Not long ago, I came across a post from a popular travel blogger that mentioned the evils of volunteering abroad.
I was surprised by how vehemently she denounced the practice, so I read on.
Before we headed to volunteer in Quito, Ecuador, it had never occurred to me that American (or largely Western) volunteers overseas had a bad reputation. My experiences abroad had always been fruitful, engaged, and rewarding for everyone involved. I was, quite honestly, shocked that the work I did could offend someone.
But as I kept reading, I realized that some volunteering programs, and volunteers themselves, don’t have their beneficiaries’ best interests in mind.
Orphanages with revolving doors for tourists to come in and out for a few dollars.
“Relief work” that focuses more on poverty touring.
Community service options that are more about getting good photos.
The worst practice that this blogger denounced was that of planning to get a good selfie with an orphan for a new Facebook profile photo.
Do people really do that? I asked.
Idealisms aside: the truth about volunteer work
I believe that volunteering– at home or abroad– is a vital practice for privileged individuals like you and me.
Volunteering forces us to experience the realities in which others live. It can break apart our complacency, encourage us to live with less, and remind us that we are not too small or too insignificant to make a difference. It can help us to understand how to alleviate the need around us– because if we don’t do it, then who will?
However, I also believe that most volunteers are not very useful. Let me explain. Volunteering is like working without pay. Were you good at your job from day one? Probably not! Work requires training, experience, and longevity– and while there is no monetary compensation in volunteering, the work is equally challenging.
This is not to say that nobody should volunteer for anything less than a month. Most of us with full-time employment don’t have that kind of time to set aside. However, we can be mindful of the type of volunteer work that we sign up for. We can choose carefully where we go. We can make sure that our presence leaves a positive impact. We can check our own motives.
Before you volunteer overseas…
Ask yourself the following questions. Talk to people who have gone before you. Seek the best use of your resources. Should you volunteer, or should you just give money?
I believe that the world is changed everyday by ordinary people like you and me. Many of those people have volunteered to do something: they’re working for no pay because they believe in it.
If you desire to spend time serving others abroad, I hope you go for it! And I hope you do so in a thoughtful manner so that your impact– and your experience– are the greatest that they can be.
6 Questions To Ask Before Volunteering Abroad
1) How much do I know about the country, culture, and cause?
The names of certain countries (or continents) have a strange appeal.
But do we know anything more than just the name of the country we’re planning to serve? Do we speak the language, or at least understand cultural values and cues? Doing some research beforehand can prove invaluable: both for you and the people you work with.
2) Do I have enough skills and experience to be useful?
Just because volunteering is unpaid work does not automatically qualify you. Ask yourself this: would someone in my own country be willing to pay me to do this? That’s not to entitle you, but to evaluate whether your work has real value.
If you have experience working with children, then do that; and if you’ve never hammered a nail in your life, then don’t do construction. It’s pretty straightforward: go where you’re needed.
3) How well do I understand this organization and do I support it completely?
What exactly does your organization do? Make sure you fully understand their approach to the problem they aim to solve. Do you agree with it? Do you see problems with it?
Joining a volunteer program usually means carrying out the mission and tactics of that particular non-profit. Make sure you understand them before diving in; ask about their policies with volunteers and what they expect from you. This is what you would do if you were giving them a donation, right?
4) Am I ready to do whatever I am asked to?
Here’s the thing about volunteers: sometimes they feel (and act) entitled to do whatever they want.
So ask yourself the tough question: Do I actually want to serve someone else? This could mean they ask you to do things you don’t normally do at home. It could mean fulfilling an unexpected role, being flexible with your schedule, or sharing in menial work.
It may feel unfair, but remember, you’re a volunteer. You’re there because you’ve chosen to be there.
5) What am I truly looking to gain from this experience?
I hope the vision of a Facebook profile photo with lots of likes is not the motivation to volunteer.
Ask yourself honestly: why?
Volunteering can have many benefits, but make sure that you’re actually seeking those benefits. This will help you set proper expectations and offer the most that you can during your time abroad.
6) Can I invest in this organization over a longer period of time?
I myself believe that volunteering for less than two weeks can feel a bit pointless. It takes a few days simply to adjust to a new environment and learn the ropes.
But even if two weeks is all you have, you can still make a difference. It will mean avidly seeking to understand the cause you’re working for, getting to know the people in the organization, and finding out what it means to help them long-term.
Don’t just volunteer and bounce. Stay in touch, leave a gift, return in the future, and tell others about your experience.
The bottom line: it’s still about you– sort of.
Call me a cynic (or a realist), but I think most volunteer experiences still benefit the volunteer more than the locals. But that does not have to be a bad thing.
The insights we gain from volunteering abroad can help us to be more useful, courageous, and generous people at home.
The more connected we are to the issues our world is facing, the more likely we can encourage each other to do something meaningful about it. Perhaps friends will tell you just to send money and save the airfare; but I think something mysteriously wonderful happens when we go and see for ourselves.