“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give” – Winston Churchill
So you might be thinking to yourself, “I want to volunteer abroad, where do I start? Where can I volunteer?” With a wealth of different program options around the world, there are some important factors to consider as you conduct your research and due diligence. To find out how best to go about making this decision, I decided to ask one of my closest friends, Cherry Ng. Cherry and I have known each other since we were 11, and she has volunteered in South America, the Philippines and Cambodia so far. Over the past 5 years, Cherry has worked at Room to Read, an amazing non-profit organization driving literacy development and promoting girls’ education to ensure that girls complete secondary school in low-income countries. Read on for her practical advice and experience!
Getting started with volunteer opportunities
Volunteering abroad is truly rewarding and enriching in more ways than one, and can under the right circumstances help to make an impact and difference in the communities you work in. As an aside, it can also broaden your personal perspective on a whole new level, fuel your personal growth, deepen appreciation for a different culture, and force you to step out of your comfort zone and embrace a new lifestyle in a completely different environment.
One of the most common questions I am always asked is “I want to volunteer abroad, where do I start?” Perhaps you are drawn to working in a rhino conservation center in Africa or building houses for a community in India. With so many worthwhile projects out there it can be really exciting at first but without doing thorough research and planning there is a higher chance of you feeling let down since it may not always turn out how you expect.
In order to avoid being disappointed and having your experience do more harm than good, I have compiled 5 key factors you should be looking into before you make the jump.
1. What are your intentions, goals and expectations for volunteering abroad?
I have outlined a few important questions to ask yourself to help you to find a suitable program and location which addresses your goals:
How long am I willing to commit for?
What skills can I offer?
What am I hoping to achieve and get out of this experience?
What is my motivation and what are my goals for volunteering abroad?
What causes do I care about? Which project speaks to me on a personal and emotional level?
Am I planning to travel before/after/in-between my volunteer placement? If so, where?
Do I want to mix in some sightseeing with my volunteer placement program? Or do I want to only focus on volunteering during my placement program?
Regardless of what skills or time you are able to offer, be realistic with your expectations during the period you are volunteering.
2. What is your financial commitment towards this?
Paying for volunteer work?! It may seem like a strange concept at first but chances are the organisation you are applying for will have very limited resources to be hosting you since most of the funds are usually contributed towards supporting the local social workers’ salaries rather than towards volunteers who come and go.
Depending on your financial budget there are two ways to go about with this:
- Going through a volunteer placement organisation. This way is for you if:
You are willing to invest a high financial commitment
You are someone who prefers to have EVERYTHING organised for you
You have very limited time to research and find a suitable organisation
It is your first time volunteering abroad and you would prefer to have a support system throughout the program
The fees you pay usually cover coordination, accommodation, meals, airport pick-up, training and supervision throughout the program.
- Contacting the organisation directly. This way is for you if:
You prefer to make minimum to very little financial commitment
You prefer to organize everything yourself
You have at least 1 to 2 month’s time to dedicate yourself towards researching a suitable organisation
Some organisations will not require you to pay to volunteer, but you will still need to factor in accommodation, transport and food towards your budget. If you are REALLY tight on budget, a good way to support your fees is to do a fundraising through friends and family.
3. Questions to ask the organisation
Much like applying for a job, it is also equally important to directly ask the organisation about a few key things so you know what you are getting yourself into:
What is my volunteer position?
What tasks and responsibilities do I have?
How many hours am I required to work?
Can you give me an example of what I can expect from a typical day on site?
What does the volunteer placement fee go towards?
How much is contributed towards admin and program support?
What kind of training/orientation will I receive?
Are there any vaccinations or health precautions I should be aware of?
4. What do previous volunteers think about the experience?
If the contact of the organisation didn’t come from your friends or family it is always extremely helpful to ask for first-hand experience from previous volunteers. The best approach is to look through the organisation’s Facebook page and look for reviews or comments from people who have previously volunteered there and message them directly about their experience. Otherwise, some organisations will have a volunteer testimonial page as well.
5. Is it the best time to be volunteering abroad?
This may seem like a bizarre question but it is one of the most overlooked questions because it also factors in your budget and time spent. For example, if you are volunteering at a school perhaps the period you are volunteering will have a lot of public holidays during the month or it may be peak season for tourists which will directly impact the cost of your accommodation.
Other considerations when it comes to volunteering abroad
Aside from the practical and logistical considerations when it comes to volunteering abroad, there are several important issues to take into account before you get started. Here are some important reads concerning intentions for volunteering abroad, the potential impact of your help, whether you are properly qualified and have certain expertise to offer, and when there can be unintended consequences. I urge you to go through these resources and make a holistic, well-rounded decision on responsible volunteering.
While the criticisms of volunteer vacations are many, there are some positive aspects, if they are done right.Voluntourism: the good and the bad
- When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good
- Does voluntourism do more harm than good?
- Responsible volunteering
- Volunteering: 7 Tips on How to Choose Ethical & Responsible Volunteer Tourism
- Going overseas to volunteer
- The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm?
- Want to volunteer abroad? Here’s your Volunteering 10-point checklist
Volunteering abroad can be a wonderful experience, and hopefully this article will help you to better prepare yourself for your journey. What are some other important things to consider when researching a volunteer program? Share in the comments section below!
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