Planning and preparing for your volunteer trip is really exciting, but can be a little daunting too. This is especially true for first time independent volunteers arranging their volunteer work directly with grassroots organizations, which is why volunteer tips can be totally helpful.
1. Decide which organization is the best fit for you
In considering which organization to apply to, think first about the skills you have to offer and the corresponding needs of the organization. Do they match? Will the organization benefit from your skills? Do you relate to the organization’s goals, projects and objectives?
2. Check the legitimacy of the organization
Do your research and use your judgement in vetting organizations. Things to consider and questions to ask when checking out organizations: how sustainable are the organization’s projects in the long-run? Do volunteers take up jobs from local community members? Can you talk with past volunteers? What kind of screening process does the organization have volunteers undergo? If the organization works with vulnerable children, ask about child protection policies – for example, do they require police background checks from volunteers?
3. Do your homework
The success of your volunteering trip will depend largely on your pre-departure preparation. Do your homework. Learn all you can about the place you will be going to; the culture, history, geography and political environment. In addition, learn as much as possible about the actual volunteer work you will be doing and ask to be referred to resources that will better prepare you; for example, if you will be teaching at a school ask if there are teaching curriculums from which you can prepare in advance.
4. Be patient
For better or worse, we are generally used to a fast-paced life, but this is not always the case when communicating and working with local organizations in other parts of the world. Due to Internet connectivity issues, busy day-to-day life and other cultural differences, responses and communications with organizations may seem overly prolonged; this does not mean the organization is not interested in your contribution or that it is poorly run! It just means that things can take on a different pace from what you are used to.
5. Be reliable
Because organizations are, for the most part, highly under-budgeted and under-staffed, many organizations rely heavily on volunteers to perform numerous tasks. When an organization expects a volunteer to arrive it is often to fulfill an important need in the organization and therefore bailing out with little or no notice can be very disruptive to the organization. Of course plans change and unexpected events happen but we strongly recommend treating a commitment to come and volunteer like any other commitment to an employer back home.
6. Think impact and sustainability
Discuss openly with the organization the best ways to apply your most appropriate skills in a manner that is both impactful and sustainable once you leave. This is especially important when coming for a short period of time; for example, a person coming to a school for a week would probably have more impact teaching a specific professional course to an appropriate audience (such as basic accounting skills to grade 10 students or a specific teacher-training course for the teachers) as opposed to general English language teaching.
7. Think what is MOST NEEDED and not what you most want TO DO
Find out exactly what kind of assistance the organization needs most. It could be that you would like to offer a certain skillset but the organization actually needs something else – be open minded and flexible here. Remember the reason you came – to contribute to the organization in the best way you can; this means that THE ORGANIZATION’S NEEDS always come first.
8. Be Respectful
Entering a new organization and culture is sort of like entering someone’s home; you would want to be polite, respectful and thankful. Try holding back on personal judgement, bearing in mind that things may work differently from what you are used to back home and not everything that works in one place is necessarily suitable in a different culture. Always be culturally sensitive and remember that as much as you are there to contribute – you are there to learn.
9. Be Independent
Try to be as independent as possible, both during your preparation and research phase as well as on the ground. For the most part organizations are very busy with day-to-day work and run on extremely tight budgets. If your organization is not able to provide you with accommodation or meals, try your best to find solutions yourself (in most cases organizations will at least be able to guide you on relevant possibilities). In any event, an independent and self-reliant approach will always go a long way.
10. Expect the Unexpected
Things don’t always turn out the way you expected. Even with the best of preparation and research, things on ground can turn out to be quite different from what you had planned before arriving. Most often this has to do with objectively changing circumstances and has nothing to do with you. In such situations an open-mind and flexible attitude will come in handy! Try to look at everything as part of a learning experience and make the most of every situation and opportunity.
We hope these volunteer tips will help you as you set out on your journey abroad.
Do you have any more volunteer tips to share? Write them below!
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