terms of planning what to pack for volunteering – and we don’t just mean insect repellent and enough spare underwear. In many countries, it might be helpful for volunteers to bring materials, such as pens or books for education projects. This could be exceptionally useful for non-profits low on funds or without access to basic resources.
It’s always best to check with the organization that these materials can’t be purchased in the country. If they can be purchased you should seriously consider buying them in your destination country. Not only is it less stuff for you to pack, but buying the materials in your new country helps stimulate the local economy. If they can’t be purchased, then you can buy them back home and bring them along. To make sure that these resources are distributed fairly, it’s best to give directly to the organization rather than hand them out on the street.
Another way to support a volunteer organization even before you arrive is through fundraising. You may be paying for your accommodation and food, and feel you’re already donating to their work, but a gift of a few hundred dollars from kind friends, family or work colleagues can go a long way. You might even become part of the process of deciding how the money is spent – allowing you, and your donors, to see its impact first-hand.
Learn Some of the Language
If you plan to volunteer only for short time, learning a few basic words of the local language will be an invaluable tool to volunteering. Sure, a large proportion of the world speaks English and most of the time there will be at least one other person who can act as a translator. However, studying a bit of local language before you go also says a lot to the community you’re helping. It also proves your interest and respect for the people you’re working with.
But it really doesn’t matter if you suck at languages and you don’t get much further than saying “hi” and introducing yourself. What matters is that you make the effort and effort is always noted by the people around you.
Make the Most of Volunteering While There
Be Positive and Don’t Forget to Smile
Volunteering abroad is a challenging experience, but positivity and a big friendly smile are usually the best ways of dealing with a difficult situation. Even if you’re struggling to communicate, a smile is enough to start building a relationship with other people. You’ll also find that a positive outlook and a “can do” attitude are infectious and can completely change the dynamic of your team. As a result, issues or hiccups that you experience while volunteering become far easier to deal with.
Listen and Learn
Helping with a non-profit organization abroad is an excellent way of learning about other cultures and countries. To get the most out of volunteering abroad, it’s essential that you spend a lot of your time listening. The most important people you work with are the beneficiaries of the organization. Learning more about their lives and needs increases your cultural awareness and makes you far more effective in your work. You’ll also leave with a much fuller understanding of the country and its people.
Take the Initiative
In some volunteering placements you’ll find yourself more or less left to your own devices. Sometimes, unfortunately, organizations don’t have the funds to directly supervise volunteers all of the time. This might seem daunting to begin with, but it gives you an excellent opportunity to take some initiative. Use your own eyes and ears to see how you can help without always needing to be prompted.
If you notice a few children interested in reading, offer to start up a book club. If you see there’s interest from local women in learning to speak English, suggest setting up some classes. Whatever way you feel you can help even further, don’t be afraid to make suggestions. Organizations want volunteers with initiative and the energy to make things happen.
Treat it Like a Job
Regardless of how long you’re volunteering, you should never treat it as anything less important than a paid job. Organizations with few funds rely on committed, respectful volunteers who can look after themselves. They need volunteers who are keen to make the most of their experience, without constantly needing to be watched.
Arriving on time each morning, attending meetings and behaving responsibly around your colleagues should be at the top of your volunteer to do list. Not only are you and your actions representing the organization, but they’re sending a strong message about your personal values.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
It’s easy to feel very self-aware when volunteering. Especially when you’re living in a part of the country where few tourists normally visit. You stand out in the community because of your skin or hair color, or maybe your height. You may feel like people spend a lot of time staring at you. Sure, that would make anyone feel uncomfortable. But what you need to remember is that many of the locals are just curious and too nervous to speak to you.
To make the most of your volunteering experience, put yourself out of your comfort zone. Doing this mean those around you don’t have to. Practice whatever language skills you have and go out of your way to interact with people and answer their questions. Not only can this be an excellent way of feeling like you’re part of the community, but it can help with the reputation of the organization and make other local people keen to get involved with your work.
Helping a Volunteer Organization After You Leave
Become an Ambassador or Fundraiser
Although your time overseas must come to an end, don’t see it as an end to your volunteer experience. Instead, search for ways that you can continue to help, even when you’re no longer in the country. Think about it: who’s better to continue promoting their excellent hard work than someone who has seen it first hand?
Go out of your way to spread the word about why they need other volunteers to come and pitch in. Some organizations encourage you to see yourself as an “ambassador” to help promote their cause to your friends and family. You can do this through social media or your blog (or send us an email and we’ll share your story). Others are keen to have volunteers working remotely to help recruit new volunteers or assist with marketing and promotion. You can even continue to raise funds either through crowdfunding platforms or events held in your home town.
Continuing your engagement with the organization, beyond your initial stint of volunteering, will have an enormous impact. It’s will also add to your overall amazing volunteer experience.
No matter what stage you’re in on your volunteer journey, there are small things you can do along the way to make sure you get the most out of your volunteer position. Whether it’s doing thorough research before hand or pushing your comfort zone while abroad. These opportunities will not only make you a successful volunteer, but will give you the skills you need to provide the most value to your organization long-term.