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Volunteer Abroad Advisor

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How to (And Not to) Volunteer Short-Term

Volunteer with the Villa Tica Daycare with LEAD Adventures
Volunteer teaching art to children in Guatemala.

With the world becoming easier to navigate, the adventuring spirit continually spreading amongst the masses, we increasingly find ourselves in the position to lend a hand to the people that welcome us into their communities. Short-term volunteering has grown immensely in popularity over the last decade, so much so that a whole new form a travel—voluntourism—has risen into prominence. Recently, however, concerns about how we are helping have also become an issue.

Productive short-term volunteering is not always as easy as showing up somewhere to dish out meals or teach classes, and it should not be. While there are many needs, responsible NGOs should have long-term employees taking up the daily tasks. Organizations strive to have most areas covered because, even if it may impede volunteer opportunities, that is a part of sustainability. If an NGO is doing what it should be doing, then provisional help should just be a bonus--to perform lingering tasks that can be completed as "grunt work"—not by being central to the organization.

That said, there is still a place for transient volunteers, a need for those people willing to give a couple hours for a few mornings during their holiday. However, it is important not to make the error of assuming that there will be plenty to just stop by and do. Such presumptuous volunteering often creates more problems than solutions, leaving NGOs scrambling to find tasks to take care of someone who is meant to be on location helping. Since the point is to have a positive impact—undoubtedly the objective of most aspiring vacation volunteers—here are some ideas to consider:

How to Help As a Volunteer

Sometimes great and rewarding volunteer opportunities fall in our laps: A hostel sponsors a local school where guests can spend an afternoon reading books to first-graders. Sometimes disasters occur, and the need is so great that anyone who can handle a shovel or lift a sandbag can be of service. However, relying on luck and disaster is hardly the most effective or karmic way to be a volunteer. With a little forethought, you can maximize your experience and contribution.

  1. Research NGOs in the area you will be traveling. Often we have certain things in mind, types of volunteering we would like to do, and by planning, it is more likely you will find the right fit. Not everyone can build houses or teach English, but we all have our own talents, e.g. computers or organizational wizardry. With the right fit, the services you provide will better suit your abilities, and you will likely enjoy the experience more. More importantly to those in need, the benefit to the NGO will consequently be greater in terms of key projects. For more on this idea of responsible volunteering, see:
    www.travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk and Transitions Abroad's Volunteer Abroad Advisor articles.
  2. Contact volunteer coordinators before you arrive to ensure there is a spot for you, as well as to inform the organization of the incoming assistance. With a little heads up, you will likely get yourself more involved during your period volunteering.  Additionally, the NGO can plan accordingly, tell you when the best time to help is, and exactly what opportunities are available.
  3. Propose an idea that you can fund, organize, implement, and add to the existing project with minimal time or effort from the NGO. For example, if it is an educational NGO that interests you, and you are aware of a great craft project, something for which you can lead and provide the materials, let the coordinator know. Sometimes a little diversion, a spice to the status quo, is just what a program is after.
  4. Listen to the NGO. Sometimes our ideas sound great or obvious, but that does not always equate to efficient execution. Cultures move at different paces and value things differently. Often, for better or worse, there is red tape to get through, conscientious thoughts about sustainability and repercussions that a charity must consider. Regardless of what seems more pertinent, realize that your host NGO likely knows much more than you about what needs to be done, what it takes to do it, and why it is not happening yet.
  5. Champion the cause: One great way to help NGOs, before spending your first minute on site, is to promote the project. Let your family and friends know what you will be getting up to, throw a fund-raising party where you collect small donations to hand over upon arrival. Honestly, the thing most NGOs need, much more than volunteers, is funding. Contributing this way, without requiring any work from the organization, shows you are self-motivated and immediately endears you to the hearts of your hosts.

And How Not to Help

More than likely, NGOs will find something for visiting volunteers to do, but be aware that visitor volunteers often creates more work for the permanent staff, as well as invented tasks for the “helper,” however idealistic. Sustainability and consistency are the two top components for any NGO worth the canned goods it is handing out, so projects must function even when philanthropic vacationers are not there to volunteer. Here are some thoughts on how to avoid disrupting the good work already being done:

  1. Do not volunteer for an afternoon. It sounds strange, but consider the amount of work it takes to find a position for someone, welcome someone, train someone, and ultimately, truthfully, oversee someone doing a task a permanent staff member could probably accomplish quicker and more effectively. Afternoon volunteers usually require more work than benefit. If you are going to offer your time, try to give as much time as possible such that all of that start-up effort gets maximum output. If you do not have time, make a donation.
  2. Do not expect too much. Donors (both in terms of time and money) often become frustrated when assistance is not maximized right away. One of the more difficult aspects to giving is that it often does not pan out exactly as expected. A day, a week, a month will not likely change the world or even a community. Remember that there are many obstacles below the surface, including bureaucracy and culture proclivities that NGOs must negotiate. Do not expect them to be able to facilitate you altering the course of history or solving a country’s poverty level while you are on board. Real change is slow and laborious.  
  3. Do not go into it blindly. One horrible aspect of the seemingly rising consciousness of people is that unsavory characters have taken advantage of our good intentions: Voluntourism is a booming industry, and like all booming industries, it can often be deceptive, producing negative and exploitive results rather than helping. Before you choose an organization, especially one you must pay to assist, take a little time to find out whom exactly you are supporting. You do not want to volunteer and harm the community you are intending to help.
  4. Do not make demands. Be careful not to detract from what the NGO is doing by adding to their workload. Being a good volunteer means that you have made everyone’s goals easier to reach. Sometimes we forget the little things that burden another's daily schedule, even when we are eager to pitch in. Sometimes, to help in a meaningful way, you have to wait for your time: Things other than you are probably more pressing, so do not demand to be kept busy or entertained. Help when help is needed.
  5. Do not flake out. This seems a fairly obvious suggestion, but vacation volunteers are notorious for not showing up. You are on holiday after all. You travel to a destination and want to be of assistance, but you also want to have a good time. You are entitled to that. However, if an NGO is counting on your promised contribution, not following through on a commitment actually hurts where you intended to help. It would be better not to volunteer at all than to do it inconsistently.

Truly, it is a beautiful thing that there are so many people who want to help that we now have to consider how to volunteer responsibly. There is often the assumption that the remaining problems around the world expose an apathetic global community, but the growing number of people spending their free time and money traveling for charity says otherwise. The onus now becomes on how to best utilize all this positive energy and idealism. As a short-term volunteer, it can begin with you doing so in the most effective, efficient, and sensitive manner possible.

Jonathon Engels

Jonathon Engels, a patron saint of misadventure, has been stumbling his way across cultural borders since 2005 and currently resides as a volunteer in the mountains outside of Antigua, Guatemala. For more, check out Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad or visit The NGO List.

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