Tips for Volunteering Abroad
The interesting thing about opinions is - everyone has them! And that's definitely true for volunteering abroad. Since the practice has become so popular in the past few decades, there are going to be tons and tons of people clamoring to share their own experiences, and tell you things they wish they'd heard before they'd volunteered overseas.
The best way to get a clear picture of what to expect from a volunteer experience is to speak with someone who has completed the same or similar program.
Returned Volunteer Q&A
If you don't have your own former volunteer handy, or you just want to hear some first-hand advice as you're trying to make a decision about your volunteer abroad job search, we've got the answer for you. We compiled some questions and answers from a former volunteer that might help ease some of your worries about going abroad, and get your even more excited about volunteering overseas.
Q: What kind of volunteer overseas job did you have? How long did you live abroad?
A: I worked with a small nonprofit volunteer organization in Santiago, Chile. I went with the intention of staying months, and lived and worked in Chile for almost two years.
Q: Why did you make the decision to volunteer overseas?
A: I came to a point where I was working full-time, and felt like I was starting to build a career in the nonprofit sector. But I still wanted to travel, learn a second language, and hang out with kids for a while before I started down a set career path. I made the decision to volunteer at that point in my life because it seemed like now or never. However, thinking about it now, I don't think that it's ever too late to volunteer abroad.
Did you Know? There is no such thing as a stupid question to as a former international volunteer!
Q: How did you choose your volunteer overseas job?
A: I chose the organization because I was interested in working with a relatively new and growing organization that had a main office in Santiago. I was really taken with the founder's stories (Harvard grad that traveled abroad and decided to start an organization that connects available volunteers with orphanages that needed extra help). I considered the Peace Corps opportunities, but didn't think I was ready for the two year commitment (I was wrong). I also thought about some of the paid volunteer services like CCS and United Planet, but felt like I needed more flexibility in length of stay and type of work.
Q: How did you pay for volunteering abroad?
A: I funded my trip lots of ways. I didn't have to pay a fee to my host organization, but I had to cover all expenses. I also committed to fundraising $5,000 to the organization before I arrive (I held a cocktail event and asked friends and family for donations).
The first thing I did for my own expenses was make a budget. There's a really great template on the WorldTeach website. I looked into conversion rates in Chile so I knew exactly how much money I would need. I talked to people about frequent flyer miles, and came out with a free round-trip ticket to Santiago. I opted to live in the organization's volunteer house, so I knew exactly what the expenses would be. I had some savings, and spent most of that. Since I stayed longer that I expected, I did have to ask my parents for money, and eventually I got a part-time job at a youth hostel to help fund my stay.
I also send letters to Kiwanis International, Rotary International, my local university and some travel stores to try to get both monetary and in-kind donations (like a travel backpack, free storage for my apartment furniture in the U.S., etc.). While most places said know, I was able to scrape together additional donations that help fund the trip.
Q: What did you do during your trip that you would have done differently?
A: I definitely would have taken more Spanish tutoring before I left - I thought it would be much simpler to learn the language than it was. I also wish I had opted for a homestay instead of living with other volunteers. I am glad to have made great friends, but I feel like I could have used time at home to practice Spanish and learn more about Chilean customs.
Q: What advice do you have for prospective overseas volunteer?
A: My biggest piece of advice is, don't be afraid to embrace the fact that you're an outsider. If you're in a new place, you are going to make mistakes and you are going to look out of place. Own it! Use your novelty to your advantage, be nice to people and try your best to communicate and learn the language. A little effort goes a long way for a foreigner trying to find their comfort zone. I saw many volunteers (including myself) feeling really self-conscious and closing themselves off because they were afraid of looking stupid. But the ones that put themselves out there definitely got their bearings more quickly - and had much more fun doing it.
Read on for even more tips!
- Talking with former overseas volunteers is the best way to get solid advice about jobs.
- There are lots of alternative ways to find funding for your volunteer abroad trip - from community organizations to in-kind donations from local businesses.
- Leaving your self-consciousness at the door is the best way to start enjoying your volunteer job.