This post is in collaboration with Lonely Planet and Go Abroad, who are giving away a $2,500 scholarship to volunteer abroad. Click here to enter.
Here at Don’t Forget To Move we usually don’t dive deep into my or Jules’ personal stories. We like to bring you all the info you need so YOU can go out there and travel for yourself! But every once in a while we like to pull back the curtain and tell you a bit about our personal history with travel.
When people we meet ask where our love of travel came from, I can point to a few specific influences in my life. First off, my parents, who instilled a sense of adventure and an ability to roll with the punches (ie. not plan anything, ever!) from a young age through spontaneous road trips and eventually international travel. Second, my semester studying Spanish in Spain (with a minor in drinking sangria and taking siestas). And third, my experience volunteering abroad, which I can say without a doubt, that it changed my life.
After years of volunteering at home, I knew I was ready to take the leap and give back to the world. My first experience volunteering abroad was in Guatemala. I was only a couple weeks into my first solo backpacking trip, and although I was having a fantastic time, I needed to plan something to anchor myself. As anyone who’s been backpacking can attest, it’s easy to get caught up in the party culture of hostels and backpacker bars. I wanted to give my trip a little more meaning and help in some minuscule way to improve the abject poverty it felt like I was seeing at every turn.
But you know what? I was kind of a crappy volunteer. I left my volunteer position early to get my Scuba certificate in Honduras. And most importantly I was focused on what I would get out of the experience. I thought about how the experience would affect me, help me ‘find myself’ and make my trip once-in-a-lifetime.
Sheesh… I was self-involved! The good news is, that after countless more experiences volunteering abroad, I’ve learned so much about how to make a deep impact as a volunteer. From seven months in Peru working on disaster relief, to seven months working with small community groups in Tacloban, Philippines after super typhoon Yolanda.
Read on to find out my 5 best tips on how you can make an impact as a volunteer… PLUS, we’ll explain how you can enter to win $2,500 towards your next volunteering experience thanks to GoAbroad and Lonely Planet!
1. Give as Much Time as You Can
One of the best ways you can be as helpful as possible to an organization is to commit to staying for as long as you can. The more time you can spend volunteering, the longer you’ll have to connect to the community, build important relationships, establish trust with local people and find your role within the organization. The longer you can stay, the more likely you are to be able to see projects through to completion or help get programs off the ground.
It can be tempting to try to squeeze in a one or two week volunteer experience during your backpacking trip. But if you really only have a short time, consider if it’s worth it for the organization to take the time and resources to train you for such a short time. It may make more sense to raise money for the organization instead and just visit for the day to see where your money has helped.
This tip is especially important if you want to volunteer with kids. With so many short term volunteers coming to help out at schools and day cares, it can be traumatic for children to develop relationships and then have their new friends constantly leaving them. Committing to volunteer for months at a time, or even a year, ensures you can develop meaningful relationships with children and avoid doing emotional harm.
2. See Where You Can be Most Impactful
These days it seems like there’s an endless option of volunteer opportunities, especially those that are paired with mini-vacations. You can do any type of program you want. Want to teach children how to make popsicle stick picture frames? What about teaching single moms how to hacky sack? Just because you are super passionate about something and want to share it with the world, doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for volunteering.
You really want to find a position that fits your skillset, as well as the needs of the organization. Even simple skills like editing English translations, helping with finances or cooking for large groups can be helpful! Pro tip: contact organizations directly to see what they need help with most. Some middle-man volunteer placement companies can be so thirsty for your money that they’ll place you in any position, even if it’s not very impactful.
3. Be Flexible
Volunteering overseas can be a wild rollercoaster of an experience. Besides the normal bout of homesickness, volunteering in developing countries means you may be dealing with culture shock, limited resources, and possibly a poorly managed organization. Stay calm.
As someone who has worked in the international non-profit world for the past 5 years, I can tell you that things are not going to be perfect. Projects may get delayed, you may run out of funding and volunteers might not show up when you most need them. Help out as much as you can if sh*t hits the fan, even if that means taking over someone else’s role or putting in extra hours.
4. Raise Funds
As rewarding as it is to physically be present at an organization, spending time on the ground, sometimes the greatest help you can be is by fundraising. If you’re from the Global North, (a “developed” country such as the US, Australia, the UK, etc.), chances are the dollar from your home country will go a lot further in the country you’re volunteering in.
As helpful as we are as volunteers, sometimes an organization just needs some seed money to really get off the ground. I’m not saying don’t volunteer. If you’re heart is calling you to a country to help out in person, GO! It can be life-changing for you and the people you help. But don’t stop there. One of the most impactful ways you can continue helping an organization is by fundraising when you get back home.
On a related note, don’t be afraid of organizations that ask for payment to volunteer. Being a volunteer is a drain on resources (food, housing, training, etc.). Paying volunteer dues is just another way you can support an organization! Do your due diligence that make sure the organization is transparent about where these funds go. Don’t have the cash to volunteer? Enter to win a $2500 scholarship to volunteer abroad! Details at the end of this article.
5. Be Humble
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned after years of volunteering is to just be humble. As a university educated person, it was easy to get to an organization and think I knew all the answers. I studied Global Studies for goodness sakes, my whole major was dedicated to figuring out how to help the world!
But as it turns out, my college educated butt couldn’t compare to the knowledge and wisdom of the people who live life in that country every single day. They know what needs to be changed and the obstacles that are in the way to changing them. They know about the local economy, weather patterns and political corruption. The best thing I could do when I got to a new organization was to listen and make suggestions where I could. And I’ve learned more in my years of volunteering than I ever could in a classroom.
Now that you’re equipped with the tips and advice to be an impactful volunteer, its time for you to go out and do it yourself!
GoAbroad has joined forces with Lonely Planet to help make your dream of volunteering abroad come true! Enter to win $2,500 for your volunteer experience + a chance at weekly giveaways!
Contest open to legal residents of the US (all 50 states). Giveaway ends Nov 14th!