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Making the decision to volunteer abroad

So hopefully you now know a little more about what international volunteerism is, why it's important, where and how individuals volunteer, and strategies for an ethical experience. Now it's time to decide if it's for you…

Here are some questions to ask before taking the plunge:

  1. Have you volunteered locally? If not, then definitely start here. Get your feet wet as a volunteer in your own backyard by giving time to local organizations, issues, and causes. Consider volunteering in an area similar to what you'd like to do abroad; for example, if you're looking to help build infrastructure overseas, try volunteering with Habitat for Humanity or a similar organization locally. The important thing is to be comfortable with your role as a volunteer and understand what to expect from the experience.
  2. Have you considered volunteering somewhere else in your own country? Another option to consider before deciding to go abroad is volunteering somewhere else within your own country. Traveling to another region, province, state, or city can provide you with the chance to experience new cultures and volunteer on unfamiliar terrain, all while already speaking the language (or learning additional languages if your country is multilingual) and knowing the currency. Plus it will likely be more affordable to get there. Overall, volunteering somewhere else in your own country can be a great interim option if you're not quite ready to volunteer abroad.
  3. Why do you want to volunteer abroad? Having considered questions 1 and 2, it's now time to explore your motivation for volunteering in another country. What fuels and inspires you? Why volunteering and not just straight-up travel or vacation? After all, your volunteer responsibilities may very well be hard work and you could always garner the benefits of international travel—adventure, cultural exchange, new places and experiences—by vacationing instead. Why spend your time, money, and energy on volunteering?

This exploration is by no means to dissuade you; instead, it's an exercise to get to the heart of your motivation, what you hope to learn and experience, offer and gain from volunteering. Do you want to learn new skills specific to international volunteerism, like immersing yourself in a foreign community in order to learn a new language or exploring a career in international development work? Are you motivated by a desire to share your knowledge and expertise to assist a community or advance a cause or issue? Is your motivation rooted in a passion for environmental conservation, the empowerment of women, the promotion of educational opportunities, or the prevention and treatment of disease? Do you seek greater cultural understanding by volunteering side by side with fellow citizens from around the globe or serving a role in international peacekeeping and diplomacy? Do you need a break from your life and/or career and are looking for a structured way to do good while you figure out your next steps?

Consider using this great worksheet by Comhlamh Volunteering Options to assess your motivations.

Also, think about your personality and lifestyle. Are you the type that can be flexible and adapt to what might be very different circumstances than you expected? Are you open to learning and being out of your element? Make sure you have a good idea of the environment in which you flourish as well as where you would feel stifled; for example, if you are someone who needs significant periods of time alone to feel centered, a volunteer position working and living as a team might not be ideal.

For more ideal personality traits of international volunteers, check out this list developed by the University of Michigan's International Center. Also, consider some of the questions on this personal assessment list by VolunTourism.org.

Finally, if you haven't already, be sure to explore our section on the ethics of international volunteerism, including how to go into your volunteer experience with realistic expectations.

  1. Who's going? Some people love to travel alone; others need or prefer the company of others, either friends, family, or fellow travelers they meet along the way. While you're likely to volunteer with others, you'll need to decide if you want to head off on this new adventure on your own or whether you want friends, partners and significant others, family members, or others to come along. If it's the latter, everyone who decides to go will need to determine their motivations, ideas, and preferences for international service.
  2. Figuring out the What, Where, and When. Depending on your interests, the next three questions can be asked in varying order. For example, if you know that you're interested in teaching English for the summer, your What and When are already figured out, leaving you to decide Where in the world to go. Alternatively, you could have your heart set on two weeks in Ecuador, but not know which two weeks or what you'd like to do once you get there.

Here are some tips for figuring out the What, Where, and When of your time abroad:

What do I want to do?
The first step towards figuring out what you'd like to do as a volunteer abroad is to assess your skills and interests. What are you good at? What do you enjoy? Where do you have experience? What do you hope to learn? Keep in mind that these skills aren't just what you might list on your CV or résumé but also qualities like strong interpersonal skills, being at ease with public speaking, adeptness at photography or drawing, etc.

The next step is to decide how you want to engage your skills and interests in international service. If you're a lawyer, do you want to assist with the legal capacity of a foreign NGO? Or would you really rather just pick up a hammer and spend a few days or weeks assisting with the building of a playground or school? Are you looking to volunteer directly with citizens in foreign communities? Or are you more interested in behind-the-scenes work like capacity development? Deciding how you want to use your unique skills, whether they are linked to your career or just something you happen to be good at, will help you determine what type of volunteer opportunities to seek (for more information on volunteer opportunities that require specific skills and experience, see our section on Skilled Volunteering).

Where do I want to go?
All of us are drawn to different parts of the world. So this should be a fairly easy question for you to explore. Where have you always wanted to go? Is there a country or region that fascinates you? Try to come up with a list of five to ten countries that you'd most like to visit.

Once you have your short list of locations, match them up with your skills and interests. Is what you have to offer relevant to the location? This may take a bit of research on your part; for example, if your passion is bicycles as a primary mode of transportation, do some reading to learn more about if and how bicycles are used in that part of the world. If your number one location is a place where bicycles are inaccessible or unsuitable for the terrain, you'll need to reassess.

Similarly, keep in mind that there may be physical, political, or cultural restrictions in certain parts of the world based on your gender identity, religion, race/ethnicity, age, nationality, physical mobility, or sexual orientation. In some places, these restrictions will prevent you from volunteering altogether. In others, it may be possible to volunteer but unsafe or even just unwise. Spend some time researching the countries on your list to determine if any potential restrictions might pertain to you. Also, be sure to talk to former volunteers about their experiences there.

In addition, if your issue area or cause is politically volatile, you'll need to assess if it (a) would be safe for you to volunteer there and (b) would be appropriate for a foreigner to get involved. For example, if you're interested in advocating for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered citizens in a country with a history of violence towards those of non-heterosexual orientation, is it safe for you to get involved? Would your involvement help cast an international spotlight on the issue area and cause? Or would it distract from and possibly disempower locals? For help in considering these questions, read our section on the ethics of international volunteerism and, again, research your country or region of choice and talk to former volunteers.

Finally, what might seem like a no-brainer but could easily be overlooked is the question of climate. If you're not a hot weather person, then perhaps locations near the equator are not for you. And if monsoon conditions sound miserable, you might not want your volunteer abroad experience to coincide with a region's rainy season. Similarly, be sure to consider if certain climates tend to affect your health; for example, if smog makes your allergies or asthma flare up, locations with significant air pollution might not be the best choice.

When do I want to go?
This is the area where you might not have as much control over your preferences: if you're in school, your options might be either summer or winter/spring breaks (unless you plan to take a gap year); if you're working full-time, you might be limited to available vacation time, fitting your volunteer abroad experience into both your personal and professional calendars. Some people can volunteer indefinitely; others have only a week.

Whatever your time limitations, decide how much of that window you'd like to use volunteering abroad. Do you plan to travel while you're overseas? How will you balance the two, making sure you have enough time for both while remaining fair to the community and organization with which you'll serve? Do you plan to be gone long enough that you should sell or rent your house or give up your apartment? We'll get into the details of taking care of your life at home in our section on Getting Ready to Go later on. However, start thinking about these issues now as they will help you determine how long to go abroad.

Finally, consider the advice of the authors of Lonely Planet's guide "Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World":

"…as a general rule of thumb, the shorter the volunteer placement, the more specific the project needs to be. Also, it is the accepted view that the longer the volunteer placement, the better it is for both you and the host programme. This makes total sense if you think about your volunteer placement as a new job (which, to all intents and purposes, it is). How useful are you in the first few months of starting a new job? Doesn't it take time to learn the ropes, to get to know everyone and to become familiar with new systems?" (p. 29)

So, in general, the longer you can stay as a volunteer, the better. But don't despair if you're one of the many who volunteer for a few days or weeks: if you do your research to identify an ethical opportunity to serve, you can be part of a continuum of volunteers, one of thousands of others from around the globe giving whatever time they can to help make a difference.