What you need to know before volunteering abroad

Having fun abroad

Having fun abroad

Volunteering overseas in no doubt a fantastic way to spend some time. Not only does a community or institution receive an enthusiastic individual willing to donate their time and energy, but you, as a volunteer get to have a unique experience. One that will allow you to see a culture and community from within, experiencing a country the way a tourist would not be able to.

However, with so many organisations offering such a huge array of placements and project types, and with much discussion in the press over the morality of certain companies operating procedures, it can be difficult to know how to choose a programme or organisation to go with. But here are some tips on helping you choose a placement that may be beneficial to you.

Research the organisation you are going with

There are so many organisations you can organise a trip with. It is strongly recommended you research them before hand. Most will have online reviews but go deeper than that. Ask yourself if they are a charity or non-profit organisation, are they a company? If they are a company are they owned by a bigger company? Ask what their procedure is, how are volunteers selected? Do they have a mission statement? In-country support? Call them up and have a chat, are they serious about volunteering or just pushing for a sale?

Maybe you don’t want to go with an organisation

Many people organise their placements direct with an institution or community and that is fine. Just ensure that the support is there should you need it, research the right visas and pre-departure administration. Understand what will happen when you get there. Essentially make sure all boxes are covered before you get on the plane. As the famous saying goes, failure to prepare is preparing to fail.

Be realistic

Know what your skills are and how best you can employ them. If you are on a gap year, fresh from school you will not be able to be a trauma surgeon any more than you would be in your home country. However, in all likelihood you will have had a decent education and be able to speak English. Talents that are needed in some countries and greatly appreciated. It may be a bitter pill to swallow but generally younger volunteers do not have specific skills (such as an engineer or doctor may have), in which case you need to understand that some areas may be closed to you. However, that does not mean certain areas of interest are closed to you. Young volunteers can get involved in many types of project from conservation to caring and from teaching to leading outdoor activities.

Be flexible

Based on your skills, interests and personality, organisations should match you to a placement. This may mean you end up in a different area of a country than you have expected, or further away from a friend than you would like. But you have to remember, although you expect to have a great time, you are there to help! If you are placed somewhere where you can make a real contribution that should be the overriding factor. Volunteers’ enjoyment is directly linked to how involved they can be with a community. If they are busy, needed and appreciated, they will have a fantastic time. If there is not much work for them or their work load is something they do not enjoy, it stands to reason they will not enjoy it.

Be mature

When placed in a community many volunteers hold a great deal of responsibility (such as a teacher volunteering in Africa). This may be the most responsibility a volunteer has had before, so volunteers should be prepared to be mature and lead by example.

Be prepared

Make sure you know where you are going, what medical supplies you may need and which shots you should have well in advance. Ensure your insurance covers you for all activities you may end up going on and that your visas are appropriate and cover what you will be doing in-country. Many organisations offer in-country support, make sure you have contact details of them as well as the embassy in the country you are working in, should anything go awry.

Expect the unexpectedNew experiences

Volunteers go for an experience, sometimes these experiences take strange turns, and volunteers may find themselves in a situation they were not expecting. Evidently being in a different culture where things work differently this is far more likely to happen than at home. But you cannot fight against it, go with it, enjoy the moment as it is what may make your experience unique.

Be selfless

Yes you are going to have an experience, an experience that you will enjoy and learn from. But realise that volunteering is all about what is best for the community you work with. In many instances this may come to a head over the length of placement. Be prepared to stay a long time. In many cases 4 months is a minimum amount of time. If you are teaching, why would you expect to just to teach for a week? How many teachers did you have that only stayed a week? You should be there for at least a term. Quick turn over of volunteers at orphanages can cause distress for young children as attachments are formed and then lost, week after week after week. If you are going to improve your CV, do not go! It is unfair. Go for the right reasons.

What say you?