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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine July/August 2000

Why Pay to Volunteer Abroad? What are the Benefits?

Volcanoes in the background in Nicaragua
Volcanoes in the background in Nicaragua.

There was a time when I fully shared the thinly veiled suspicion behind this frequently asked question. At a time when some young people have sought-after skills in the job market, or wish to build their resume through an career-oriented internship, it is easy to understand a student's reluctance to pay to volunteer. One of the most common requests from my advisees is for assistance finding volunteer opportunities in developing countries, so the issue of why one should pay for placement in a volunteer internship comes up again and again. It would be easy to simply explain that the placement organizations have certain overhead costs. But instead I try to educate them about the realities of short-term volunteer work that I have learned from experience.

Last summer I was a volunteer in Nicaragua for six weeks. The year before that (after Hurricane Mitch), I worked to send medical supplies and other aid to the needy throughout Central America with community groups and Central Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area. I found my niche as an organizer, information resource, and fundraiser, and I felt that I was making the best contribution I could.

I lacked technical knowledge and experience providing aid to victims of natural disasters and feared I would be more a hindrance than a help if I went to Central America then. I did, however, make plans to spend the summer as a volunteer in Nicaragua, after the worst of the crisis had passed. I wanted to use a Spanish language school as a base so I could improve my Spanish, benefit from a homestay, and also have an established connection with the local community. I felt I was experienced and resourceful enough to arrange a volunteer internship on my own and imagined I could save a lot of money with the extra effort. I also wanted to be completely independent of any political or religious affiliation that might influence my experience.

Using the Internet, I searched for nongovernmental development organizations seeking volunteers. Esteli, the third largest city in Nicaragua, has two Spanish language schools, numerous nongovernmental organizations associated with the women's movement, and a long history of contributions by international volunteers. The organization seemed to offer the potential to work with a variety of community issues: domestic violence, street children, and hurricane recovery efforts. After one phone call and limited email correspondence with the organization, I committed to spending the summer working with them, hoping to learn and to contribute.

When I arrived in Nicaragua, the organization I had planned to work with had fallen victim to a lack of funding and interference from government bureaucracy. However, determined to make good use of my time in Esteli, I studied Spanish in the mornings and in the afternoons worked with members of the community in development projects and political and social action groups.

The Importance of Continuity in Volunteering

Overall, it was a powerful learning experience. But having learned the hard way that the kind of relationship you envision cannot always be established in a short period of time, I now encourage everyone I talk to about volunteer internships to go through a well-established placement organization. Organizations establish long-term relationships with community groups and help compensate them for the time they spend mentoring volunteers. This is particularly important in poor, grass-roots settings.

In Nicaragua, I often heard the comment that "volunteers come and go" without apparent regard for the importance of long-term, sustainable development. I also learned that volunteers are sometimes "more a burden than an asset" to many organizations because of their lack of technical knowledge, language skills, and cultural sensitivity. Yet volunteer programs do benefit the host country's economy, promote positive values, enrich lives, and serve the important purpose of strengthening the people-to-people ties that have proven such a powerful instrument of international mutual understanding. Placement organizations have invested the necessary time, patience, and resources needed to build trust and ensure safe and appropriate placements for volunteers.

The Benefits of Volunteer Organizations

While going through an organized program can also have its pitfalls the benefits include:

  • Orientation. This usually includes important predeparture reading material as well as on-site orientation on local culture, history, and customs.

  • Language and technical training.

  • Arranged accommodations. A supportive and caring homestay environment provides an important connection to the culture and a first-hand view of social and political events in country.

  • A Safety Net. Staff are there to provide logistical and emotional support.

  • Clear Expectations. The volunteer's responsibilities are clear and well-defined.

  • Affordability. When you calculate the difference between traveling to a country on your own and the cost of participating in a program, you might be surprised by how little the difference is. Of course, many people successfully arrange their own volunteer internships. But in virtually every case, those who come away with a satisfying experience have strong ties in the host country as well as technical experience or specialized skills in areas such as medicine, teaching English, construction, and agriculture. Even with an organization, there is no guarantee that the experience will be 100 percent trouble-free. Those who want such guarantees should probably consider a vacation on a cruise ship.

My advice to the would-be volunteer with good intentions, great organizational skills, and a real interest in international development and cross-cultural education is to allow an experienced organization to channel that energy, intelligence, good intentions into an established internship program.

LE ANN JOY ADAM worked as the Overseas Resource Coordinator at Stanford University.

Related Topics
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Work Abroad Advisor
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How to Evaluate International Volunteer Programs and Organizations
Making a Difference: Volunteering and Education Abroad
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