Volunteering abroad is an exciting opportunity, but it can be nerve-wracking if it’s your first time. Managing your expectations is important in order to get the most out of the trip, and to do that you need to ask the right questions.
But beyond your own personal expectations, it’s also important that you have the right information to choose a project which makes a genuine difference to the community and society as a whole.
Any good volunteer organisation should be happy to answer anything you want to know, so don’t be shy about asking. And if the answers you’re getting back are evasive or not fully transparent, you may need to consider a new project.
We chatted with volunteer sending organisation Original Volunteers for insight into some of the most important questions you should ask before volunteering abroad.
Questions You Need to Ask Before Volunteering Abroad
To start with, you need to make sure you’re clear on travel arrangements. Will you be arranging your own flights? Do they have someone to help you with that, or a recommended airline?
A volunteer organisation that’s been around a while should be able to advise you about travel agents, airlines, and even flight times that previous volunteers have found affordable and successful.
Will someone be picking you up from the airport when you get there? If not, ask if someone can explain the public transport route and costs, or other popular ways for their volunteers to travel to the accommodation.
It’s normal to be apprehensive about settling in. Will there be an English-speaker who can help show you around? Will someone show you where you can buy groceries? Do you need to speak any of the local language to get by?
Finding out the answers to these kinds of questions will help you be aware of what the first few days will be like. You can also ask what an average day is like there for a volunteer to get an idea of what your schedule will be.
If the example schedule doesn’t line up to your needs – for example, if you need to go to bed much earlier than they’d expect you to – don’t be afraid to ask if there’s a different project that would accommodate that need better.
Ideally, you won’t be spending a lot of time in your accommodation as you’ll be out either working or exploring. But sleep is important, as is your leisure time, so you should find out if it will be suited to what you need.
Will you be sharing a room? Will you be in a dorm or a homestay? Is there electricity, running water, wi-fi? What are the washing facilities like? Is there a kitchen for you to cook in or are your meals provided?
Think about what you could put up with, what you can’t stand, and what is absolutely essential to you.
The most important part of your trip is, of course, volunteering. But you should have a few spare hours here and there to explore the host country, hang out with your fellow volunteers, go grocery shopping, and so on.
Ask the organisation how much free time you can expect to have, what activities are recommended, how much they cost, and whether anyone will be able to help you book trips and travel away from the project.
Some projects, locations and roles will be better served by someone with specific skills and experience, whereas others will benefit from having an eager pair of extra hands.
An adviser will be able to point you in the right direction for a project that suits your skills. But if you’re not sure you have any relevant experience, ask if the project you like the look of requires you to be experienced.
Will you be able to help without a specific skill? Will your skills be useful in a less obvious way? Will you have to opportunity to train or learn a new skill?
Possibly the most important aspect of managing your expectations is knowing what impact you will make. If you’re a short-term volunteer, this might not be anything you can see before you leave but contributes to the bigger picture.
Volunteer organisations should help you stay realistic about how much of an impact you’ll make. Ask them about the impact of the whole project too, not just socially but environmentally as well. See if they use sustainable materials, or if they’re open to suggestions for more sustainable practices.
Ask as Many Questions as You Can
These are just examples, so there may be many other things you want to know about and other areas to cover. Think about what you want to get out of your trip and try to find out as much as you can.
The more you ask, the more likely you’ll find your perfect match of a project.
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