A lot of people today heed the call to volunteer overseas. They want to make a difference, to help others. The cynical would say that to do so also makes a great addition to any college or job application too. There are a lot of amazing organizations out there to choose from. However, there are also some that look to profit from a volunteer’s good nature. So, before you make your decision, here are a few things you need to consider.
Research should be the first thing that you do. It is arguably the most important aspect when volunteering overseas. You need to research the organizations, the role and the country. Do your due diligence. Look into the ethics of the organization, the difference that they have made, do their morals align with yours? Every country has its own cultural norms and rules which need following, are you aware of them? Do you have the skills and knowledge to fit into the role and the organization at large? For some people volunteering overseas becomes more; it becomes a career. If that is a possibility for you, then you might want to educate yourself further. For example, Harvard University Online offers a global health certificate course which can be invaluable when working overseas.
Consider the Ethics
As mentioned above, you need to ensure that the organization you choose is ethical and that those ethics align with yours. Some organizations tout themselves as ethical or sustainable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. Some organizations continue to exploit the people or animals that they allegedly protect in the name of making a profit. This is where your research comes in; you should arm yourself with enough knowledge to ascertain if they do live up to their marketed reputation.
Follow the Money
Some organizations charge people to volunteer, and if that is the case for your chosen organization, you need to have a better idea of where your money is going. Is it all going back into the project or the local community? Is it being used where it is needed, or is it being used to line the coffers of the organization. If you are going to be charged an extortionate amount to volunteer in an otherwise developing country that would be relatively cheap to visit, then you have to wonder where that money is going. Again, transparency is key; if they aren’t being honest with you, then you should steer clear of them.
What is the Role?
Each volunteer role and organization is a little different. So before you commit, you should ask them what an average day will look like. What is the daily routine, where do you fit in? The amount of work versus the amount of downtime varies drastically. Depending on what you are looking for, this could be an important factor in your decision. Not enough downtime might mean that your experience within the country outside of the program is limited; too much downtime, and you might wonder why you are there, what you are contributing to. The jobs that are required of you will affect this too. You might be asked to do a lot of hard manual labor, which you might not be physically capable of. Think about this when weighing up your options.
Where are You Expected to Stay?
Some volunteer programs will help you to find your accommodation or even provide it for you within the volunteer center. The living conditions themselves might be far more basic than you are used to, considering you will likely be volunteering in a developing country. You need to make sure that you are under no illusions in that sense; you won’t be put up in a five-star resort. Some organizations partner you with a host family, which can be an amazing experience. They can provide you with a home away from home. Still, sometimes it can be isolating if you don’t know the language or if the other family members have their own responsibilities meaning that you are often left to your own devices. A dormitory with other volunteers can be fun, it gives you a sense of community, but it does mean that privacy is limited. Make sure that you are clear on what their policies are regarding your accommodation. Read up on the experience of others to give you a better idea of what to expect.
Volunteering is an incredibly worthwhile experience, but you need to go into it with your eyes open. Consider the factors listed above and factor them into your decision-making process. Finally, remember that sustained, meaningful change is never going to happen overnight. While the work that you do will certainly make a difference, you can’t expect it to solve all of the world’s issues either. Try to avoid going into the experience with a savior complex; it does nothing for the people you are trying to help and only serves to build your own ego. While you are going to help others, you can also gain a lot from the experience yourself.