Volunteering overseas: everyone has their reasons for wanting to do it and they’re almost always good ones.
If, on the other hand, you just want to do it for kudos and recognition (as a CV booster, say) or as a nice little add-on to a regular vacation in an exotic country – in other words, if you’re only doing it for yourself – then you may as well forget it straight away. If you’re doing it as an add-on to a years-long backpack around the world then that’s different. But this post is not directed at such people: it’s more for those who are specifically travelling to volunteer, and making it their reason for travelling to that country in the first place. The simple fact is that volunteering abroad is simply not for everyone, and nor should we expect it to be.
Let’s take the example of one fella who taught with me at the school I worked at in Uganda. He was a nice guy but it was apparent pretty quickly that this was not for him. He was at the project for a grand total of one week (I was there for four, and even that felt like it wasn’t enough), had zero prior experience of working with children – he even outright said that he didn’t like kids! – and, while the rest of us hung out together at the volunteer house in the evenings, he would hop in to a taxi to have dinner with his parents (who so ‘happened’ to be there at the same time) and sleep in a Hotel before returning to work the next morning. And I use ‘work’ in the loosest possible sense of the word as he sought to do as little as possible; my abiding memory is of him looking forlorn and lost, sitting outside my classroom and watching me teach.
It’s fair to say that he got zilch from the experience.
So how can you tell if this is for you before you head out there? First up I would advise you to volunteer at home first. You might think that your home country has got very little to do with Marine conservation off the coast of Bali, but the romantic ideal we have in our heads of doing good in a developing country often overshadows all the unglamorous nuts and bolts that go with committing yourself to a stint of volunteering. Doing some at home will give you some experience of the less glamorous side.
After the first day or two of teaching in Uganda it very quickly started to feel like I was doing, you know, a regular job. And wasn’t getting paid for it…in fact I was paying for it! If your reaction to that is ‘ha, sucker!’ then that might suggest you don’t have a volunteer’s mindset. Before I went to Uganda I’d volunteered as a reading assistant at a Primary School and helped teach football to kids at weekends. Knowing I could commit to this, week-in week-out, at home helped give me the resolve to know I could see it through in East Africa too.
I’m not suggesting its compulsory to do this, by the way – not everyone who’s volunteered abroad had tried it out at home first, after all – but if you are unsure, it is definitely a good litmus test.
Another thing to remember is that volunteering overseas is not for those who like solitude. I don’t mean you need to be a gregarious, life-of-the-party sort to do this; the softly-spoken can be every bit as effective as the bouncy and energetic, albeit in a quieter way. No, I mean you need to be good at working directly, and effectively, with people. Even if you’re doing something like working in a National Park, where you could well indeed be on your own for long stretches of time, you still need to be able to communicate and cooperate with your colleagues, fellow volunteers and otherwise, to effectively get things done.
There simply is no chance for you to work in isolation, whatever work you do. So if you were hoping for a number where you can sit at a desk all day with nothing for company but your own thoughts then you can forget it. The guy I referred to above certainly tried it, but he was effectively forced in to situations where he had to deal with people, like it or not.
Ultimately, though, the two most important qualities you need are reserves of patience and an ability to manage your expectations. We all know full well that we should respect other cultures when we’re out and about in the streets, and that really should extend to operating within another countries’ working environment. You will have days when you’re frustrated, disappointed and even angry with the way they do things, but you cannot and should not think you can go in there, tell them you know better, and try to overhaul the ‘system’. Instead, be patient, establish yourself there, and then make your suggestions. Depending on the situation, it could take months before you’re in such a position. Are you someone who can wait that long?
Which brings me back to the point I made earlier about being willing to do the unglamorous nuts and bolts. Sure you might go to that Elephant sanctuary with notions of feeding/washing/climbing on the elephants, but the organisation might want – and need – you to shovel up all the poo instead, or give the pens a deep clean, or process some invoices…not exactly what you were envisaging as your new Facebook profile picture! But what has to be done has to be done, and if it’s helping others, then that has to be good enough for you.
Volunteering overseas is not a totally altruistic thing to do – you’re kidding yourself if you think that it is. What you get out of it for yourself is every bit as important as what you give back to other people. But the latter is obviously what it’s all about and, for me, you need to demonstrate the characteristics discussed above to succeed as a travel volunteer. So if you do feel like you have what it takes then go for it; believe me, you won’t regret it!