Volunteering overseas can be a life changing experience for many people. It can be a chance for you to share your skills, passion and energy in a new and exciting culture. You can have an opportunity to see a new part of the world or make new friends whilst giving back to the community in which you are travelling. However, it can also be a slightly daunting experience and a leap from your comfort zone.
There are many decisions to make when considering volunteering overseas; what can I do? Which organisation to volunteer for? How much will it cost? It can be confusing at the best of times. The following guide will try to help you navigate the many choices you will face.
What type of volunteering can I do?
The list is nearly endless! Making this decision isn't easy. Some questions that you may want to consider are:
- What skills do I have to offer?
- What do I personally wish to gain from my volunteering?
- What do I want to achieve?
- How much time can I commit?
- Which country do I want to volunteer in?
Think about your qualifications and what you may be able to offer an organisation. Are you a fundraising expert? Do you have a qualification in teaching? Or are you a sports coach? It is important to make sure that your skills match up to your chosen project so that you can have your desired impact.
It may sound a little selfish, but it is important to think about what you wish to gain from your experience and what you want to achieve. This should be done so that you can manage expectations about your trip and potentially avoid disappointment whilst on your placement. Perhaps you are looking to get some experience to add to your CV or to do some research for a piece of university work. You may decide that just experiencing a new culture or making new friends is all you wish to gain from the experience.
Some organisations are prepared to accept short term overseas volunteers; this might be just a matter of weeks. However, if you have a professional skill it is more likely that the organisation will ask for a longer time commitment; sometimes even up to two years.
Whatever volunteering you chose to do it is important that you get a clear description of your responsibilities and activities from the organisation you are working with. It is also important to know that your skills and efforts are needed and the local community. The organisation should be able to spell out in detail why the work is useful to the people in the host country.
Deciding which country to volunteer in is a decision of huge importance. If you are going to be living somewhere new it is important to do appropriate research. This may range from learning about local cultural practices to finding out about the climate and the types of food eaten locally. Another aspect is safety within the country. Make sure you consult the Foreign Office website before you commit yourself.
How do I choose an organisation?
A simple Google search will illustrate the thousands of options available when it comes to choosing an organisation. And as charity Tourism Concern say, it can be "a challenge for prospective volunteers to identify organisations that embrace best practice." So how can you ensure that you pick an ethical organisation that will have both yours and the local community's interests at the top of its priority list?
Unfortunately there is no guaranteed way of doing this, but Volunteering Options, developed by Comhlamh, have developed a series of excellent questions that can be used when talking to an organisation about volunteering with them.
- What are the organisation's main aims and goals?
- Is the organisation non-profit or for-profit?
- What selection criteria does the organisation have when choosing volunteers?
- What is the involvement of the host community in the project?
- Is there a job description available?
- What are the conditions in which volunteers live and work?
- Can the organisation put you touch with previous volunteers?
- Can the organisation give you precise contact details for your chosen programme?
- Does the organisation provide pre-programme training and post-programme support for volunteers?
- Are there costs associated with the volunteer placement and, if so, can you get a breakdown of how they are spent?
Another important question to ask is about their insurance policies and whether they cover your voluntary activities. Responsible organisations will always you're your safety as a top priority. This is not to be confused with your personal insurance for things such as health and personal possessions.
A good organisation with strong policies will encourage you to ask questions, such as those above, and should be able to give you answers to each of them.
Some organisations are commercial profit making companies that 'sell' volunteering trips. This is not to say that they will offer a worse experience or are not engaged with the local community but it is likely that not all of the money you donate will be spent on your trip or a local project. This is something you may want to consider when choosing an organisation.
Why do I need to pay to volunteer?
Volunteering overseas can get expensive quickly when taking in to consideration items such as flights, insurance, inoculations' and spending money. On top of this you often have to pay a fee or make a donation to the organisation sending you. Why is this?
As Raleigh International points out, "with an organisation or charity you're paying for their expertise and resource in sourcing the right project and matching the needs of the volunteer with the host project, as well as the training, pre-departure and in-country support." Many organisations use surplus from volunteer payments they receive to fund local projects they work with.
Some organisation such as The Jack Petchey Foundation offer grants for young people to volunteer overseas. Also the Department for International Development wants to ensure that cost is not a barrier to people volunteering overseas. They run a programme called the International Citizen Service. The amount paid by the volunteer is based on household income. Two organisations that offer volunteering opportunities in partnership with this scheme are Restless Development and VSO .
DIY volunteering placements
One way to potentially save money is to organise the volunteering yourself once in a country with a grass roots organisation. Choosing this option can also give you a lot more freedom of choice on where you work. However, although this may seem attractive it should really only be for the well informed and experience traveller. It can involve significantly more work and the responsibility to ensure that your placement is legitimate and safe will fall on your shoulders. Idealist offer further information if you do decide to follow this option.
This guide offers a brief overview of some of the things that need to be considered before deciding to volunteer overseas. It is important to do further research before making any decisions.
- If you're looking for inspiration and a good insight to what overseas volunteering is like then check out the blogs on Do-it. They have stories from a wide range of volunteers all over the world.
- Idealist is an American organisation that has a large resource centre for those thinking about volunteering overseas.
- Comhlamh is an Irish organisation and their website, Volunteering Options, looks at many of the issues discussed above in more detail. It also has excellent guidance on helping people decide whether overseas volunteering is for them.
- KnowHow NonProfit offer a series of pros and cons of choosing to volunteer overseas.
- Volunteering England also offers advice on overseas volunteering.