6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Volunteering Abroad

Some people volunteer abroad to immerse themselves in a culture and experience a different way of life. Others wish to add something to their CV or gain further experience in their field. While some may have dreams of making a difference or doing something that encourages sustainable social impact.

I was probably a mixture of all of the above. I wanted to experience travel on a deeper level and really get to know a community and culture. I was also at a crossroads with my career and wanted to experience something different that would help my personal development. But ultimately, I wanted to give something back and try to make a difference, however big or small that may end up being.

6 questions to ask yourself before volunteering abroad

Regardless of what your reasons are for volunteering, there are some important things to consider before committing to it.

Choosing a volunteer project can be quite a lengthy process. However doing thorough research will help you find something that can be equally as beneficial for you and the organisation you choose to help.

Many of you have come to me with the exact same questions I had, so I wanted to share a few things that you should consider before volunteering abroad.

What skills do have to offer?

This is probably the first and foremost important thing you need to think about. Remember volunteering is a two-way thing. It is not just about what you can gain out of it, but how the organisation/project could benefit too.

Unfortunately I’ve met a few volunteers whose intentions were probably not in the best interest of the organisation, but more about how it made them look and feel. It’s important that you assess the skills you have and what you think you can bring to the table in a positive way.

6 questions to ask yourself before volunteering abroad

Which volunteer programme do I choose?

I can’t stress enough how important this is. When I was researching where to volunteer I came across hundreds and hundreds of organisations. It can be completely overwhelming at first but it is a good way to gauge what is available.

You may find that most seem to charge quite a hefty amount of money to volunteer for a short amount of time. And it is not always clear how much of this is going directly into the community or project.

While admin fees might be necessary for certain programmes, make sure that you know where your money is going. Organisatons should be transparent and be able to provide this information, so don’t be afraid to ask for a breakdown of costs. Those who ignore or respond defensively should give you pause to reconsider.  Comparing costs between organisations will help give you an idea of what is a reasonable expense vs what might be extravagant.

6 questions to ask yourself before volunteering abroad

Is what I am doing sustainable and ethical?

Sadly there has been a lot of negative press on the volunteering industry lately. From stories of volunteers taking away much-needed labour work from local communities to “fake” orphanages enabling child exploitation, the online world is saturated with articles claiming that volunteering can inadvertently do more harm than good.

And while the above may be true in certain instances, thankfully there are many vetted organisations and social enterprises out there that offer responsible volunteering opportunities. So it is essential that you do your research to ensure what you are doing is not going to have a negative impact. As a starting point, Grassroots Volunteering is a great website for doing research into such projects.

6 questions to ask yourself before volunteering abroad

Where do I go to volunteer

The answer to this should largely be steered by your answer to question #1.  Where are your skills most needed? All too often there are stories of volunteers picking a destination without thinking about this question, and then turn up to find there is nothing worthwhile for them to do.

For a project to succeed, the drive needs to address real community needs with local jobs protected and supported by the work of volunteers. So when researching volunteering opportunities overseas, shortlist potential organisations according to what their goals are. If their goals fit with your skills then you have probably found a suitable match.

6 questions to ask yourself before volunteering abroad

What kind of commitment can I make? 

This can be a difficult question to answer as we all lead busy lives with sometimes a limited amount of time to spare. However, if you are looking for a deep and immersive experience where your contribution will actually have an impact, then a one or two-week placement is unlikely to help.

There’s a reason many organisations require a minimum stay of three months, because it can usually take some time for a volunteer to be brought up-to-speed before they are actually contributing. Shorter placements often result in more rework for the organisation or community and can be more of a hindrance than a help. Think about whether the length of time you can give will actually be of benefit.

6 questions to ask yourself before volunteering abroad

Are there any cultural differences I need to be aware of?

One of the best things about travel and volunteering is learning about different cultures and celebrating our differences. However, I’ve seen first-hand where poorly prepared volunteers have swanned in with their own agendas and cultural norms, failing to consider possible differences and circumstances.

To increase your chances of having a positive impact on a project in a community, it’s important to have some basic understanding of the local culture and customs. Speak with your organisation beforehand to find out about possible communication and cultural differences – this could be anything from the correct clothing or taboo subjects to gender roles and appropriate gifts.

6 questions to ask yourself before volunteering abroad

Final thoughts?

If you are considering volunteering abroad then I understand that these questions might seem a little daunting at first. But with the correct research and awareness, this will help you find a project that will ensure a positive and rewarding experience for both you and the organisation you are helping.

If you have further questions regarding volunteering, then please leave a comment below and I will try to answer them the best that I can. And if you’ve already volunteered abroad and have some extra tips to share, then please feel free to do so too! 

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    Sonal of Drifter Planet
    November 11, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    Very useful information. This winter will be the first time that I will be volunteering long term as I travel so. So excited.

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      November 11, 2016 at 7:16 pm

      Thanks Sonal! Glad you found it useful. Where will you be volunteering?

  • Reply
    Kevin Wagar
    November 15, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Fantastic post! There is so much to consider before volunteering, and I think the value that you have to offer a place or an organization is often overshadowed by one’s desire to be doing “good”. This should be a must-read for anyone looking to change the world 🙂

    • Reply
      Nikki Godwin
      April 11, 2017 at 8:30 am

      Thank you Kevin! I hope others will find it useful when considering volunteer placements.

  • Reply
    Naomi Liz │ Roaming the Americas
    November 15, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    This is such a great post and you’ve hit on some really important points. It’s hard to communicate a message that some volunteering does more harm than good, while not sounding cynical or like you’re questioning people’s intentions. But I think you’ve shared some challenging points and good questions to consider in a really helpful way. 🙂
    I love the work that Shannon O’Donnell has done through Grassroots Volunteering–it’s a great place to start! Another good resource is http://volunteeringguides.org/ They just launched last month and have some great resources so far (full disclosure-I contributed to an article there, but I did so because I’ve been following their travel blog for awhile and feel like they’ve got a similar philosophy about responsible travel and volunteering). Anyway, will definitely be sharing your article! Thanks. 🙂

    • Reply
      Nikki Godwin
      April 11, 2017 at 8:31 am

      Thank you Naomi! I’ll definitely check out the link!

  • Reply
    Sanne - Spend Life Traveling
    November 15, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    I love your post. I have volunteered abroad several times and I agree that you should ask yourself questions first about what you want to do, what you can contribute and what would be beneficial not only to you but also (and most importantly) to the people, animals, organization, etc where you will be volunteering.

    • Reply
      Nikki Godwin
      April 11, 2017 at 8:33 am

      Thanks Sanne, glad you agree with the points I’ve raised!

  • Reply
    Erin
    November 16, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    Great post! I have never volunteered abroad before, but would love to one day! I am a recent ambassador for Visit.org, and plan to support locally owned, ethical, and sustainable tourism companies through that! Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Nikki Godwin
      April 11, 2017 at 8:34 am

      Hi Erin – thanks for reading, I’m glad you liked the article! I’ll definitely check out that link! Responsible tourism is a must and something everyone should consider when visiting a new place or booking a tour.

  • Reply
    Johann
    November 17, 2016 at 12:35 am

    Really awesome!I have never volunteered and you put out some really cool ideas for me. Voluntourism has been playing on my mind for a while now. And probably 2017 I’m going to dive into it. Hoping to draw inspiration from people like you.

    • Reply
      Nikki Godwin
      April 11, 2017 at 9:03 am

      Thanks Johann! Glad you found the information useful. Let me know if there is anything else I ca do to help!

  • Reply
    Hendrik
    November 17, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Interesting article! If I could turn back time and be in the age again to become a volunteer, I would do something similar. It is so important for forming your character by getting in touch with other cultures in such intense way.
    Great, keep on going!

    • Reply
      Nikki Godwin
      April 11, 2017 at 9:05 am

      I totally agree that it’s a great way to build your character and immerse yourself in a different culture and way of life. I learnt a lot about myself and the Tanzanian community during my time there.

  • Reply
    Emily
    November 17, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    Such a beautiful post with great photos! I’ve always wanted to volunteer so thanks for letting me live vicariously through you for the time being!

  • Reply
    Sarah
    November 18, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    Happy that you were able to give back in your own little way and somehow affect the lives of these kids/and the community positively! I’ve been wanting to do this back in the days, but it was harder to find trusted organizations. Now that I’m older, I’ve started considering it again..but I wonder, do they have age limit for volunteers? Because I came across some that actually have, but I’m not quite sure how true.

    • Reply
      Nikki Godwin
      April 11, 2017 at 9:08 am

      Hi Sarah! Thanks for reading! I have heard that some organisations do place an age limit, but there are plenty that don’t. I guess when researching projects it’s a good question to raise. If you are thinking of doing any volunteer work in Tanzania, then I can definitely recommend Hostel Hoff. I met many people of all ages and backgrounds there!

  • Reply
    Sally from Passport & Plates
    November 19, 2016 at 8:47 am

    Love love love this post! Honestly, I have such an issue with voluntourism most of the time because people jump into it thinking it will be “cool” without asking themselves if they will actually be helpful or if their could be potential side effects to their work (especially working with children). Thanks for sharing this – it’s something everyone really should read before volunteering!

    • Reply
      Nikki Godwin
      April 11, 2017 at 9:11 am

      Thanks Sally! I have to agree, especially with your point on working with children. It’s such a complex issue but I think if people took more time to think about it before diving in, then their help can certainly have more of a positive impact.

  • Reply
    Neni
    November 19, 2016 at 9:49 am

    Very useful and such an imortant topic. I would like to teach children, but I am still unsure how to do it and where to go.

  • Reply
    Tyler Ward
    November 22, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    This is great. I love how you don’t make it seem like you are there to “save” the children but instead use your skill set to propel them in the right direction during the period of volunteer work.

  • Reply
    Michelle
    December 14, 2016 at 1:26 am

    Great post! I think it’s so important that people begin to understand the realities behind “volunteerism” and how it can really be detrimental to communities.

  • Reply
    Fabian Keresztfalvi
    April 16, 2017 at 9:20 am

    Very useful info. Thanks!

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