What to Know Before Volunteering Abroad: Advice From Expert Volunteers

expert volunteer opinions before you leave

No matter how much research you do before volunteering abroad, there’s always going to be something you weren’t prepared for. And that’s all part of the process. Volunteering overseas is about stretching your comfort zone, learning about new places and about yourself in the process. We asked 7 expert volunteers what the one thing they wish they’d known before volunteering abroad was. Here are their insightful answers:

You Can’t Save Everyone

Regardless if you are volunteering with an organization working with at-risk youth, addicts or trafficking, you are not going to be able to save everyone. This is one of the key things I wish I knew before volunteering abroad. I work with at-risk youth in some of the most violent and poor neighborhoods of Guatemala City. With all the kids, but especially the girls, I wanted to move heaven and earth to make sure they were equipped as possible to have real change in their lives. But, sometimes, some of them slip through and change doesn’t happen.

what to know before volunteering abroad

In Guatemala, the education system is abysmal. Children are only required to complete a 6th grade education. However, only 3 out of 10 kids actually complete the 6th grade. I began a scholarship program geared towards girls’ education and empowerment. I had a lot of challenges with the first girl brought into the program. She had so much potential, but I found out she was lying about how much money she needed for school related costs and wasn’t completing the requirements. I wanted so badly for her to use the program to advance her education and opportunities. She comes from an extremely difficult home situation and lives in one of the most dangerous communities I work in. But, she wasn’t willing to do what was necessary.

When volunteering we need to remember that not everyone can be saved. But, there are many ways our volunteer work can make a huge impact. We need to focus on that, meeting everyone where they are. At the same time, remember not everyone is going to have the transformed life that your organization is working towards, and that’s ok. To those that you are able to reach, you are making a significant impact.

Find more insightful articles from Emily at Serve To Travel.

If you want to make a genuine difference to a community, consider branching out to perhaps a previously unthought-of destination.

Some Countries Need Volunteers More Than Others

I’m not going to discount that every country needs volunteers equally. However having completed a number of volunteer placements over the years, I now know that there are a number of countries that are notoriously resource strapped, and often overlooked by international volunteers who opt for more popular destinations when choosing their placements.

what to research before volunteering abroad

For a lot of people, myself included, the choice to join an international volunteer placement is a great opportunity to combine helping those less fortunate with the chance to travel the world. We all dream of making a difference in the world, Add to that the chance to discover some of the most spectacular countries on earth? You’ve hit gold. But while volunteers flock to countries like Costa Rica and Iceland where they can combine conservation work with adventure tours, and in most cases now actually pay for the opportunity to help, countries like Honduras, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and Bosnia, are screaming for volunteers and humanitarian aid, just to name a few.

Countries like this may be less appealing to the typical voluntourist, but they need you more. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a volunteer placement based off your travel preferences (I did Costa Rica), and they do need people too, but if you want to make a genuine difference to a community and society as a whole, consider branching out to perhaps a previously unthought-of destination. Affect real change and impact local lives where help is desperately needed.

Meg Jerrard has many more inspiring travel and volunteering articles at Mapping Megan & Waking up Wild.

before volunteering overseas

[Photo: Naomi @ Roaming the Americas]

Question Your Assumptions

The one thing that I wish someone had challenged me with on my first volunteering trip was to dig below the surface and question my assumptions. It’s totally normal to make observations as you experience a new culture and get to know your hosts. It’s something we all do. I’ve made big statements after a volunteering trip like, “These people are so happy, even though they have so little.” But there’s a danger if we stop at those initial impressions–we create a single story (as Chimamanda Adichie calls it) about people based on something we observed from our own cultural lens.

Maybe they’re happy. Or maybe they’re smiling because that’s the cultural norm when welcoming a guest. Or it might be because you just said, “I’m pregnant” when you were trying to say, “I’m embarrassed.” Or they might just be having a good time, enjoying the excitement of having guests from another country visiting their village.

what to plan before volunteering abroad

You’ll have far more impact if you don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed and instead believe that you can and will overcome any challenges.

To see a smiling face and conclude that they’re happy as a description of their lives overall is a really big leap. I’m not saying that your interactions won’t be genuinely joyful or that you should be skeptical of anyone’s authenticity. But enjoyable moments and smiling faces aren’t enough to make a blanket statement about people or culture.

So build relationships and really get to know people. Ask your new friends what they love most about where they live, and what the hardest thing is. Ask yourself what you think people are talking about around the dinner table here. Talk through your questions and impressions with someone on your team. Write down the things you’re experiencing and feeling–the honest assumptions, reflections, and questions.

And keep learning.

Find more amazing content on authentic, deep travel from Naomi at Roaming the Americas.

Overcome Your Challenges with Confidence

Volunteering abroad can be such an overwhelming experience. You’re in a new country, a new culture and sometimes surrounded by people who speak a completely different language. What I wished I’d known before I moved to Bolivia to volunteer was that the best way to overcome all of these challenges is with confidence.

It might seem obvious, but I really struggled to have the confidence to speak in Spanish when I arrived in Bolivia. I didn’t make the most of my opportunities to talk to the fascinating local people with whom I was working. I was too scared that I sounded stupid because of my poor grasp of the language. Obviously this didn’t help me to improve and made me feel even less part of the culture than I would have if I’d have just opened my mouth and talked.

how to research volunteer organisation

It was only seeing how people who barely spoke ten words of Spanish managed to convey exactly what they wanted to say that I realized that communication is more than just words. Sometimes it’s a ridiculous game of charades to try and get your point across or just a smile and some gestures. It doesn’t matter how you do it; words can be replaced with all sorts of communication. All you need is the confidence to give it a go.

So the greatest lesson I learned during those initial months was the value of confidence when you volunteer. Try and talk, accept you’ll sound stupid sometimes and just get stuck in. You’ll have far more impact if you don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed and instead believe that you can and will overcome any challenges – while having a great time in the process.

Follow Steph’s journey as she writes more about authentic travel and volunteering at Worldly Adventurer.

Not All Organizations Are Doing Good

When I embarked on my first volunteer travel experience, I did so for similar reasons to many others. While on a gap year, I needed some renewed purpose, and it seemed like a natural thing to do. I wanted to learn more about development; gain field experience; meet like-minded travelers. Volunteering meant I’d have a positive impact and a great time. Double win.

So, after a long, tiring bus journey from Chile, I found myself gazing bleary eyed at the small, run-down town of Pisco. Situated on the southern Pacific coast of Peru, Pisco was once a picturesque colonial town, but had been all but leveled by an earthquake and tsunami in August 2007.

The following day, and for much of the following two weeks, I was put to work dismantling mud-brick houses built by another volunteer organization – they were structurally unsound and dangerous. Brick after brick, the irony wasn’t lost on me.

professional volunteer tips

After three months of soul searching, I left Pisco determined to better educate myself. My travels led me to observe numerous other community-based projects around South America and Southeast Asia, always learning. I learnt that it’s not so much about finding a perfect solution. There probably isn’t one. It’s about things being done responsibly and by people qualified to make important decisions that prioritize the best interests of the community.

When I first set out, it hadn’t occurred to me that marginalized communities could be exploited by the travel industry. That a volunteer project might perpetuate rather than solve the problem.

Before you volunteer abroad, be better prepared. Read about the harmful effects of orphanage tourism. Learn how to discern ethical volunteer organizations and practices. Understand what it means to foster empowerment and sustainability.

But, most of all, make sure you become part of a solution.

Follow Ben Salt for more insightful advice on responsible tourism and non-profit advocacy.

Be Humble About Your Contribution

Before I actually started volunteering at a cat shelter in Cagliari, Italy, I thought this would be an easy and fun thing to keep myself busy. I assumed it wouldn’t imply much more than feeding the cats and petting them for as long as I wanted, whenever I wanted. I have always had cats, so I thought it would be fairly easy to take care of the ones in the shelter.

what to know before volunteering overseas

The minute I walked in for the first time, the strong odor (imagine 150 cats, all in the same place), I realized that having cats at home didn’t make me in any way more experienced and that this would be a serious job. Every time I went – initially once per week, then more often – I had to feed the cats, clean their litter boxes and the entire place (cats were free to roam), administer medications, take the cats to the vet. A lot of the sheltered cats in Italy have health conditions, which meant that they needed constant care and that on a few occasions I saw them slowly waste away. It was never easy, and I understood the importance of being humble and never assuming things would be easy.

You can find more from Claudia Tavani on travel at My Adventures Across the World.

It’s Hard Work

Before I had my first experience volunteering overseas, I pictured myself in dreamy locations, with new friends, connecting with locals over important issues. And while those things did become a reality, it was much less glamorous than those $1000/ week volunteer websites make you think. Even though I imagined myself in an office admin role putting my degree to good use, I was often in the field getting my hands dirty (literally). Working as a part of a team meant being adaptable and stepping up to the plate when something needed to get done. And the best thing is? I loved it! Because I was passionate about the work and connected to the community, it was so rewarding. Working hard meant being able to help more, which at the end of the day, is what volunteering is all about.

giving back around the world

I’ll admit, there were times when I felt frustrated. Working in developing communities means projects are bound to run slowly and you have to be resourceful as hell. You have to learn to be scrappy. You start to lose sight of all those superficial things that were important to you back home and instead focus on the task in front of you. It’s not easy and you’re bound to come home with blisters and bruises. But having an impact on the community makes all the hard work so worthwhile.

Christine is one half of Volunteering Guides, as well as the adventure travel and responsible tourism blog Don’t Forget To Move.

With such a wide range of volunteer experiences, it’s obvious that no matter where or with whom you volunteer, there will always be unexpected surprises and lessons. Hopefully now you’re a little more prepared to become a volunteer!

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