General Tips

International volunteering


It’s become big business.

More and more college students opting to take a year out to ‘see the world’.

People taking sabbaticals to reassess their career.

 Retired people seeking to share their skills and work experience with other communities and cultures.

 

Whatever your reason for volunteering trying to find the right opportunity at the right price can prove to be a bit of a minefield.

I’ve put together this guide which I hope will be useful and not patronising.  
It contains overall 10 ‘top tips’ and more detailed information for each below.

 

10 top tips

Finding the right placement and making the most of it whilst you’re there.

 

1.  Why?

Top tip: It might be a combination of factors but be honest with yourself and don’t try and force yourself to be a good Samaritan if this isn’t really what you want.  If it is just for safe travel and to meet other people then don’t force yourself into doing something that you think is the right thing to do! But expect to put some time into finding the right opportunity.

 

2.  How long?

Top tip: No one knows how they are going to feel when they get to a project, it might take a month to adjust fully or you might find after a month you’ve exhausted what you can offer the project and what it offers you.  For this reason it might be wise to sign up for a shorter period of time but leave time available to extend your stay if you want.

 

3.  What?

Top tip: Think about your real interests not just about what you think you should do.  What do you like doing at home, what are your hobbies and interests and can you use this to support community projects.

 

4.  Where?

Top tip: consider what you can and cannot live without at home in terms of modern comforts and what you’re prepared to live without in another country. The climate is a critical factor when considering this, think carefully about the extreme heat or cold that you are prepared to cope with.

 

5.  Compromise in culture

Top tip: From my experience it seems most people are happy to make significant changes or adaptations to their lifestyle for up to 3 months, any longer than this could prove a challenge, particularly if you find it difficult to accept the cultural rules and values.  See post ‘culture shock’ for more info.

 

6.  How much are you willing to pay?

Top tip:  Find out what you are paying for and think about any hidden costs such as day to day transport to and from your placement, payment for social/cultural and volunteer events.  Hotel and transport costs to arrive and get to your placement, visa and weekend travel.
Also consider who you are paying, is it a big corporate organisation or directly to a local placement, this will impact on how much of your money goes directly to supporting the project.

 

7.  Finding the right project and where to look?

Top tip: exhaust all possibilities, internet, books, newspapers, social media and contacts.  All will provide different avenues worth exploring.
Do background research on each of the placements you find, don’t just take the website at face value.

 

8.  Your time and energy

Top tip: Consider where your skills and expertise are best applied and talk to the local staff about how you can do this but don’t over commit yourself, it needs to work for you too.  Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion.

 

9.  Travel at the weekends

Top tip:  ask the local staff for ideas and guidance, they’re much more likely to know of places close by that are off the tourist track and offer a much more rewarding experience.

 

10.  Your exit from the project and return home

Top tip: before you even leave your home country think about how you will adapt back to life back at home or whether you even want to.  For long term placements consider early on how you might extend your time or take a plunge to do something different.  Leaving it to the last minute could be stressful and lead you to make some rash choices.

Looking for more information?  More details below

 

1.  Why?

Top tip: It might be a combination of factors but be honest with yourself and don’t try and force yourself to be a good Samaritan if this isn’t really what you want.  If it is just for safe travel and to meet other people then don’t force yourself into doing something that you think its the right thing to do!
But expect to put some time into finding the right opportunity.

If you do a Google search and opt for the first thing that comes up because it is an easy option don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out to be what you wanted it to be.
Equally after doing all your research don’t be afraid to go back to the first option if it still seems the right one.  This is exactly what I did.  Found a project through a corporate organisation, it looked good, right location etc but the price put me off.  After hours and hours of research and not being able to find anything suitable I went back to that same organisation and accepted that if I wanted to take part in that opportunity I would have to pay for it.

Ask yourself why do I want to volunteer?
Why do I want to do that in another country?
Why a particular country?
To provide a safe travel experience?
To meet other people?
To develop your skills?
To take an alternative holiday?
To experience a different culture?
To share your skills and experience for the benefit of another community?

See post ‘a big decision’ for more information on why I chose the projects I did and where it has taken me.

 

2.  How long?

Top tip: No one knows how they are going to feel when they get to a project, it might take a month to adjust fully or might find after a month you’ve exhausted what you can offer the project and what it offers you.  For this reason it might be wise to sign up for a shorter period of time but leave time available to extend your stay if you want.

Think about the time you have available, do you want to spend all of this volunteering or do you want to split it between travel and volunteering?
If its up to a month maybe think about what you want to achieve and why.  A month will go extremely quickly, you’ll spend the first week adjusting and the last week getting ready to leave, which leaves only 2 weeks to really impact on a project or to gain the experience you want.
On the other extreme 3 months and longer can seem a big commitment, particularly if you are parting with a a lot of money to do this.  Often it is cheaper to extend your stay once you are in the country than pay for your whole placement up front.

 

3.  What?

Top tip: Think about your real interests not just about what you think you should do.

It’s easy to be drawn to a teaching or care project.  The websites are full of photos of volunteers surrounded by kids smiling and its easy to be drawn in to wanting the same experience but think about whether you want to do that project day in day out.  Do you enjoy teaching, coaching, looking after kids at home, if no then think carefully about a project that requires you do this everyday.
Think about the practicalities of the project you are signing up for.  A conservation project will undoubtedly require early morning starts and physical labour.  A teaching project will require a very structured routine and a care project will require an abundance of patience.
Don’t’ be confined to your current experience and field of interest. Think about transferable skills.
I  knew very little about conservation and knew that I wouldn’t be able to contribute a lot towards ideas and alternative methods but I was confident that if required I could support with project planning and management.  Think quite laterally about your skills, for example a marketing expert could add real value to conservation project by supporting local farmers to market their crops, an accountant could really support a school to maximise its resources.

Who will you be working with?
If you’re 18 or 65 you’re comfort zone is probably to be with people of a similar age but every volunteer project attracts a wide range of people of various ages, backgrounds, beliefs and cultures.  It is probably this aspect that makes volunteering one of the most rewarding thing you can do.  Don’t be put off by the ‘perceived’ age profile of who you might be working with but consider whether the project is right for you.  If it demands a lot of specialist skills, have you got them?  If it demands a lot of physical work are you prepared to do it? Once comfortable with the project you’ll find that regardless of age you’ll meet some really fantastic people and you won’t worry about the age of those around you.

 

4.  Where?

Top tip: consider what you can and cannot live without at home in terms of modern comforts and what you’re prepared to live without in another country. The climate is a critical factor when considering this, think carefully about the extreme heat or cold that you are prepared to cope with.

Climate: it seems attractive and glamorous to live in a country where the sun is always shining and it never gets cold but think about how much you really like the heat.  In reality most volunteer projects offer basic accommodation with ceiling fans.  Its unlikely you will have a/c.  Bear in mind that developing countries are also prone to power failure which could mean hours without even a ceiling fan.
Consider the physical impact this will have on you.  If at home you’re wilting in 25 degrees, desperate to get out of the sun, will you really want to work in 40 degree heat in a developing country?

Living conditions:  most volunteer accommodation is basic.  You will have a bed, often in a shared room with access to a bathroom.  Some bathrooms may only offer ‘local’ facilities rather than western style facilities.  There may not be a lot of room to store your stuff and access to electrical outlets may be difficult.
If you are choosing a country where the climate is cool consider the lack of heating facilities.  10 degrees at home at night isn’t cold because of central heating and modern housing, 10 degrees is baltic if you’re living in a basic house with no heating.
The climate will often determine the temperature of the water, most volunteer accommodation will not provide heated water, so consider if you are happy to take a shower in icy water.
Washing clothes; some volunteer accommodation will provide access to a washing machine or a launderette but you should not expect this.  You maybe expected to wash all your clothes by hand in a bucket.

Location and access to conveniences: if you live in a bustling city at home and find the countryside too quiet consider whether you could really adapt to living in a rural part of a developing country.  Mobile phone signal and access to internet is likely to be limited and local shops may be some miles away and only stock the most basic items.  Equally if you are used to the countryside at home could you adapt to living in a hectic city, bear in mind that the infrastructure is likely to be completely different from developed countries making them noisier, more hectic and crowded than at home.

Access to other places: its highly likely that your placement will give you weekends free to explore the local area and beyond which is a great way to see the country, often traveling on local transport and staying in homestays/local b and b’s.  But consider that some project locations may be too far away for you to feasibly get to places at a weekend without returning absolutely exhausted and only spending 12 hours at the place you visited.  If your project is remotely based consider planning in some travel time before or after your placement.  Also check whether your placement offers any ‘holiday’, most offer 2 weeks for every 10 weeks you volunteer.  Taking time out of your placement unexpectedly can often cause disruption to the project and cause ill feeling with local staff so think carefully about how long you are prepared to volunteer without taking any time out to travel.

 

5.  Compromise in culture

Top tip: From my experience it seems most people are happy to make significant changes or adaptations to their lifestyle for up to 3 months, any longer than this could prove a challenge if you find it difficult to accept the cultural rules and values.  See post ‘culture shock’ for more info.

I think for most people wanting to volunteer it is the ‘compromise’ or ‘change’ in culture that makes it so appealing.  An opportunity to get away from some of the western pressure and ‘rules’ and live a completely different lifestyle.  But consider carefully what the ‘cultural compromise’ is before you sign up.  If you can’t live without smoking, heading to the pub every night, wearing clothes that do not cover shoulders and knees (even in extreme heat) then perhaps consider projects that give you the freedom to do this.  Some countries and particular areas of some countries will have quite rigid rules about what is and isn’t accepted, this isn’t to curb your enjoyment at all and its wise to remember that following these cultural rules makes your experience not only safer but more enjoyable as locals come to accept you into their culture.

 

6.  How much are you willing to pay?

Top tip:  Find out what you are paying for and think about any hidden costs such as day to day transport to and from your placement, payment for social/cultural and volunteer events.  Hotel and transport costs to arrive and get to your placement, visa and weekend travel.
Also consider who you are paying, is it a big corporate organisation or directly to a local placement? This will impact on how much of your money goes directly to supporting the project.

It is slightly ironic that you have to pay to volunteer but that’s the only way ‘true’ projects survive, in that I mean, if you choose a project through an NGO or social enterprise it is far more likely that the money you pay will not only cover your costs to be there (accommodation/food) but also contribute directly to the communities that you are working with.  For the big corporate volunteer companies this is less likely.  They have big administrative costs in western countries and they need volunteer money to cover these.  There is nothing wrong with this but just be aware that whilst you might be paying 1000’s in your currency very little of it gets directly to the projects.  What this is paying for is often a very well organised and safe travel experience.  Its a balance against the level of reassurance and comfort you want.  
From my own experience I can honestly say that these companies have their place.  In-country staff and projects are genuinely trying to make a difference to the local community and if you make the most of your placement it will lead enable you to make new contacts that could lead you on to something else.
See post ‘a big decision’

 

7.  Finding the right project and where to look

Top tip: exhaust all possibilities, internet, books, newspapers, social media and contacts.  All will provide different avenues worth exploring.
Do background research on each of the placements you find, don’t just take the website at face value.

How to find a project?

The obvious starting point is google but before you start scanning the internet it might be wise to narrow down your search to either a specific country or a specific type of project.  If you know both, for example I knew I wanted to do conservation in India this will save you a lot of time.  It also means you are less likely to get ‘sold on the dream’ and signing up to something that sounds fancy.  There are some websites that are great at doing this. They have marketing experts writing their web content so they know how to sell an opportunity.

 

A.  Google or a web search engine is a logical place to start

  • try different combinations of words for the project you are looking for e.g India conservation, volunteer on conservation projects

  • look beyond page two of the search (not many of us ever do this) you might find a small NGO/social enterprise that is offering a really good opportunity.  A lot of the corporate websites pay for google ads and also feature in the top 5 listed because of the traffic going through their site.  NGO’s and local organisations do not have the funds to do this so often feature on page 2, 3, 4 of a google search.

  • don’t just use your countries default search engine e.g don’t just search google.co.uk but if looking for projects in India search through google.co.in  It will bring up completely different results

  • try key words specific to your project e.g organic farming or species surveys rather than conservation

     

B.  Volunteer companies or search sites – there are hundreds of these, they basically act as an agent for local volunteer organisations, taking commission for every volunteer that they recruit.  Once you start to find projects of interest you might want to consider:

  • visit the organisations website and social media sites.  If the website is well put together with clear information, if social media is regularly updated with relevant information about their work it gives confidence about who they are

  • the website will also give you an indication as to whether the organisations focus is about community impact or volunteering/tourism, both are fine but keep in mind why you’re signing up.  Signing up to a social enterprise focused on community impact will probably not provide a good experience if you are looking for a project that gives you freedom to travel when you want, to dip in and out of work.  Likewise a project that seems more focused on giving volunteers a good travel experience probably isn’t going to give you the meaningful experience you were looking for.

  • contact the organisation directly and ask for contact details of previous volunteers/interns: I did this for a number of projects and it quickly helped me rule some projects out.

  • contact the organisation directly and ask some key questions.  The rapidness in their response and the quality of the information you get back will also give you a good sense of what an organisation is like

  • trust your gut a bit, if something sounds far too good, sounds too good to be true, is really selling the dream then perhaps it is.  Equally if you have an uneasy feeling about particular organisations don’t be pressured into signing up because they tell you what you want to hear

     

C.  Lonely planet, travel guide or newspaper: most travel guides and newspapers (travel section) do features on volunteering and tourism opportunities

  • if an organisation is listed in the lonely planet or travel guide you can take some reassurance that it has been quality assured by someone BUT still do your background research on them.

  • contact the organisation directly and find out more information

  • think about the context of where you have read this information, if its in the ‘volunteer’ section of a guide book then its probably a genuine volunteer opportunity, if its within a section of the guide book that is talking about a specific tourist attraction then it may be more about providing a safe travel/tourism opportunity.  Similarly for travel sections in newspapers.

     

D.  Word of mouth

  • why not ask colleagues and contacts if they have done any volunteering abroad or work abroad, you’ll be surprised by the contacts people have and there is nothing better than a personal recommendation

    contact your local voluntary council, they tend to focus on local volunteer opportunities but some of the larger organisations and national organisations provide grant funding to western companies to send volunteers on international trips.

  • contact your local university, although they will target their student population they may be working with organisations that accept volunteers of all ages and backgrounds.

  • twitter and facebook are also excellent sources of information.  If you are on twitter start following some volunteer/tourist based organisations, you will soon find local organisations and volunteers that you can contact directly.

     

7.  Culture shock

Top tip: Accept or be prepared that you are going to experience some degree of culture shock, whether thats adapting to the climate, the culture, the food or being away from home.  I’m yet to meet a volunteer who didn’t find it a bit weird or a bit strange adapting to their new environment.  Its perfectly normal and don’t give yourself a hard time if initially you miss home, find it hard to adapt and settle in.

Look after yourself.  Seems a basic thing to say but this can not be underestimated.  Arriving at the project, meeting volunteers that have been there a long time its easy to think that you can and you should keep up with what they are doing, but it’ll take its toll.  For projects demanding physical work, accept that you might have to take more breaks until your body adapts, you might need more sleep, more food, more water.  Its all perfectly normal.  Listening to your body is the key and don’t be afraid to tell the local staff if you are struggling to adapt, they are extremely experienced in supporting volunteers.

 

8.  Your time and energy

Top tip: Consider where your skills and expertise are best applied and talk to the local staff about how you can do this but don’t over commit yourself, it needs to work for you too.  Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion.

Its easy to arrive at a project and think you can change the world then quickly get despondent because things are not happening.  The challenging part is accepting the cultural difference in how things are done and how quickly things are implemented but if you can accept these differences and find ways to support the project your time and energy will be hugely appreciated by the staff and community.
As with anything the more you put into something the more rewarding it will be. If you are bored at your placement doing the same thing week after week think about what you can bring to the project to make it more enjoyable and beneficial to the group you are working with.
Remember also that it may not be until you have left a project that you realise or learn about the impact you’ve had.

 

9.  Travel at the weekends

Top tip:  ask the local staff for ideas and guidance, they’re much more likely to know of places close by that are off the tourist track and offer a much more rewarding experience.

It’s Friday afternoon and you want to head off for the weekend but where do you go and who with? The great thing about volunteering is you’re bound to be with people that  also want to travel which makes is cheaper and more enjoyable but its worth bearing in mind the following:

  • how long will it take you to travel there and back?

  • what sort of transport will you use, how comfortable will this be?

  • how long will you have at a location and will it do it justice?

  • will you arrive back at your placement on Sunday evening exhausted and struggling to enjoy your placement the following week?

  • be careful about what you eat and drink, its tempting to go overboard at the weekends as you’re suddenly given choice and freedom to choose your meals and drink alcohol but remember for the first few weeks your body will still be adapting.  Bombarding your body with a lot of different food and drink could cause stomach upsets which will make it harder for your body to adapt.

  • take time to rest, volunteering 8 hours a day is not challenging, most people in the west will work an 8-10 hour day but when you consider that you’re doing this in a vastly different country, climate and culture it becomes a lot harder and will take its toll.  You’ll be more tired, need more rest, may be more food and probably more water.  If you are then traveling at the weekend you need to make sure you give yourself time to rest and relax.

     

10.  Your exit from the project and return home

Top tip: before you even leave your home country think about how you will adapt back to life back at home or whether you even want to.  For long term placements consider early on how you might extend your time or take a plunge to do something different.  Leaving it to the last minute could be stressful and lead you to make some rash choices.

This isn’t really something I thought about when  I embarked on my sabbatical but I should have.
If you are ready to head home consider the ‘reverse culture shock’ you may experience.  This is particularly true for those that spend 6 months or longer away from home.  You may well have adapted more than you think to basic living conditions, living on little money and a culture that is less consumed by material possessions, so to suddenly be back in western culture may take some adapting to.  The key to remember is, you’ll have seen and experienced a million things, your outlook and perceptions will have changed dramatically but people back at home won’t have had the same experience and so may not readily share your new views and opinions.  The experiences you’ve had will have made your life richer so keep hold of them and use them where you can but don’t expect others those at home to completely understand.

If at some point into your time away you realise that you’re not ready to go back to the western world don’t dismiss is but really think it through.  Is it a real desire to stay in one particular location or a reluctance to go back, a bit like a major case of ‘holiday blues’.  If it is the former then spend some time really weighing up the options.  Of course your decision to stay does not mean forever and you have the comfort of knowing that if at some point you want to you can return but make sure you are clear about exactly what you are giving up before make any decisions.  If its a major case of holiday blues think about how you can retain contact with the project you are working on, how you can continue to support them remotely or plan a return trip or a trip to another country/volunteer project.

 

 

 

 

 

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