People who seek out volunteering experiences when they travel usually do so with the intention of making a positive impact. We want to help people. We want to help animals. We want to save the environment, improve living conditions, and build futures. In essence, we’re devoting our time and energy to something much greater than ourselves: The idea of making the world a better place.
Unfortunately, as the number of volunteer travelers continues to increase exponentially each year, so does the misappropriation of their hours and efforts. For many NGOs, the additional help is too good to pass up. But finding the right tasks for well-intentioned (but often unskilled) volunteers has proven a challenge.
With the right mindset, traveling volunteers can work with and truly help local non-profits and NGOs accomplish their important goals. Here are our tips for having a better volunteering experience when you travel:
Start with a Reputable Project
Successful volunteering experiences begin with joining a team and participating in an ongoing project. It’s important that we join the best teams. For some, this means grassroots organizations; for others, it’s global aid programs. In either case, as volunteers, it’s important that we learn about the team we’re joining– its history, its mission, its successes, and especially its needs. We should know for whom we are volunteering and why this group is good choice.
Choose a Suitable Situation
Volunteering experiences allow us to put our own skills and interests to good use. Finding the right match for them will help make the experience more fulfilling for everyone. Not everyone has the capability to build a home, just as not all people can piece together a website in a week. As individuals, we all have specific talents we bring to the table. Finding posts where they’re applicable– where we’re more than “unskilled labor”– increases the value of our contributions.
Research the Location
Good volunteer travel puts us in contact with myriad local people. One of the great pleasures of volunteer travel is the opportunity to connect with these individuals on a deeper, more personal level. When going into a volunteer experience, it’s good to know the basics of the country’s politics, traditions, and religious leanings. Not only does this preliminary research help to deepen the connections we make, but showing an interest in their homeland almost always resonates with our hosts.
Prepare Yourself to Help
Successful volunteering experiences require a lot more than just an able body. To accomplish things, our team must be organized, creative, adaptive, and equipped. Much of the work happens long before we are on-site with a shovel or a textbook. For the best results, volunteers should contact the project coordinators and provide a list of skills and specialties, suggesting ideas or asking for suggestions as to how they might be useful before arriving.
Accept That Change Often Occurs Slowly
Make no mistake: Volunteering abroad is helpful. But making a big impact ultimately takes years. Good volunteers should be aware of the fact that a school, city, or country will likely not be changed eternally by one person’s volunteer vacation or six-month stint. However, with the right approach, our collective efforts can effect real change. It’s important to remember that volunteering isn’t about our individual accomplishments, but advancing towards a collective goal.
Expect to Be Transformed
Our volunteering experiences often take us to severely impoverished communities. We see that pain and need in the world is deeper than many of us ever imagined. People have been mistreated, the planet has been ravaged and polluted, and animals have been exploited relentlessly. In a word, it can be depressing. Good volunteers understand that hope is real and that small, incremental, meaningful goals are worth pursuing.
Donate Money and/or Materials
Volunteering is, of course, a worthwhile contribution. But non-profits and NGOs also desperately need money and quality materials. While providing labor seems like a great way to help, it doesn’t replace the value of money. Good volunteers think about how to provide both. This can often be a wonderful way to include folks back home via fund-raising parties or material donation wish lists, which also serves to raise awareness and attract more international support.
Staying in a place beyond a few days or a week makes a huge difference in the efficacy of our volunteering experiences. Considerate volunteers understand that the first few days of volunteering are largely eaten up by acclimation, training and orientation. The longer we volunteer, the more experience we have, and the bigger and more crucial role we can play in what’s being done.
Hold Yourself Accountable
Some people believe that volunteering is not a “real job.” It’s easy to forget that the NGO or non-profit we’re volunteering may be relying on us, and simply slip into vacation mode. This can result in additional problems for an organization, as well as letting down the people/animals/eco-system that we are there to uplift. Volunteering experiences can be a fun adventure, but it’s also a serious situation in need of responsible contributors.
Remember Who You Are & Why You’re There
Volunteering means so much to us, it gets to the core of who we want to be and why we’ve traveled to a given destination. When things aren’t going as we envisioned, it’s easy to became disillusioned with a situation or organization. But it’s important to stay focused and try to remember the important role we’re playing when we volunteer. Good volunteers look for ways to work with, not against, their team. They’re contemplative and constructive in their concerns, and then active in the solutions.
Volunteering experiences can and should be positive for all parties involved, creating a warmer, more welcoming world. Whatever problems may exist today, travel reminds us that planet Earth is an amazingly inspiring place. No wonder we all want to do it! –Jonathon Engels
BIO: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer & teacher who’s been living abroad as an expat since 2005. He’s a regular contributor to Green Global Travel as well as Permaculture News, which focus on helping to keep the world green and clean. He’s also the founder of The NGO List, a compilation of grassroots NGOs seeking international volunteers. His work can also be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad and his personal blog.