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How Volunteer Abroad Programs Work

A Conversation with Dianne Brause

A view of Jerusalem
A view of Jerusalem.

Transitions Abroad: In an article on, asked, "Why pay money to volunteer?" Could you summarize your views on the main advantages of going with a volunteer program (and paying a fee) rather than on your own?

Brause: The main advantage of an organized program is the buffering and screening, which often results in a better experience. Both the sending and the receiving groups have probably had some experience and have done some thinking about it.

But if you already have a strong connection where you want to go or you are invited to volunteer, then go for it! Those who successfully take off and let the spirit guide them to the right people and place are people who are at ease with travel and change and are very outgoing by nature.

TA: As a program leader, what do you tell participants to do to prepare for volunteering abroad?

Brause: I of course encourage people to get in shape and prepare to work hard. Be realistic about what you can do in a short time and pace yourself to keep healthy. Learning the language and customs is very important. Knowing the appropriate dress and body language is helpful for women especially. Assuming that Western feminism is understood or accepted in other countries can be a very big mistake. On the other hand, non-Westerners usually tend to be very forgiving.

TA: How do you select a travel company or companies to organize a group trip? Do you insist on local organizers? If so, how to you select them?

Brause: I want to know how long the travel company has been around, who they work with within the country, why they chose to work with the hosting agency, how they support the local people and NGOs, who to contact in the country for direct feedback, and what past volunteers say about their experience. Ask for a list of names and addresses of former volunteers. If you are using Western organizers, be sensitive to the "feeling tone" in their interactions with the local people.

TA: What are the most important issues to consider when planning a volunteer experience?

Brause: Good questions to ask yourself: What are your underlying motivations and expectations? Is it likely they can be met? Are they truly of benefit (or at least harmless) to the host people, culture, and environment? Do your hosts really want you there? Will you be able to "go with the flow" if the experience is totally different from what you expected?

TA: Since there are an infinite number of places in the world where volunteers could do some good-or that could do some good for volunteers-how choose one?

Brause: Follow your heart and intuition. Good or harm can be done anywhere in the world. If you feel drawn to a particular area, consider why and decide if that makes sense. Just be warned that going to a new part of the world, especially as a volunteer working alongside real people, will change you for the rest of your life. So try to estimate the speed and amount of change you are ready to encounter. Each place I have visited, starting with my Peace Corps experience, has changed my consciousness and future choices and actions in the world. I tend to stay with one particular region or culture for a number of years before flitting off to another area of the world so that I can become more deeply grounded in the culture and language and thus more likely to actually be helpful.

TA: What have you found to be the most common misconceptions about volunteering?

Brause: Thinking that you are going to "save" others and that your contribution will necessarily have a positive impact and will be seen for what you think it is. Accomplishing anything specific may not be the point-especially for the hosts. Perhaps just being there is your gift. No matter how sincere you may be, many people will misunderstand your motives: an act of pure altruism is fairly suspect everywhere. Volunteering can be as varied and creative as you make it. What are your unique interests and skills? Likely someone in the world needs what you have to offer.

TA: We often hear that short-term programs are a drain on the community. What guidelines can you offer about duration? What other sort baseline minimum conditions would you set for a program?

Brause: If you are part of a group, hopefully the leaders will have figured this out. If you are going on your own, I would suggest contacting the hosts as far in advance as possible to try to get a sense of their needs. If possible, set up a fairly short trial period (one day to one week) to see if more time seems valuable to both parties. It would be wise to have scouted out at least one other alternative where you can easily and safely go if things aren't really working out the way you had both expected.

You make a difference. It really depends on the right match. Sometimes that happens by chance, and sometimes it takes lots of research and false starts. In many years of traveling throughout the world in lots of different circumstances and volunteer capacities, I have almost always had incredibly positive and life-affirming experiences. When there have been low points, I have usually played a part in creating them. I have always returned home in one piece-with a much greater appreciation for the world, its peoples, and its incredible beauty!

More by the Diane Brause
Volunteer Vacations Can Change Your Life
Ecotourism Guidelines: Choosing an Organization

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