Volunteering abroad is a popular way for professionals to contribute their skills to a community which otherwise wouldn’t have access to such know-how. There are significant benefits of volunteering abroad for both the volunteer and the host organisation who will appreciate you helping their cause.
However, volunteering abroad should be approached with a clear intention of why you want to volunteer, what you hope to contribute and what you hope to gain from the experience. It is not simply a vacation off the beaten track and needs to be given the preparation that it deserves. Taking the time to inform yourself of the situation into which you will be submerging yourself is the only way to ensure that you travel ethically and responsibly.
Before you ever set foot on an aeroplane, here are some of the factors that require your time & attention.
- Consider Your Options
As a professional, you have much to contribute to the world both at home and abroad. We pick up many skills along the path of our lives, some of which can be of great benefit to communities in developing countries. The world is a big place, and there are a vast number of causes which could use your time and expertise. It’s your job to decide where your own particular set of skills will be most useful and which projects resonate with you most on a personal level.
The various volunteering projects available to us require a vast array of skills, from construction workers to those who can connect with children or possess a range of medical skills for health programmes. It is clear how one person’s skills will align with a given project more than another.
Also, consider the part of the world you wish to work in. Ask yourself what location resonates with you most closely? You should also decide whether you are happy to volunteer in an area of civil unrest, or where this has been a recent concern.
One of the most important elements of preparing to volunteer abroad is to spend some time at the library or online learning about the place you will be staying. At the very least, you should be aware of the languages spoken, the dominant religions in the area, the current and recent political situation and whether there has been natural disasters in the region. Don’t limit your research to the current situation, as each and every community is shaped by its past.
Take some time to learn about the customs and laws in place too. Simple gestures that you don’t think twice about at home can be considered very disrespectful in other cultures, so inform yourself to avoid awkward situations.
- Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally
If this will be your first time volunteering abroad culture shock is almost inevitable. You won’t be travelling in the same way that you have on holidays. Depending on where you are stationed there may be little electricity or running water. Your personal hygiene routines will most likely need to be overhauled and the food will be different too. You may also find yourself shocked at the living conditions that you see, along with injuries and diseases that affect the people you work with. War-torn countries perhaps need the most help, but with infrastructure decimated, heavy military controls in place and the human cost of war so evident, working in such a country can take a toll on volunteers who choose to work there.
In such places, the visible positive impact that individual volunteers make can be hard to see. You may feel frustrated at your inability to exercise real change, but we need to remember that change takes place over sustained periods of time. Although you may not see a difference, the organisation who you work with may be able to chart improvements over time. Take heart from this because it is people like you, who together, make that change possible.
- Tick off the Admin
As a professional, it is likely that you have travelled before in the past. Treat the administrative aspects of your trip as you would your work.
- Make sure that your passport is valid until well after you plan to have returned home and that it has free pages for entry stamps.
- Book your flights as far in advance as possible so that you get the best fares.
- Contact the volunteer agency or charity you will work with to assess your accommodation options. You may have the option of being placed with a family or of taking a room in a local hotel.
- Contact the embassy of the country you will travel to in order to find out about visa requirements. Although many countries allow you to get your visa on entry, it is best done in advance to save stress.
- Schedule your vaccinations with a doctor.
- Save soft copies of all your important documentation so that they can be accessed in an emergency, and leave copies of your itinerary with family so that they know where you are.
- Let your bank know that you will be travelling to your destination so that they don’t put a hold on your account when they see unusual activity from this country.
- Pack consciously
Be careful about what you pack. You need to use your limited space well. Pack toilet paper, dry shampoo and personal hygiene wipes to help keep yourself clean and feeling good. Sun cream and first aid supplies are important too, while extra cosmetics such as makeup won’t be used.
Pack light clothes which cover your body. Not only can the sun be extremely damaging in some countries, the customs around wearing revealing clothes may be different. If in doubt, cover up. Also, pack comfortable, sensible shoes, you might be working in areas without pavements so be prepared for dust.
Depending on your project you may need supplies to carry out your work. Take small items in your luggage while bigger items may need to be shipped separately. If this is the case, discuss it with your organisation as they may be able to include it with another shipment due for dispatch.
Planning your volunteer trip in advance will ensure that the time you invest abroad will be spent in the most beneficial way. This preparation helps you to rest assured that your contribution will be targeted, applicable and achievable within your timeframe & resources.
Susanne Loxton is a Communications Specialist at Aubiz, a compendium of knowledge about companies in her native Australia. In her spare time, she divides her time between exploring the wonders of nature and writing. Follow her on Twitter @LoxtonSusanne