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How to be Volunteer Abroad Effectively Short-Term

Volunteer teaching children in Guatemala.
Volunteer teaching art to children in Guatemala.

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

Productive short-term volunteering is more challenging than 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. Assume an NGO is doing what it should be doing. In that case, provisional help should 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 willing to give a couple hours for a few mornings during their holiday. However, it is essential not to assume that there will be plenty to merely stop by and do casually. Such presumptuous volunteering often creates more problems than solutions, leaving NGOs scrambling to find tasks to care for 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, tremendous 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 bit of forethought, you can maximize your experience and contribution.

  1. Research NGOs in the area you will be traveling to. We have certain things in mind, such as the types of volunteering we would like to do, and by planning, you will likely find the right fit. Not everyone can build houses or teach English. Still, we all have talents, e.g., computer work or organizational wizardry. With the right fit, your services 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 more significant in terms of critical projects. For more on responsible volunteering, see and Transitions Abroad's Volunteer Abroad expert 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 appropriate preparation and attention, you will likely get more involved during your volunteering period. Additionally, the NGO can plan accordingly, tell you the best time to help, 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 an educational NGO 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 what a program is after.

  4. Listen to the NGO. Sometimes, our ideas sound tremendous 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, and why it is yet to happen.

  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, and throw a fund-raising party where you collect small donations to hand over upon arrival. 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 your hosts' hearts.

And How Not to Help

More than likely, NGOs will find something for visiting volunteers to do, but be aware that visitor volunteers often create more work for the permanent staff and invent 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 excellent 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 accomplish quicker and more effectively. Afternoon volunteers usually require more work than benefits. If you are going to offer your time, try to give as much time as possible so 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 immediately. One of the more challenging aspects of giving is that it usually pans out differently than expected. A day, week, or month will not likely change the world or a community. Remember that many obstacles are below the surface, including bureaucracy and cultural biases, that NGOs must negotiate. Do not expect them to be able to help you alter the course of history or solve 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 thriving industries, it can often be deceptive, producing harmful and exploitive results rather than helping before choosing an organization, especially one you must pay to assist, take a little time to find out who you are supporting. You do not want to volunteer and harm the community you intend 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 making everyone's goals more straightforward to reach. Sometimes, we forget the little things that burden another's daily schedule, even when eager to pitch in. Sometimes, to help meaningfully, you must wait for your time: Things other than you are 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 assistance, but you also want a good time. You are entitled to that. However, if an NGO is counting on your promised contribution, following through on a commitment actually helps where you intend to help. It would be better not to volunteer than to do it inconsistently.

Truly, it is beautiful that so many people want to help, and 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. Still, the growing number of people spending their free time and money traveling for charity says otherwise. The onus now becomes on utilizing 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 earned an MFA in creative writing. He has lived, worked, and/or volunteered in seven countries, traveling through nearly 40 countries. His many interests include permaculture, veganism, and ways to live sustainably.

Related Topics
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