Volunteering – Go it alone, or go with others?

Volunteering – Go it alone, or go with others?

The travelling solo vs travelling with one or more others (be they spouses, family, friends or even acquaintances and near-strangers) is an age old debate that promises never to go away, with firm advocates of each travelling style on both sides of the fence.

Ultimately, there are pros and cons to both, and it comes down to individual preferences and personality which route you go down. It’s the same with international volunteering, and as such this post certainly will not be telling you which one you should do. Instead, I’m going to outline reasons why you should/shouldn’t do both, and let you decide what is best for you.

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Volunteering Solo

As someone who has been on multiple solo trips, one big plus to travelling solo is that you get to do what you want, when you want, and not worry about having to compromise and cater to the needs of others. Obviously it’s not quite the same with a voluntary placement – you’re there to do a job that’s needed of you, with working hours dictated by the organisation in question – but you get to choose a placement that suits you, in terms of the work, the time and the place. That, and when it comes to ‘extracurricular’ activities, it’s you and you alone who decides what you do.

Volunteering overseas is in itself an activity pushing you out of your comfort zone. If you’re doing it alone, then the long-term benefits in terms of your own personal growth and development are arguably even greater. Whether you survive or thrive in an alien environment where things like a language barrier, strange working practices and other challenges are there to make your experience anything but easy depends on how willing you are to immerse yourself in the culture. Volunteering solo is arguably the best and most direct way to do this.

Of course, without the safety net of a travel companion or several to turn to you’re automatically obliged to engage with people more, unless you want to live like an isolated hermit. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on how comfortable you are at the prospect of befriending both the locals and your fellow volunteers. Meeting new people and learning about another culture is supposed to be part of the experience, suggesting that, unless you’re introverted and perhaps inexperienced, volunteering solo is the ideal route toward both.

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Volunteering with a partner/friends/family

Unless you’re extremely fortunate, there will be difficult times on your voluntary placements. If you’re with someone you know you can trust, confide in and be yourself around, it can certainly be of great benefit during those difficult times. This is probably especially true if you are particularly close to the person you’re there with, as they will know what makes you tick and how to pick you up during the bad times, and vice versa. This can be particularly important if you’re doing it for the first time, or are otherwise generally inexperienced at travelling.

It’s worth noting that volunteering overseas is as much about both the build-up beforehand and what you can reflect upon afterwards as it is about the actual time you’re ‘in the field’. One thing I noticed when I came back from a solo volunteering stint was that it was difficult to talk about my experiences with my friends and family back home, because they couldn’t really empathise. If you have someone you can meaningfully reflect on your experience with and share the ‘reverse culture shock’ phase with, this problem is negated.

Having said that, when ‘in the field’, it can happen that you – intentionally or not – end up spending all your time with your companions and isolate yourself from the rest of the group. It should be noted that this can also happen with new people you’ve met out there, with little cliques forming along various lines, such as age groups, interests, your placement etc. This is something that can be exacerbated if you’re on the same placement with the person you’re going with. You know how they advise not working in close proximity to the person you’re married to? Same goes with volunteering.

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Whatever’s right for you…do volunteer!

I can’t pretend to know which one out of going solo or going with others will definitively suit you better, but whichever you choose do remember: international volunteering is, for the majority of people (as I’ve covered before, it’s not for everyone), a wonderful, fulfilling and life-changing experience. So weigh up what’s right for you and go for it!

8 Comments

  • Claire

    June 4, 2016 at 7:27 pm Reply

    Interesting post! I think I’d always go it alone, I feel like that would enable me to be the best that I can be. Completely understand why some people would want to do it together though!

    I guess really, it boils down to where the actual placement is and what you will be doing. If it’s volunteering with people, be they old or young, I think alone would be fine but if it’s doing another type of volunteering maybe it would be better to have people around.

    I’m glad you express the importance of volunteering at the end! Keep doing amazing things!

    • Joe

      June 4, 2016 at 7:50 pm Reply

      Yep, good point, it’s definitely important to have people around you in some capacity otherwise you would probably just go stir crazy! It’s all about how comfortable you are with the first initial tentative steps in to the unknown, and if you need someone familiar to help you with that then so be it. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Voyager

    June 5, 2016 at 12:37 pm Reply

    Its a very interesting post, I agree it all boils down to personal preferences and both options do have their pros and cons. I would prefer solo volunteering, probably because it would give me more freedom and time to interact with the locals and understand their cultures. It would also mean a journey of self discovery.
    Voyager recently posted…The Earth is a gift, lets cherish itMy Profile

    • Joe

      June 6, 2016 at 5:55 am Reply

      Yep, I would tend toward solo volunteering too, but I’m glad I met some folks who came out as a group when I volunteered as it helped me see why they did what they did – and they probably got more out of it by doing it that way than if they had headed out on their own 🙂

  • Steph of Big World Small Pockets

    June 15, 2016 at 6:42 am Reply

    I really think volunteering solo is the best. it can be a lot harder, but forces you to get out there and really engage with a different culture with few reminders or ties back to your own
    Steph of Big World Small Pockets recently posted…Notes From a Small (Magnetic) IslandMy Profile

    • Joe

      June 17, 2016 at 5:27 am Reply

      Which is perfect for getting out of your comfort zone, and so if you are brave enough to do it then I do agree you should go for it! 🙂

  • Tess Andrade

    August 24, 2016 at 6:49 pm Reply

    Interesting! I never even contemplated volunteering together with someone else — I guess it makes sense especially if you feel going alone would be too much of a step out of your comfort zone…I remember when I travelled to Namibia on my own when I was 21 to volunteer — it was a brave thing to do and I had an amazing time — but I can see some people may not want to do that.

    • Joe

      August 24, 2016 at 8:56 pm Reply

      Well, different strokes different folks as they say 😉 So cool you got to volunteer in Namibia when you were 21, and had an amazing time in doing so! I for one wouldn’t have had the guts to do that when I was that age…thanks for stopping by 🙂

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