What To Consider Before Volunteering Abroad

Volunteering abroad is becoming more and more popular. From working with elephants in Thailand; turtles in the Philippines; teaching in Cambodia; restoration work in Nepal; orphanage work in Peru and sports development in South Africa  new there are a million and one possibilities. When choosing a placement you decide how much independence or support you get, the nature of the work, how much you pay, how many hours: volunteering abroad is the new fad. However before deciding on a whim volunteering is going to be your new summer hobby here are some of the things that those advertising and promoting their volunteer projects maybe won’t tell you straight away!




Volunteering Isn’t About the Volunteer


Although volunteering internationally is a great way to see the world, it shouldn’t just be a way to get Instagram likes or a new Facebook profile. The work you will face as a volunteer can be challenging and having the wrong motives will only make the bad days worse.  Try not to see your opportunity to volunteer as a check list of things you can get out of it such as bulking a CV. What you will hopefully gain from the experience won’t be so subjectively obvious. That said, volunteering while travelling is a great way to give back a little and make a difference on the way. Balance is key: enjoy yourself, travel, make memories and above all connect with your project. The only bits of my time volunteering I regret are the lazy weekends where I could have spent my time better.



Volunteering Aboard Isn’t The Same As Volunteering At Home


While this point may seem blatantly obvious I once held the naive opinion that because I had plenty of experience volunteering in the UK I knew vaguely what to expect when volunteering with Fundacion Coanil in Chile. Upon arrival I instantly saw the difference. Volunteering is common in the UK, a country where the majority of families live above the poverty line, the gap between the poor and rich is comparatively low in relation to developing countries and people have many interests and hobbies. I had volunteered through my school and my church but always in a larger group of volunteers with a boss who spoke the same language and told me clearly what I was supposed to do.

In Chile I arrived and no one knew I was coming. Building results takes much longer, as does creating connections. The flip side is these results and connections feel much more powerful when truly deserved and you will feel truly proud of your achievements.




At Times You May Feel Useless


And this could be because you are. At my project in Puerto Montt, I was a part of the first pair of volunteers ever sent there. Fundacion Coanil at their local level were really just a bit confused to what use two ‘gringa’ children who didn’t speak Spanish could really be. It took more than a few months to find our role as volunteers. The key mistake I feel we made was in trying to help with activities that already existed, such as helping in math’s lessons. Things began to pick up when we realized that the staff were PAID to do these things and quite frankly they were better than we were. We had to focus on what skills or abilities unique to us. This led to lessons describing the Loch Ness Monster and cooking classes making scones, pizza and apple crumble!


The solution is always there but sometimes you have to work a bit to find it. I think in most volunteering projects the longer the experience the better because there will always be that ‘settling in’ period where things are overwhelming and you don’t know how best to start things off!



Volunteers Are Temporary


Your experience will have a time limit. If you feel like you arenot trusted or not given enough responsibility this is why. If you are working with children or even adults with troubled backgrounds for example it will take time to build connections especially if they are used to people leaving them. Trust has to be earned and realistically a lot of the permanent staff will at best see you as a helpful tourist and at worst they will be skeptical and will not accept your help. Try to break the curse of the stereotypical tourist by not being one: be respectful of the culture, learn the language and most importantly take your turn at doing the jobs no one else wants to such as cleaning the bathrooms. This doesn’t mean that’s all you’ll do while there but it shows the staff that you don’t feel like you’re above them because you are a foreigner.



It Will Change Your Life


Is it too cliché to say that you will ‘find yourself’ wherever your journey takes you? Yes. Or that after volunteering abroad you will become part of a global community? Probably. However, as with any trip abroad or any period of your life your experiences will grow and your opinions will change. You will build an irreplaceable connection both with the people you work with and any fellow volunteers. So don’t set your plans in stone for afterwards. Before my time volunteering I wanted to become a Sports Psychologist; I had my whole life planned. Now I want to travel. I switched my degree to Psychology and Spanish and booked a ticket to South America with spare SAAS money. I have friends half way across the world and a boyfriend who speaks a whole other language and comes from a completely alien culture.




Whether you enjoy the volunteer work or not; it will leave an impression upon you. If it is an amazing project or a terrible one: you will learn from it. Your life goals will adapt. I would defiantly say it’s worthwhile but it’s always worth doing the research to make sure you get a project that is right for you.


And if after reading this you don’t feel like volunteering anymore, remember there are lots of ways to travel as a young person, making a small difference along the way and you will never be short of options.