Volunteering is one of the best ways for people to get involved in worthy causes around their communities or abroad. It’s a way of sharing a lifetime of experiences, develop new relationships, and help make the world a little bit better. Today, there are more tools than ever to help you find the right organization and make sure that the match is a good one for you and for the group you want to help. But wait a minute- before you sign up, ask yourself, is this the right program for me?
See story below:
“When I think back on it, my first experience volunteering overseas kind of sucked. It’s a long story, but the short version is that I showed up in Nepal thinking that I was going to save the world and found out that really I was on an adventure tour posing as a volunteer program”.
I have heard and read lots of such stories, but did you ask yourself the question above? Well having learned a few things along the way, I now realize that most of the disappointments, volunteers get while serving could be avoided by being careful to choose a program that match their own goals and expectations.
The following guidelines are some of the things that you need before you start wading through the hundreds of options out there.
Why are you volunteering? In other words- Define your Goals and Expectations for Volunteering.
There are many good reasons to volunteer, and it’s important to understand that many of them involve meeting your needs. That’s not being selfish. Most people do altruistic things for personal reasons, and that’s not necessarily bad. Among the motives you are choosing to volunteer are, a desire to give back to the community, to improve your own life and health, to meet new peers and expand your social network, and to give purpose and meaning to life.
So the first thing that you need to do is figure out exactly what your goals and expectations are. Here are some questions you should ask yourself:
How long can I go? Do I want to go on my own or with an organization? Do I want to be in a group or work independently? What are my goals? What do I hope to get out of this experience? How immersed in the culture do I want to be? What type of work do I want to do? How important is volunteering as a part of my trip? Do I need to fundraise to pay for it?
Will you be good at it?
People who’ve functioned well in volunteer placements have picked up the skills needed to be productive volunteers. Life experiences count as much. Most volunteer work is people-intensive, so the ability to work well with others is particularly useful. Someone who has a good work ethic or commitment to what they want to do makes for a good volunteer. You also need flexibility so you can fit yourself into an organization. And you need empathy and compassion—the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Make sure your commitment matches the need.
Volunteers spend different amounts of time in their work, but the best matches are those where supply and demand are balanced. Do you want to make a commitment to tutor a young student, for example, building a close relationship that may extend over several years? Or are you more interested in single-shot opportunities that might engage you for a few weeks or months? You can find them all. Many projects want their volunteers to be renewable and to work with them for a number of years.
Make sure it’s the right fit.
Like a job, your voluntary activities require the right matches—between you and the organization you’re serving, and between you and the people you are directly helping. Make sure that you meet people with the organization, especially your primary contact person, and that you understand its mission. Ask for contact information for a few current and past volunteers so you can speak with them.
Finding a Placement to Volunteer
Once you are clear on what type of experience you are looking for, you need to choose how you are going to plan your trip. Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can go about doing this. You can either do it all yourself, or you can get an organization like Go Volunteer Africa with experience to help you.
Organizing a Volunteer Placement on Your Own
The least expensive way to volunteer abroad is often to just show up in the country and try to find an organization to work with. While it may be the cheapest option, it can also be the most unreliable way to go. First, you will have to manage all aspects of planning your trip including sorting out where to stay, how to get around and how to take care of yourself. Then you actually have to find an organization that will take volunteers and that also happens to be looking for someone with your background and skills. This can be surprisingly difficult unless you are able to spend a long time (more than 6 months) volunteering or you have a skill that is in high demand.
Another challenge with this do-it-yourself approach is that it makes fundraising to help offset your costs almost impossible. It is really hard to ask for money when you can’t tell people who you will be volunteering for and what you will be doing for them.
Unless you’re a particularly tenacious (and flexible) person, this is really best left for seasoned travelers or people with specific skills that are in high demand.
Online Search for a Volunteer Program
Another way to go is to use the Internet before leaving home, to find an organization overseas that would welcome your help. This can work well provided that you find a good organization. However, beware: there are hundreds of websites out there for organizations that no longer exist, never really existed or just do not do the work that they claim to do. So, when trying to set-up your placement with an overseas organization over the Internet before you go, make sure that you are working with credible people on the other end!
There are many websites that have lists of placements or provide notice boards where organizations can post volunteer want-ads. Remember, most of these sites make no claims about the legitimacy, or even the existence of the placements posted, so again, it is up to you to make sure that the organization you will work with is for real. Your best bet with this approach is to get a solid recommendation about an organization overseas from someone you know and trust. (Please note: For all organizations and projects, Go Volunteer Africa lists, our staff make site visits and due diligence is done before we start working with them)
Volunteering through a Placement Organization
If you want to be sure that you are connected with a good volunteer placement and that your time overseas is well managed, your safest bet is to go with a reputable organization that facilitates volunteer programs overseas. There will always be some organizations that do things better than others, but for the most part, if you are working with an established, well-recognized organization, you can be pretty sure that they run their programs fairly well. The trick is finding an organization that runs the type of program you are looking for. Program types generally offer great opportunities to meet people from other cultures and to spend a portion of the time helping out. In general, they’re best for people who have diverse goals that include a volunteer component. If volunteer work is your primary reason for going abroad, these programs may be a little too diverse.
Choosing Your Organization to Volunteer
Selecting an organization or program is a complicated mix of information gathering and gut instinct. There are a few things that you can do to make sure that you cover the basics. First, you want to make sure that when you compare the prices of different programs, you uncover as many hidden costs as possible so that you can compare apples to apples. These questions should help you do that:
Is medical and rescue insurance provided? Are meals included? How many meals are provided? Is my accommodation included? Where will I be living? Is there an application fee? Are my flights included in the program fee? What expenses will I be expected to pay in the country?
Most organizations will do their best to answer your questions accurately, but you still need to do your homework. For example, if someone tells you that meals or accommodation are not included but that they are only a few dollars a day, you should make sure that you know for sure how much these things are likely to cost. (Independent Travel Advisors at Go Volunteer Africa are a good resource to help piece these things together and gain a realistic estimate of the costs- Email: email@example.com ).
Once you have a good idea of the ‘true’ cost difference between programs, you will want to try to assess the credibility of the organization. There are two big pieces to credibility. Let’s call the first overall credibility and the second task-specific credibility.
Asking the following questions will help you to assess overall credibility:
Will you provide me with email contacts for past participants? Who will help me in case of an emergency? How can people get in touch with me while I am overseas? How many years has your organization been operating? Where and how do I make my payments?
Task-specific credibility is a little more difficult to pin-down as this depends on what you are looking for in your placement. Here are some questions that are generally useful, but you may have more based on your personal goals and expectations.
How do you make sure that the placement you select for me is appropriate? What kind of training is provided to help me prepare for my placement? What support is provided before I leave home? What happens if I want to leave my placement? Who is the staff in country? Will there be western staff working with my group?
A Last Word about Volunteering especially Abroad
Spending time as a volunteer overseas is a big commitment, but it can be one of the most rewarding and life-changing things you ever do. Making sure that your goals and expectations are in keeping with what an organization actually does, is a good step toward making the most of your time abroad. Usually you will find that the negative experiences you get while volunteering aren’t necessarily the fault of the company or organization that you travel with.
Go Volunteer Africa team – We bring people and worthy causes together!