If you’re reading this page, you probably already know why you want to volunteer abroad. Not only is it an act of generosity and selflessness, but it’s a chance to connect with people and cultures all over the world and truly make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. It’s also a great way to challenge yourself, to break out of your comfort zone and see the world as more than just a tourist. They won’t tell you this in the brochures, but volunteering abroad gives you bragging rights forever!
Before you go off to single-handedly save the whales, however, there are a few things you should know about living and working in a strange country. Here’s a quick guide to volunteer holidays.
Choosing A Cause
Why do you want to volunteer? What skills do you have to offer the world? It’s okay if you aren’t a rocket scientist; many organizations just need an extra set of hands and a willingness to work hard. Only the more sensitive jobs, like nursing, will require degrees and credentials. For everyday, grassroots volunteering, the sky is the limit: You can teach in a school, volunteer in an orphanage, work on an elephant farm, etc.
Choosing A Destination
Where you should go depends a lot on what you’re trying to do. For example, if you’re looking to work with endangered species, it’s probably a good idea to fly to a country where you’ll find some!
You should also consider practicalities like visas and language barriers. Do you speak anything else besides English? How well? If you’ve already chosen a country, what kinds of languages and dialects can you expect to hear? Do any cities have English-speaking populations; will you be able to “get by” in an emergency situation or just to buy lunch?
What about the paperwork? Some countries require a waiting period before they’ll issue traveling permits to Brits, so don’t buy any plane tickets just yet. Others will require special visas if you’re planning to work or volunteer in-country instead of just visit for fun, so make sure your plans don’t run afoul of local laws.
Finally, make sure you’re up-to-date with travel and safety issues. Not all foreign countries have stable governments, and the last thing you want to do is get stuck somewhere in the middle of a revolution.
How To Prepare
Are you volunteering with a program or striking out on your own? Programs will make sure you have a safe, stable job and a place to sleep at night, but they’ll also charge placement fees and you’ll be held to their standards of conduct and behavior while you’re abroad. Still, pre-planned volunteer holidays are probably the best option if you know little about the place where you would like to volunteer. On the other hand, while volunteering by yourself will give you freedom and flexibility, you’ll be all alone in a strange country with no guarantee that things will turn out all right. Which of these scenarios is more palatable to you? Think about both possibilities and then decide which benefits are worth the trade-offs.
You’ll also need to conduct extensive research about the local laws and customs of your intended destination. For example, in Thailand you can be jailed for disrespecting the king. In Nepal you’ll be expected indoors every night at sundown. In Japanese households you never wear shoes indoors, so make sure you pack your good socks.
Speaking of packing, you’ll want all your belongings to be season- and country-appropriate. Consider things like the climate, the job and the local population. If you’re going somewhere religious, you’ll need to dress modestly and with respect to custom. If you’re going to an orphanage, kids will love little toys and mementos from the UK.
What To Know Before You Go
First things first: Volunteering is going to cost you. It may sound a little strange, paying for the chance to work for free, but you have to remember that most overseas humanitarian efforts are run on nothing but donations and willpower. They need every pound they can get, yet once you come along you’ll be eating their food, sleeping in their shelter and slowly straining their already-limited resources. The least you can do is pay for your presence and offset some of these losses. Make sure you budget accordingly.
Another important thing to know is your schedule. What will your typical day look like? Will you be working in one place or traveling between multiple locations? Will you see a lot of other volunteers? Don’t forget to ask about your days off. You won’t be volunteering 24/7, after all, and if you get weekends free then that’s when you’ll want to plan a side trip for sightseeing or mountain climbing.
Once You’ve Arrived
Culture shock is inevitable. So is homesickness. No matter how much fun you’re having or how worthwhile the work, there will come a time when you look around and think, “What am I doing here?” You may question yourself or even doubt the cause. If you’re volunteering around poverty and heartache, it’s easy to feel hopeless, like you aren’t making a difference at all.
The important thing to remember is that these feelings are normal, and they will pass. Everything is amplified when you’re abroad; the good days are fantastic, like you never want to leave, but the bad days seem like the worst in the world. Just remember that it’s okay if every day isn’t like the brochures. Even Mother Teresa woke up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes. Remember that you are making a difference, and you can see that difference every time a child smiles at you or a lion cub eats out of your hand. You did that. You. Not anyone else.
Volunteering abroad isn’t for everyone. But if you have courage, dedication and an open heart, you’ll find that it’s one of the most worthwhile things you’ll ever do.