I want to volunteer - but will I really make a difference?

blonde ladyThere are hundreds of articles on the Web about the benefits of volunteering – it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, it’s a great way to travel and meet people, you’ll experience personal growth and life lessons, it looks good on your resume, and so on. But it’s not as easy to find information on what many would-be or even experienced volunteers are asking themselves: “What specific benefits will I as a volunteer provide to the communities I’m supposed to be helping?”

The good news is that a serious and committed volunteer can contribute an incredible number of positive things to the projects and communities they work in. Volunteering is very much a ‘two-way street’ – sure, you get a lot out of the experience, but only as much as you put in. Here are answers to questions you might have about how you’re benefiting overseas communities.

Why would a community want me to volunteer?

Various communities have different needs, and volunteers have different expertise and skill sets which can fill a gap that the locals might not be able to fill. It’s not usually the case that a volunteer is taking over a position that a local person could fill, and possibly be paid for.

You might be asked to work in office administration, teaching, translation, sports coaching, event organisation, social media marketing or coming up with a fundraising strategy – all skills which may not be present in the community. A well-organized project will then make sure your skills are passed onto others in the community, who can take over your functions when you leave, and in turn teach others.

To make the most of this opportunity, you as a volunteer need to be quite clear about your skills and personality type. Some people would rather compile and record wildlife data in a tranquil setting, while others enjoy supervising noisy children in a lively African township. Your skills are most valuable when they are applied in the right place.

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore! Am I in the right place?

The value you bring to your host community depends on how well your skills and enthusiasm fit the job description and responsibilities. It’s important to find the right place to volunteer in, and not just jet off to a country you’ve always wanted to visit, without considering what might be required of you there. You also need to make sure you approach the right volunteer organisation  – hopefully, one that genuinely cares about the community as well as the individual volunteers, and will make sure you get the right ‘fit’.

Wherever you’re thinking of going, consider that you may be the first person from another continent, another country or even another town that some members of the community have met. You have a valuable opportunity to present a personal perspective on a country and culture that many people in your host community may know only from movies - or not at all. Volunteers will be able to learn from the community's culture, life and traditions, and you’ll be able to teach them about yours.

Am I doing it right?

Make sure you get as much information as you can about the work you’ll be doing and what your responsibilities will be, and then have a good long honest conversation with yourself. Are you able to do the work? If you’ve signed up to teach kids how to play football, or walk miles in the African sun on a game farm, you obviously need to be fit. Are you willing to do the work? If the sight of a paper cut makes you feel a bit dizzy, you probably won’t enjoy volunteering at a medical clinic. If you’ll be unable to commit to the project for any reason, have a serious rethink – because from the point of view of your hosts, no volunteer at all is better than a volunteer who can't do what they need to do.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, that responsibility is taken away from someone else at the project, who can then focus on other vital functions. This can make a huge difference to the project, especially if it’s chronically short-staffed.

How long is long enough?

The impact you have on the community you work for will also depend on the length of time you spend with it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and volunteers won’t be able to change the world in a week! However, you’ll make a greater difference if you commit to spending the right amount of time at your chosen project, especially if you’re disciplined, and you’ll learn more too. A lot of projects will have a stipulated minimum time of two weeks. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it so much, you’ll extend your stay even longer!

Don’t underestimate the hours you put in once you are at your project. Even if you’re teaching English in a township school for just 3 hours a day, this gives another teacher 15 free hours per week to focus on other subjects, or to plan lessons and organise other activities.

Do they really need me?

You may have come across information about volunteering scams – where unscrupulous companies are fleecing well-meaning volunteers of their hard-earned money, and sending them to places that don’t need them – or sending too many volunteers to one project, so some people end up sitting on their hands instead of being put to good use. These scenarios obviously don’t help anyone. Avoid this kind of negative experience by doing your research – contact the people running the project you’re interested in, or other volunteers who have used the organisation you’re considering, and get their feedback.

I’m convinced I’ll be useful! Sign me up!

If you’re ready to take the plunge; remember that a well-designed, successful development program focuses on long-term, sustainable community empowerment. The people you work with may or may not remember you personally in a year’s time, but they will feel the benefits of your hard work. If you’ve done your research, found a responsible and ethical volunteer organisation to work through, and made the most of your time as a volunteer, the effects will ripple out into the community for ages to come.


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