Preparing for a volunteer travel trip requires a great deal more than planning an itinerary and booking a ticket. There is a great deal of research required, questions that need to be answered, applications and documents that need to be filled out, and funds that need to be raised all before you step foot on a plane. Once you realize that volunteering overseas is a journey worth taking, using the steps below as guideline will help you to make informed decisions about your trip!
Identify Your Skill Set & Research Volunteer Projects
You may have your heart set on a particular project because it sounds interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be a good fit for it. Take some time to evaluate what it is you are good at, have a look at what you’ve written down for a skill set on your resume, and think about how you can apply those to a particular project. Once you’ve thoroughly researched how you can contribute your skills, contact the organization hosting the project and they will help you determine whether or not you will be a good fit.
Connect With Past Volunteers
Anyone would have reservations about spending a significant amount of time volunteering in a foreign country, with an organization that you may have only read about. The best way to dispel any concerns you may have is to talk to volunteers who have participated on the same project. They can provide insight into the organization, how it runs, any pros or cons they may be able to comment on. They can also give you an insider’s perspective on the day-to-day operations of the project you are about to work on, and provide you with little tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your experience. Visit message boards, check out Facebook pages, or find out if the organization has a Twitter feed, these are all places you can find past and future volunteers discussing the project.
Research the Country Thoroughly
This is a step you’ll want to take as early on as possible, well before you set your heart on a particular project. There’s nothing worse than stepping into a country and not understanding its inner workings for example, the state of the economy, the political situation, and other important facts that may affect the project and community you are working with. Volunteer travel is significantly different than regular backpacking, you don’t just pick up a guidebook and peruse the general facts. You are more than just a visiting tourist, you will be living and working intimately within a community at the grassroots level, and you owe it to the both the project and community to understand what outside factors are impacting it.
Learn the Local Customs
After you’ve researched the country, the next important piece of business is learning all about local customs and traditions. Pretend, for a moment, that you are an anthropologist stepping into a foreign culture for the first time. The only difference is that you are not just a quiet observer, you are an active participant in the daily goings on within a community. You will get far more out of your volunteer travel experience if you immerse yourself completely, so be respectful and make an effort to at least learn the basic greetings and customs regularly practiced within the community.
Become Familiar With the Specific Work You Will Be Doing
Volunteer travelers who have a thorough understanding of the kind of work they will be conducting on the project, are not only more successful, but are often given more responsibility. This gives you further insight into the project itself, and the impact it has on the community. Arriving on a project, and not having the right kind of expectations can be present a series of challenges that you may not be able to deal with on site. Anticipate that the work will be difficult and perhaps even emotionally challenging, but at the end of the day, it’s all worth the effort you put in.
Volunteering in a developing country comes with a number of risks to your health. Access to clean running water, or advanced medical facilities is just not a reality for many rural communities, and this needs to be taken into account when you are preparing for your trip. Make sure to visit your doctor and discuss with them any vaccinations that may be required for the region you will be working in. Ensure you have sufficient medical insurance to cover any costly medical emergencies before you leave your home country. Lastly, consider assembling your own first aid kit in anticipation of contracting anything you can treat on your own such as an upset stomach or mild dehydration.
Fundraising is not only a great way to help offset your volunteer fee, but it helps to spread awareness to family and friends about a cause or part of the world that you are passionate about. Volunteer travel projects, for the most part, are not funded by local government and therefore rely on the generosity of international organizations and volunteers to keep them up and running. Remember that a significant portion of your volunteer fee is used to pay for your accommodation, food and transportation costs, so your goal should be to raise as much as you can above and beyond your volunteer fee to provide the community with much needed funding.
It’s impossible to prepared for everything, but by anticipating the crucial aspects of a volunteer travel project, it makes for a more enriching experience overall.
Do you have volunteer travel experience? Share your story below!