Manage your expectations
Although volunteering overseas can be a life-changing experience, it’s also one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Many people have an unrealistic expectation that their experience will be as glamorous as it seems in the Kashi commercials. Managing your expectation before you volunteer will help you have a more successful volunteer experience. Below are some of the common issues international volunteers face.
You will probably not get a volunteer position with an international aid agency
The cost of for training, housing, medical insurance, translation, relocation, and evacuation insurance for a volunteer is far greater than the cost of hiring someone local for the job. Aid agencies would also have to help the volunteer with housing, medical issues, and potentially evacuating them from the country if things become serious. In addition volunteers are likely to only stay for a short period of time whereas local staff are far more likely stay for the life of the project. Because there is little benefit compared to the cost for an international aid agency to take on volunteers, most are reluctant to do it.
You would be far more likely to be able to volunteer with one of these agencies if you move to the country on your own and then offer to volunteer part-time. A part time volunteer already living in country is far less of a liability than a full-time volunteer brought in to specifically assist that agency. But there’s still no guarantee.
See blog Damsels in Success Why you probably won’t get an international job (and what to do about it)
Your professional certifications may not be recognized in that country
You cannot automatically assume that you will be allowed to work in your profession, especially if it requires a certification such as doctors, nurses, architects or lawyers. You wouldn’t expect someone from another country to be able to practice as a doctor, architect or lawyer in the US without first meeting standard requirements. Each country needs to ensure that anyone working in those fields understands local diseases, building regulations, or laws. The country may also be concerned about translation problems, in Thailand doctors must take all of their tests in Thai, there is no English equivalent. In addition, if there are enough local people with those skills it is logical that a country would want to protect the job market and not allow foreigners to come in and take jobs away from local people. I’ve seen nurses and architects arrive in country with great expectations only to be given menial support positions, if they were able to work in their field at all.
See website: Frequently asked questions – Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) – half way down the page answers questions on volunteering after a disaster
What you might consider instead is finding ways in which you can help with staff development or specialized trainings to increase local capacity. This is far more likely to be accepted by the government and you may have even more positive impact.
Unless you are a long term volunteer, you may not work with villagers
Aid agencies have local staff that speak the language, understand the culture, are familiar with local politics, and will be around for the long term to develop meaningful working relationships in the communities. Unless volunteers already speak the language and understand the culture, the aid agency has to provide a translator to support volunteers and their work in the villages. It would cost the aid agency far more to hire a good translator than to hire a skilled worker to do the job. Therefore there is little benefit to the organization to facilitate volunteers working in the village and a lot of potential problems.
What local aid agencies do need help with takes place in the office. Grant writing, report writing, developing an English language website, translating brochures into English, leading computer trainings, streamlining procedures, and helping with capacity building of their local staff are some examples of assistance that is often needed by local aid agencies. Although this would not give you the experience of working with villagers, it would give you the opportunity to help smart and dedicated aid workers become more successful.
See posting: Guideline #2 for volunteering overseas
You will need to dress and behave professionally
It seems silly to mention this, but I’ve been surprised at the number of volunteers that treat their work as a vacation. I’ve been interviewed by college researchers dressed in beachwear, I knew a volunteer at a local agency who wore such revealing tank tops that the agency had to invest in uniforms and require everyone to wear them, and an appalled English teacher told me about a male volunteer that showed up to teach at an elementary school wearing yellow short shorts. It is likely that these people would not dress like this in the same situations in their own country. I understand that some volunteers may view this as a vacation, but it’s not. If you’re looking for a vacation there are much better travel choices.
See posting: Guideline #3 for volunteering overseas
Also take the time to read Culture Shock or similar book on customs and appropriate behavior. Your goal is to be helpful, by dressing and acting appropriately you’ll be accepted and trusted much more quickly.
To be successful you will need to adapt the way you work.
If you go into your volunteer position expecting things to work the same as they did back home, you and your coworkers will be quickly frustrated. I found that out the hard way as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After having gone in completely focused on work at my first site, I discovered that it was almost impossible to accomplish anything. At my second site I made it a rule to spend the first half hour to hour of each work day going around chatting with everyone and sharing snacks. When it was time to get things accomplished everyone worked to support me because I’d spent time developing personal relationships.
It can be difficult to leave old work habits behind, but you’ll need to adapt to be successful. And after all, isn’t that why you’re volunteering, to understand the world from a different perspective.
The more time you devote, the more impact you will likely have
Chances are, the amount of help you are able to give will correlate with the amount of time you are willing to devote. Many people would like a Peace Corps or Three Cups of Tea experience over spring break, but it’s not possible. The Peace Corps is a 2 year commitment with three months of intensive language training, and most volunteers will tell you they weren’t effective until their second year. Greg Mortenson dedicated years to making his project successful and to learning the language.
See posting: Guideline #1 for volunteering overseas
In addition to the time spent in the field, you will also be more effective if you take time to learn about good aid practices and common mistakes. This will help you start on a better foot and correct mistakes much more quickly.
Volunteering overseas is not easy
Peace Corps has a far higher drop out rate than most people realize. Before you commit, make sure your expectations are realistic and you are willing to take the good with the bad. This will help ensure that you, and the organization you are volunteering with, are satisfied and successful.