10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Volunteering Abroad

Whether teaching English at a bilingual school in Argentina, volunteering at an AIDS clinic in Tanzania, or participating in a sustainable tourism seminar in Morocco, I believe in traveling with a purpose. Volunteering has always been an integral part of my travels. In fact, many times it has been the sole reason for my going abroad.

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In no way do I regret such trips, but there are things I wish I’d known before volunteering abroad. Here’s what I’ve learned from being in the field:

#1: I could have found a similar placement myself, for free.

In 2009, I went to teach English in Buenos Aires through Road2Argentina – an organization that arranges teaching placements as well as study abroad, Spanish courses and other programs in Argentina. I quickly realized that I could have eliminated the organization’s intermediary role and saved a lot of money. However, being new in town, I did appreciate the support network that the organization provided. It made me feel safe in a country I hadn’t yet been to.

Clearly, going through an organization has its costs and benefits, and all of them should be weighed against one another before you go. I welcome you to read more about the financial breakdown on my latest column for Transitions Abroad: “Why Pay to Volunteer?“. You might also be interested in reading about my particular experience with Road2Argentina.

#2: Not every volunteer program is right for everyone.

Some volunteers desire a 24-hour support network. Others, like me, prefer being more independent. Thinking carefully about such factors will ensure a more successful experience. Of course, don’t ever compromise your safety.

If you are considering volunteering abroad, check out the following resources:

  • Transitions Abroad: A comprehensive educational travel resource that features first-hand participant reports from volunteers who have returned from overseas.
  • Volunteer Abroad: A directory of over 17,000 opportunities abroad. You can search according to volunteer work categories, from archeology to refugee relief to microcredit initiatives. Note that unlike Transitions Abroad, this database does not include first-hand reports.
  • WOOFF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms): A global network of organizations linking volunteers with organic farmers.
  • Volunteer South America: Lists volunteer opportunities in South America, including mainly free and low-cost options.
  • Matador Change: A platform featuring regular articles on volunteering abroad. A useful example would be 10 Volunteer Opportunities For Free Travel
  • Adventure Travel Jobs: Another listing of volunteer opportunities worldwide, both paid and unpaid.
  • Last but not least, don’t limit yourself to online research. To get started on books about volunteering abroad, check out the list of Volunteer Abroad Print Resources at Transitions Abroad.

Footsteps © Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

#3: Upon completion, volunteering won’t guarantee a job, or a visa.

Countless are the volunteers who come abroad thinking they will get hired. Don’t lose track of the expiration date of your tourist visa.

But don’t see it as a one-way street either. If you really want to stay longer, inquire with your program to explore your options for getting a more permanent work permit. This may involve a trip to the embassy or two and filing some additional forms.

Overall, the key is to connect with local businesses and/or organizations while you are already on-site. Chances are much higher that they will hire you if you present yourself in-person.

#4: Nobody told me things would be that bad.

Sure, people always mention “culture shock.” But it is often once you see first-hand emaciated children sleeping on cars at night, that you realize what true poverty and famine really mean.

Consider reading about culture shock online. The University of Nebraska International Student Services, for example, offers some interesting questions for reflection on how to cope with foreign environments.

#5: I won’t change the world.

During my first volunteer work in Tanzania at age fifteen, I arrived with a grossly naive, idealized worldview. But the ravages of AIDS aren’t going to end because I helped out for three weeks.

Accepting this fact can take a while. Above all, one shouldn’t see it as a reason not to volunteer abroad. On the contrary, try to make a difference on a small scale. You may not be able to save every AIDS orphan worldwide, but helping a few is certainly possible. Accepting that big change starts small is the key.

The Eye © John Steven Fernandez

#6: Volunteering would make me feel useless.

Precisely because you can’t change the world in a day, helping out can be very depressing. Again, what’s important is not to get caught up in the bigger picture; instead, focus on the small differences you can make.

Coping with such extreme situations can be very difficult, and it is during times like these that a support network is greatly appreciated. Talking to your supervisors and fellow volunteers can help. It may take a while to assimilate to your surroundings, and you may not realize the full shock until you have returned home. Again, it is useful to talk about your feelings with a friend, family member or counselor.

#7: I am “only” a volunteer.

Particularly if you help out for a short period of time, people are reluctant to give you responsibilities. Even more so, they may not treat you with respect. You are just another “white tourist” visiting a poor country.

Trying your best to fit in with the local community can help. If you haven’t already done so, learn a few words of the local language. Take a course prior to arriving, either in-person or online. Virtual learning portals such as Livemocha have made it easier than ever to learn languages online.

#8: I’m not cut out for seeing extreme poverty and death.

If there’s one thing I learned from volunteering at an AIDS clinic, it’s that I could never be a doctor. Volunteering showed me that I’m more fragile than I thought I was.

#9: Volunteering can make you see sides of yourself you never knew.

Confrontations with extreme situations can make you feel vulnerable, cry, and break down. But teaching at a primary school was also the first time that I thought seriously about what it would be like to have children myself.

Getting to know oneself through exploring a foreign culture is part of the process. Be prepared to look within. I recently wrote about keeping a journal versus a blog. For these kinds of reflections, I recommend a journal to record your most intimate thoughts; it can be very beneficial in your journey of personal discovery.

#10: Despite everything, I would miss it afterwards.

Volunteering abroad is an experience that leaves an indelible imprint. Back at home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the AIDS orphans and all that I’d seen. Volunteering has become a life-long passion for me ever since.

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  2. I really appreciate this post. Volunteering abroad is such a challenging experience, and I resonate with many of these thoughts in my own volunteer abroad experiences. Thank you for your honesty and candidness. Hopefully this will help some future volunteers to think through things more thoroughly before they go.

  3. This is really interesting, thanks for sharing. I hadn’t ever thought about the ‘negative’ sides to volunteering or how it really makes you feel. I like the fact that you emphasize focusing on the smaller picture, perhaps we should apply this to all aspects of life. It sounds like you’ve had some great and life changing experiences volunteering, keep up the good work!

  4. Wow Isabel this is a great article that every person should read before they volunteer. My daughter volunteered in Africa and learned valuable lessons and made some amazing friends. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with everyone.

  5. You make some excellent points just volunteering isn’t enough. When you are a tourist sometimes they will see you as just some one visiting to help me YOURSELF feel good and then you are leaving. Though you can’t change the world by yourself every little bit helps.

  6. Volunteering fantastic, but don’t forget that it isn’t just about you, it’s also about the community you are there to help. It’s important to choose a placement that suits your interests, personality and requirements, but it’s equally, if not more, important to choose a placement that’s really making a difference and not just existing in order to make money from the likes of you. There are so many ways to verify an organisation’s integrity – if you ask the right questions everyone will get the most out of your volunteering placement.

    Visit http://www.travelopine.com for more information on ethical volunteering.

  7. There’s another little group that was left off this list: Peace Corps. Any thoughts on that?

  8. This post is 100% true for me. I lived an volunteered in Mozambique for 5 months last year and I’m still trying to process exactly what happened. its difficult because no one back home really understands. “she went to help in Africa, that’s so cute!” is what I always get. I feel so discouraged when try to reflect on my experiences and what I actually accomplished. in many ways I think volunteering abroad has a greater impact on the volunteer rather than the host community.
    Thanks for this post! I’m glad I’m not the only person who struggles with this

  9. I completely agree with you Isabel. If a volunteer program is not chosen carefully then it can always backfire. I have many friends left out with bitter experiences. But its not the same with me. I volunteered with a company called Gyanacharitra in India. The experience I had working with Gyanacharitra is worth cherishing through out my life. They worked at the grass root level helping the most deprived as much as possible. They even gave me the freedom to implement my own ideas in a field of my interest. I would just like to say that volunteering can be a great experience provided that you have chosen the right one.

    1. hello! i’m from Colombia, and i would love to be a volunteer in Gyanacharitra, i want to know about the experience there, i want to see some pics and how they help us too, how is the people there… etc, i just want to know everything about it :D i hope you can tell me something, thank you, bye!

  10. Nice List and you make some excellent points just volunteering isn’t enough. However, I think Volunteer World ist missing.

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