10 Things You Should Know About Volunteering Overseas

orphansSo you’re thinking of getting out into the wide world and volunteering overseas? It’s worth your while to take a bit of time to learn about volunteering both as an industry and as an experience. In all likelihood, there could be things that surprise you, even you’re not a ‘first timer’.

There are a lot of things to plan when volunteering which can be a bit daunting, like your itinerary details, your passport, your vaccinations if you need them, what your project will be like, sorting out where to stay and so on. So it’s worth pondering some things that could take even the most well-prepared volunteer by surprise. Read on and make sure all your volunteering surprises are good ones!

1. Anyone is able to volunteer, regardless of age or experience

So you’re a high-school graduate wanting to take a gap year, a college student who wants some work experience in your field, a family person who feels a need to teach your children some important lessons, or a retiree looking to donate their experience, time and wisdom to a worthy cause. Or you’re simply someone who feels like volunteering but doesn’t know the first thing about it – whichever one you are, DON’T RUN AWAY, SIGN UP TODAY! If you have a willingness to contribute to communities or the environment, and are open to learning and having new experiences, you are exactly the right person to volunteer. There are projects out there somewhere that need you; whatever your age, experience or specific skill set.

Some volunteer organisations and programs cater specifically to certain age groups, and some are suitable only for volunteers with experience in the given field. But whatever your situation may be, there are options out there that will fit your needs. Spend some time researching your options, and don’t be shy to ask volunteer organisations as many questions as you like. Many will be happy to go over your options point-by-point and put your mind at ease.

2. Volunteering is a two-way street

You can of course choose to travel overseas in the more ‘usual’ way, by being a tourist and staying in backpackers or hotels with other tourists. But as a volunteer, the key idea is to offer your service to a community or a natural habitat that needs you. That’s not all there is to it, though – by helping others you will also be helping yourself. You won’t just be sightseeing and overspending like the average tourist. Rather, you will DEFINITELY learn a lot, you will most likely have some of the best fun of your life, and you might even change your entire outlook as a person. Everyone’s experience is different, but by putting in your all, you can’t help but get a lot back.

3. Volunteering can be done on a shoestring

Yes, it costs money to co-ordinate volunteer programs and accommodate the participants. Some programs can be more expensive than others, especially if they are geared to be fairly technical and require the input of highly skilled professionals – for example, some wildlife programs. The good news is that if you are on a tight budget, and are prepared to give up a few of your home comforts, you will be able to find programs where the costs are kept low. It’s also worth noting that some volunteer organisations are more profit-oriented and run as a lucrative business by trying to attract as many ‘bums on seats’ as possible, instead of focusing on the needs of the specific project and the individual volunteer. Make sure the organisation that you choose to arrange your stay as a volunteer is run transparently and with an eye to putting back into communities, rather than making themselves rich with your hard-earned money!

4. Volunteers can go anywhere

lions and kevinWhatever your personal preferences; whether you’d prefer to work with mostly English-speaking people, or in a developing country, or in sports coaching, or with wildlife, or in a religious environment, or as a family with other families – it can be done! The world is a very big place, although our technological modern age has made it seem a bit less so. And anywhere you go, your time and commitment are needed. If you’re passionate about social causes, or learning about other cultures, or the environment, or helping needy people who need medical care; there is a volunteer program somewhere that will be more than glad to use your services, while helping you learn things about the world that you just can’t find on the Internet or Discovery Channel. You might even be able to roll a little bit of all of the above into one longer trip, or choose a different kind of project and make a second or third trip later on. People and nature will astound you wherever you go. So put that world map on the wall and start throwing some darts!

5. Volunteering overseas has been around (almost) forever

If you think you’ve hit on an exciting new idea, think again! Formal volunteering organisations have been around for a VERY long time. Think of peaceful church missions in centuries past, or the Peace Corps in the 60s. Historically, people often used to explore new lands with a view to conquering them and acquiring wealth, but community service wasn’t unheard of, even back then. It’s human nature to want to travel, share our expertise, learn new skills, and become immersed in a culture. What is brand-new, however, for you as a volunteer, is the way your eyes become open to new possibilities, and how you can use your new-found knowledge in your chosen field, or take it back to your home community.

6. Volunteering can be tailored to fit you

baby in armsPeople are a very diverse bunch. Some might like working with children, while others prefer the company of adults. Some might like to live quietly in privacy while others might love lively communal living. Everyone has different volunteering needs and wants. Volunteers should investigate what programs are suitable for your specific needs, and what sort of living arrangements you want during your stay.

For example, you could mix-and-match your trip overseas and work at a volunteer program, followed by an internship, followed by a couple of weeks of partying or sightseeing! There are a lot of options available if you plan ahead carefully. Be encouraged to make the most out of your trip – you aren’t confined to volunteering. Don’t be afraid to be picky – it’s your experience!

7. Volunteers do it again and again

For a lot of volunteers, the bug bites and they want to do it again. Travelling and experiencing new things and people can be extremely compelling, maybe even addictive! Some might choose to go back to the same programs that they have already devoted time and effort to, if they feel a kinship with a particular program and its participants. Some might go to a similar program with the skills they acquired on a previous trip, and help out a new group of people or project in a different place. Or you could mix it up and do something completely different every time. Whatever your choice, you can make it work for you.

8. Volunteering will impress employers

Prospective or current employers might appreciate a work candidate who has shown that they are hard-working, philanthropically-minded, culturally-knowledgeable and an experienced traveller. Volunteering might well open doors for you at your job or prospective career that you didn’t even know existed. Don’t feel ashamed of having ‘looking good on my resume’ as one of your major reasons for volunteering – whatever the reason, once you take the plunge and do it, it will expand your horizons in so many ways.

9. You can’t please all of the people all of the time

Sometimes, it can happen that a volunteer project inadvertently hurts a community in some way. This might happen if the project is poorly managed or the community feels they are being taken advantage of somehow.These are rare cases, but make sure you get a full overview of the project you have chosen to volunteer at. Find out what previous volunteers have said about it, and about the people running it. Ask yourself if the community is involved in a way that’s beneficial to them. Responsible volunteer organisations work carefully with communities and put them first, and are not concerned purely with the ‘business’ of volunteering.

10. Volunteering is the gift that keeps on giving

Your experience as a volunteer is guaranteed to be unforgettable, and have a lifelong impact on you. The things you see and do and what you learn from them can be applied to your everyday life in so many ways. You might also be able to influence people at home to do some overseas volunteering of their own, or you might want to start doing volunteer work right in your own community. So everyone benefits from your volunteering in so many ways.

Excited yet? You should be! Think about these pointers, get researching and decide how you can do one of the best things you’ll ever do.


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