Volunteering internationally is a rewarding experience: you experience other cultures, expand your views on the world and have the potential to positively impact people in need. But there is a stark difference between positive and negative volunteering. Before you take off to volunteer internationally, whether it be teaching, helping at a camp or giving medical care, there are certain things you should know before going in order to volunteer like a pro and make the greatest impact:
#1: Don’t use a volunteer placing agency
If you are wanting to volunteer internationally, do your own research. Think of what your skills are or where you want to help. What areas are in most need and/or fit into your time commitment? By doing your own research of non-profits, your time there will be more rewarding, more local and you’ll likely make a greater impact. With an agency, you may be placed with an organization that is building a new community center when locals from that community could actually do the building and learn a new trade. In this case, are you really helping the community? Also, you’re likely going to spend a decent amount of money to hire an agency to place you somewhere when you could do it on your own for free. So get on your computer, start researching and sending emails to non-profits that interest you.
#2: Don’t complain
Kind of a common sense point, but you’d be surprised by how quick volunteers start complaining when things don’t go their way. If you’re traveling to Central or South America when it is summer in the U.S., expect it to rain and often. If you’re going to a warm climate country, it will be hot. We all know it is hot or raining – or both. Prepare yourself before hand and don’t complain. Be prepared to work, in whatever context that means. Don’t complain if you don’t like the work the organization asked you to help with. If making sure water bottles are filled and kids are hydrated is the highest priority, fill those water bottles like your life depends on it. It may not be the most glamorous job, but it’s one the organization put as a priority. On that note…
#3: Come with open expectations and be flexible
Don’t come to a new country to volunteer with a hard set plan on what you want to do or what the schedule is. Things happen, schedules change and people don’t show up when they’re supposed to. Be flexible, roll with it. Odds are the worst thing that’s going to happen is you might be standing around for a little bit. Trust me, it takes a load off of the organization’s staff when something isn’t going according to plan when the volunteers are chill about it. Come to where you are going to volunteer with a general outline of what you want to do, but be open to change. You’re likely going to have more adventures and an enriching experience in doing so.
#4: Be sensitive to other cultures
Again, another point that you’d think doesn’t need to be said. But, it is hard to put into practice all the time. When traveling through or working in areas with extreme poverty – or anything that is drastically different from back home – we want to remember it. Maybe it’s for a worthy intention of sharing what you experienced to raise funds for the organization. Or, you just want to show people back home what you did. Either way, be sensitive to your surroundings. It is people’s homes and livelihoods and hanging out a window, or stopping the group, to take photos gives the impression that their lives aren’t ‘normal’ or goes against their beliefs. In Guatemala, many Mayans believe that being photographed steals the person’s soul. While we know that’s not true, we also want to be respectful to local beliefs.
There is a delicate balance when it comes to taking photos of the communities. Be sure to ask the staff from your organization on what is the best way. Also, US culture is not the end all be all. But, you are not in the US when you’re volunteering and no one wants to hear “in the US we do it this way” all day long. Embrace the culture you’re in and the unique experiences. The way they do things may not be for you, but you’ll also expanded your horizons.
#5: Anticipate culture shock
Prepare yourself for culture shock – it will happen. We come from countries where wifi is readily acceptable, AC is everywhere, cars are built for comfort and a fast food meal could feed a small army. This is not always the case in other countries. WiFi may only be in the nice restaurants and spotty, or non-existent. Most likely there isn’t AC or comfy cars and portion sizes are significantly smaller than at home. The local people sometimes may eat weird things, or just rice and beans all. the. time. You may not speak the language and everyone is staring at you. Be prepared to be a little uncomfortable and feel like everything is foreign to you. Anticipate this going in to your trip. It’s part of the experience and it will help push your comfort levels, always a good thing.
#6: Pack light
You’re likely going to need to carry your suitcase or backpack wherever you go. So prepare yourself for this and make sure that you can carry your suitcase(s), lifting them up and carting them around. If you’re going to the jungles of Central America, you probably don’t need those high heels or dress for a night on the town. Pack light, but also pack practical. If it’s rainy season where you’re going, pack a rain jacket and a few pairs of shoes. No one likes soggy feet or being wet all the time. Packing a few pairs of practical shoes is a worthy offset to a slightly heavier suitcase. But, you’re not going to need 4 pairs of jeans and fancy tops. Pack smart and as light as you can while also covering all your needs.
Be prepared that you may not know the language of where you are going and the – potential – challenges that may bring. Knowing the language isn’t a prerequisite to volunteering in a country, but it is helpful. If you don’t know Spanish but are volunteering in rural Guatemala, be prepared for the locals to not know any English – or Spanish for that matter (many rural Maya only speak their Mayan dialect and some broken Spanish). However, the vast majority of the organizations operating in these areas are equipped for this. Their staff is bilingual and they may provide translators for the volunteers. If an organization can’t provide bilingual staff or translators, consider another organization if you aren’t comfortable with not knowing what’s going on most of the time or doing a full immersion to force yourself to learn the local language.
#8: Respect the rules of the organization
The organization you are working with may have a strict set of rules. They are there for a reason. If they tell you not to do something, it is for your safety, not to hamper your adventures. You may not know that on the next block is a gang hotspot or pick-pockets are common in a particular area. Whatever the reason may be, the rules are in place for a reason and are there to enhance your experience.
Keep in mind that after coming and investing in the lives of those being served by the non-profit, it’s often hard to walk away at the end of your volunteer time. However, respect the rules set by the organization on how to interact with the people they work with when your return home. Sending money, gifts or clothes to those you interacted with may do more harm than good and undermine the principles of the organization you worked with. Organizations may offer programs for volunteers to stay involved after they leave. Take advantage of these programs or ask the organization how you can continue to support the people, but in a way that is in line with their principles.
#9: Do the research
In addition to researching the organization you want to work with (see #1) make sure you research all aspects of your trip. Check with the CDC for recommended travel vaccines. NOTE: not all of the travel vaccines are super necessary or covered by your insurance. Use best your judgement. Make sure you look into customs of the country, especially with clothes, and pack accordingly. Know what the weather is like when you’re going, particular risks, language, best travel means and travel friendly areas. Make sure you know about any necessary travel visas or passport rules. (By preparing yourself ahead of time (and being flexible – see #3) you’ll save yourself time and heartache when you are in-country.
#10: Get conversational
Be social while you are in country whether it is with other travels, volunteers or locals. You never know what doors will open up as a result. If you are in country from a month – half of which is spent as a volunteer and the other half exploring the country – you may here of must see places from other travels. Locals may share interesting tidbits on where you are or you may get a more in-depth back story on the people you are working with. You’re there to learn, help and expand yourself. Being anti-social don’t help anyone.
Have more suggestions on good volunteer practices? Share in the comments below!