Quick Tips for a Successful Volunteer Abroad Experience

Last week’s post explained why voluntourism is such an amazing way of traveling so this week I’d like to follow up with some tips on how to get the most out of your volunteer abroad experience.

Let me start by telling you exactly what to expect – expect absolutely NOTHING. The worst thing you can do is go into a volunteer abroad experience with a ton of preconceived ideas and expectations because chances are it’s going to be nothing like what you expected. While you may have an interest in “volunteering abroad” for a particular cause, what that really means is that you want to step into an organization in a different culture that has a unique set of subjects they are trying to help, a unique set of employees and volunteers, and a unique set of rules, values, priorities and issues. No matter how much research you do you won’t really know what you’re getting yourself into until you get there. So be extremely excited for the brand new out-of-your-world experience that you are about to embark upon but go in with an open mind and a clean palate because no volunteer experiences are the same.

Below are some tips to help you get the most out of your experience. This list could obviously go on and on but these are the things I would not have fully understood if I hadn’t experienced them first-hand throughout my journeys. If you have any other tips please leave them in the comments below!

1. Embrace the experience & ignore the inconveniences. Volunteering in a foreign country is a once in a lifetime experience (even if you do it more than once!). Ignore the inconveniences that you would never put up with at home. For example, if the shower only runs freezing cold water with no pressure from a faucet located only 2 feet above the ground, that’s okay, you’re not there for a spa. You’ll be back home to your jet streams in no time so don’t let these little discomforts affect what you’re there to accomplish.

2. Stay away from negative people. You’ll likely be surrounded by a positive group of volunteers who love every minute of what they’re doing. However, every now and then someone comes along who hates absolutely everything and has no problem contaminating your experience with their negativity. Whether you want it to or not, their negativity will creep into your mind and affect how you view everything going forward. While they may have good reasons for their opinions, you should have the chance to make your own assessments. So, to the extent you can, stay away from these people. Be the positive person you would want everyone else to be. Positivity is contagious, let it shine through you.

3. Talk to the organization’s directors/volunteer leaders as much as you can. You are there to learn and the people working there are a wealth of knowledge and stories. If it’s a big organization and there are a lot of other volunteers it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Don’t let that happen, seek them out and spend time with them. They will appreciate your curiosity and you will have a richer experience for it.

4. Bond. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can bond with people through volunteer work. You’ll finally be rid of email, facebook, twitter and all of the other daily gizmos and gadgets that distract you from fully engaging in conversation. The unique experiences you’ll face when you’re volunteering can turn strangers into fast friends. I still keep in touch with people from almost every volunteer trip I’ve been on. These friendships make the experience all the more enriching.

5. Don’t be shocked if things aren’t run exactly as you’d like. I admit, I’ve struggled with this periodically. I’ve been to organizations that fall into all areas of the spectrum; from those that are extremely well run and organized, providing the ultimate volunteer experience, to those that are not so well run. I spent many years working in a corporate law firm, which was a well oiled machine built for optimal efficiency, so I may have been particularly susceptible to falling into an overly critical mindset. I would hate to be someone who marches in telling people how to run things better after being there for only a few days so I’ve found it’s best to wait for an organization to ask for feedback. If they ask for it it shows that they care about continually improving, as every company should. Just as with everything in life, no organization is perfect, and the smaller ones who need the most help are often the ones who could benefit from some changes. I believe in supporting these organizations (provided that they are legitimate) just as much as the larger ones who’ve got it all figured out. The more help they get, the more effective and efficient they can become.

6. Follow the volunteer organization’s rules. While some rules may seem arbitrary and unreasonable to you (i.e., no drinking on the premises), those rules are there for a reason, placed after years of trial and error that you were not a part of. You are only there for a short time, don’t try to rock the boat and be a rebel.

7. Remember that you are not there to save the world. You will likely learn and gain more from your volunteer experience than you give. You are there to help out, to learn and to then spread awareness – that is the beauty of volunteer work.

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