24 October 2005
by Lionel Mann
Even after you’ve made the decision to volunteer overseas, a lot of questions will remain unanswered – and there will be others you haven’t even considered. A few things that should cross your mind…
The computer quietly hums at your feet. Your inbox is bigger than your outbox, and the emails just ain’t stoppin’. You’ve gotta get outta here. Do something more, something that refreshes and energizes, see new things. But how and where? Whether it’s quitting your job, taking a 3-week holiday or an extended vacation, volunteering overseas might be the ticket. Here are some tips for toppling that inbox and getting you started.
This, that or the other
With so many organizations out there it can be hard to figure out which is right for you. Volunteers are involved with virtually every aspect of society, so somewhere there’s likely a placement appropriate to you. In addition, there are volunteer groups that only take youths, others that take families and still others that cater to older groups. Talk to friends, discover what interests you, what you qualify for and what organization meets your needs. Then request a basic information package, or check the website, and read up on their programmes. Understand your core personal reasons and then find out about various organizations’ goals, objectives and mission statement. Find one that matches your values.
Saving the world – NOT!
One of the biggest problems volunteers face is unrealistic expectations. Going with the perspective that you are going to “save the world” will likely lead to frustration and disappointment. Discover why it is you want to participate. Is it because you care passionately about the problem, is it that you want to discover a part of the world you wouldn’t fully understand by just visiting or is it something else entirely?
Funding your time away
Some programmes are short-term (two to three weeks) and others expect a commitment of several months or more. Depending on the organization and the amount of time you will be away, you may be required to do your own fundraising prior to departure. This covers costs such as food and accommodation, medical insurance, salaries of locally-based staff and training, and compensation for host families should they be part of the plan. Volunteers who have gone this route say that fundraising brings them closer to their home community and helps them take the commitment more seriously.
All work and no play
How much of your time do you want to spend volunteering and how much do you want to spend sightseeing? If you are going for a short-term trip you might want to consider going on a separate vacation either before or after your placement. If travelling for an extended period, volunteering for a couple of weeks might be a great addition to the trip.
Many volunteer programmes have a missionary background and still have some religious affiliation even if they don’t seem to at first glance. Ask to speak to someone who has already participated or look carefully at the history of the organization to see if it’s right for you.
Walls or no walls
In an office, school, or jungle? Alone or with other people? Are you willing to live like locals – this is especially important to consider in a developing country. What kind of environment do you want to be in and what kind of support network do you need?
Where in the world?
With some organizations you apply for a specific work placement in a specific place, but with others, you state your preferences and they place you according to necessity. Still others believe that the spirit of volunteering is going wherever your skills are most needed. In this case, the determining factors are usually a second language, a specialized skill or particular experience.
What you know and what you want to learn?
Some participants want to utilize the same skills they use everyday at home, school or work. Others would like to learn new skills. To avoid disappointment, make sure you understand what kind of work you will be doing.
Even if a programme is well organized, things can fall apart in the field. Governments crumble, natural disasters occur, supplies don’t arrive, bureaucracies suddenly make things more challenging. Be prepared to be flexible and adaptable to any given situation. Disorganization and chaotic conditions doesn’t mean the cause isn’t worthwhile.
Research as much as you can about the area where you’ll be staying, especially information on its political situation, living conditions and social mores. Most overseas service organizations have a good alumni network and people you can talk to. Also, it never hurts to learn some of the language or bring a phrasebook. Respect the culture and dress code and use common sense.
Home, bittersweet home
If you’ve never experienced it before, reverse cultural shock can be tougher than you would think. Most volunteers feel it’s more difficult coming back than going because the last thing you expect is not to recognize yourself when you get home. The degree of cultural readjustment is usually influenced by how long you have been overseas, how much you gained from the experience, and how much contact you had with relationships back home while away.
If the experience was rewarding, and it’s something you may want to repeat or take to the next level, there are lots of options. Many programmes, placements and internships are looking for people with previous overseas experience. There are also more skill and career-driven placements that may fit your particular interest.
If you feel the need for more education or training before going overseas, many people who make a long-term commitment to this kind of work tailor the undergraduate and graduate degrees to a relevant field (from environmental studies to international studies). There are also courses and programmes at colleges and universities that specialize in development or project management; most notably, Humber College in Toronto offers one-year degree in International Development through its business school.