Want To Volunteer Abroad? Read This First

by JR Thorpe

Want to travel somewhere exotic, get an amazing experience, and help local communities at the same time? Volunteering abroad may be for you — but it's a lot more complicated than it may sound. Volunteering in another country can be a minefield of visa issues, ethical quandaries, communication problems, and worries about whether you're actually making a difference. And that's before you even get on the plane.

Of course, volunteering abroad has been happening for many years — missionaries were one of the first incarnations, though most volunteering work nowadays will focus on development, aid, and ecology rather than religion. Even if you're full of virtue and feeling for your fellow man, though, some people won't be: volunteering scams are frustratingly common. And it can be an expensive exercise. So before signing up, packing your journal, and going off to do something productive with your charitable free time, be prepared to do some serious homework.

If you really want to go help build orphanages or help with water provision in underprivileged countries, read this first to make sure you're as prepared as possible for the experience ahead.

1. Work out your precise budgetary needs.

Some organizations will pay you — usually for teaching English, provided you have a recognized qualification for teaching it English as a second language — while others will fund some of the experience, but not all of it. Others will simply offer the experience, and leave you to find funding for it on your own. And you need to be very careful: if a volunteering opportunity is advertised as "free" or seems suspiciously low cost, dig deeper to figure out whether you'll be stung for accommodation costs, flights, or anything else.

2. Know the ethical issues of development and aid.

As a wealthy person from a wealthy country flying in to provide help to poorer places, you're wandering smack bang into the middle of a minefield of issues about privilege, colonialism, and the most effective help you can give. Work out if what you're actually doing is going to make a real difference, and whether you're comfortable with addressing these ethical issues (and if your organization tries to talk about them too).

3. Do some serious background checks on your chosen organization.

Chances are that you're not going to be there on your own — but you need to make sure that whatever organization you choose to organize and direct your experience stands up to scrutiny. Look at their budget, whether they've had any scandals, where they say their money's going, and what kind of work they do. Does it all hold up?

If you're volunteering in response to a particular crisis, information may be thin on the ground, and you'll have to be prepared for chaos when you arrive. Make sure you're working with an internationally recognized aid organization — but also don't expect them to hold your hand through visa applications or logistics. They'll have other things to think about.

4. Pick volunteer work that fits your needs.

Not all volunteering is the same (duh). But what you can do often depends on how much time you can spend, and how much you'll be trusted to develop or manage. If you're only there for a short time you won't be given any responsibility. And no, volunteering doesn't usually end up with a job offer; it's considered bad practice, for one thing, as volunteer organizations should recruit from outside as well as in to make sure everything is fair.

5. Read the fine print.

What, precisely, are you going to be required to do? What do you need to cover yourself and what will be organized for you? Are there visa or legal requirements before you arrive? If anything seems vague or potentially problematic, double-check.

6. Be prepared to plan your own travel.

If you're volunteering in the middle of nowhere, chances are that you're not going to be chauffeured there or have a direct shuttle from the airport waiting. This is why you need to pack light, too: it's likely that accessing the area where you're volunteering will require transport that you'll need to organize yourself.

7. Get every vaccination known to man.

It's safest to be prepared and be sensible about this. Don't leave vaccinations on the bottom of your list as you run around organizing everything else — and take records with you, on paper, to testify that you've had them.

8. Learn some of the host language.

Even simple language — hello, thank you, yes, please — will make your life considerably easier. But actually knowing enough to make a conversation or have questions will relieve some of the pressure on you, and also make you less likely to be seen as vulnerable.

9. Know the lay of the land before you get there.

Read up on where you're going, what the issues are, the geography and climate, and the history and the particular ins and outs of the specific place you're staying/working. Disorientation can be a problem for volunteers, so it'll help to get yourself oriented on the ground.

10. Be prepared for it to be a hard slog.

No matter how idealistic you are, you are likely not going to change the lives of everybody in the immediate vicinity with the small contribution you make. And no matter how great your GPA, you'll likely be doing a lot of grunt work and confronting some fairly depressing or even gruesome aspects of life. This can be extremely depressing for some volunteers, so you'll need a strong support network at home to keep you grounded.

11. Don't trust everybody you meet.

It's possible that not everybody will appreciate you being there, and some may even attempt to play you: as a young, wealthy-seeming visitor in the vicinity for a while, you're prime material for scams. You'll likely meet lots of lovely people — but if you wouldn't automatically trust all the people at your local bar with your stuff, why would you trust everybody in a different country?

12. Don't be smug when you get back.

You didn't do this for your own enlightenment (and if you think that's part of it, you need to reevaluate before you go). So don't use it to lord it over those who couldn't afford the time or money to do the same. The struggles of other countries don't exist for you to prove that you're a good person and impress people at parties. I hope you have an amazing time and learned a lot about the world and your own capabilities! But be sensitive about other people when you return.

Images: VISIONS Service Adventures/Flickr; Giphy (6)