Things to Consider Before Voluneering Abroad

Volunteering can be a rewarding addition to your life, whether at home or abroad.  However, an unfamiliar language, foreign setting, presence of extreme need and an attempt to set up your volunteering before you leave home can leave youe vulnerable.  You want to make sure that everyone involved benefits from the experience, so a little research (like talking to former volunteers) is imperative. 

  • Cost.  I’m not saying you should never pay to volunteer, but I have a strict policy that I will never pay someone for the priviledge to work for them.  If they are honestly providing me with something, however, I’m willing to at least check it out.  So what are you getting for your money?  Often it’s lodging, some meals, or even round-trip airfare.  Figure out what exactly “on-site support” means, and whether it is worth it to you.  Sometimes, the cheapest thing and the easiest thing isn’t the same, so figure out your priorities and pick an organization that matches yours.
  • Location.  Let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for every place, climate or situation on earth.  Feel free to test yourself and expand your horizons, but don’t set yourself up to fail. 
  • Why are you doing this?  If you don’t know the point of your trip as well as individual projects, it’s harder to decide the best way to do them.  Try to learn the overaching as well as immediate goals of the organization as well as your career as a volunteer. 
  • Are you taking away the job of a local?  This is a big one.  In Cuba, for example, volunteering or working as a foreigner is almost impossible.  Doing so erodes the state’s ability to employ the population, which is a huge part of the contract between the state and it’s people in a Socialist country. 
  • Are you providing a necessary service?  It’s easy sometimes to just go volunteer somewhere because it’s pretty, or you’ll get some great photo ops.  But there are so many places in people in need, wouldn’t it be a shame to be less useful than you could be, or in a situation where your particular skill set isn’t necessary?
  • Who is benefitting from that service?  Sometimes it’s easy to accidentally “help out” people who don’t really need it, and who are abusing your generosity.  It’s hard to understand what poverty or luxury look like in a new place, and it is sometimes easy to be tricked.  Also, never forget that everyone you meet has a stake in what you do and who you help.  It can be hard to face, but you are a commodity.  Be mindful of it and you can save yourself from being conned or used.
  • Local involvement.  This is very important if you want your time as a volunteer to be worthwhile and important to anyone other than you.  We call this local buy-in, and without it a project is often useless
  • Knowledge of the local culture.  Do you need to know the language in this particular environment?  Are there any dos or don’ts that you need to know, such as dress code and norms of behavior for women?  Are there religious practices that may be startling to you that you should learn about in advance?  How close do people stand when they talk, and how loud do they speak? 
  • How much are you willing to learn?  If you’re just going to teach English to children and not looking to learn yourself, for example, you may want to reconsider.  In order for this to be a worthwhile experience, you should be learning from the locals and from the community you’re in.  They have a way of doing things, and they have it for a reason.  It may not be in line with your morals, it may not be your usual way, and it may not even be the best way, but if you understand the way they do things and why, you’ll be better able to help them change if that ends up being necessary.  And if it turns out they have a better way, maybe you can help some people change back home!

Good luck, and happy volunteering!  Remember to listen and keep an open mind, but be aware of your impact as much as possible.

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