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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

Arrival

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.

Venice sightseeing

Adjusting

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.

Accommodation

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.

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Free Time

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.

Experience

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?

Hi Five for international volunteers.

Impact

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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Megan is an Australian Journalist and award-winning travel writer who has been blogging since 2007. Her husband Mike is the American naturalist and wildlife photographer behind Waking Up Wild; an online magazine dedicated to opening your eyes to the wonders of the wild & natural world.

Having visited 50+ countries across all seven continents, Megan’s travels focus on cultural immersion, authentic discovery and incredible journeys. She has a strong passion for ecotourism, and aims to promote responsible travel experiences.

    

    22 Comments

  1. I was a volunteer high-school math teacher for two years in rural Africa. No electricity or running water, and it was before cell-phone coverage (let alone Internet). All transportation was public–I didn’t have a car or motorbike (or bicycle–it was frowned upon for women where I lived and I had to respect that). I didn’t go with any expectations of comfort, beyond taking a battery-operated tape deck.
    Any volunteer makes a big impact, but not always in the way they think. For unskilled labor, no–usually the countries where these projects take place there’s a huge pool of unskilled labor. So you’re just being free unskilled labor, which actually kind of hurts the broader community, even if free labor helps the specific project.
    The impact, though, isn’t how many bricks you mortar. It’s your contacts with the community and your example. Are you interested in the local culture and people? Are you friendly? Are you hard-working? Are you honest? Those are the things that make an impact locally. For people who don’t have the means to travel, tourists (including volunteers) are their introduction to the wider world.
    When you return home is when you have an even bigger impact. You have first-hand experience and can educate other people about what life is like in another country. You can advocate to your elected officials in favor of aid.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment and sharing your insights. It sounds like a life changing experience having the opportunity to teach for so long in rural Africa.

      Very good point on the unskilled labor, I do think that one of the great advantages of going into a project with a skill is that you’re able to (hopefully) at the same time share your knowledge and expertise with members of the local community who are eager and willing to learn, and train them so the whole community can benefit long term.

      I love your point about the impact – I think we automatically assume impact will come from the physical work, whether it’s a bus station, or a water well, but you’re right that there’s a whole separate level of impact in your interactions with the local community, and in introducing new perspectives, ideas etc that can broaden their knowledge and education, and vice versa when you take their experiences and perspectives home with you like you have said.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. I’d get super clear before volunteering anywhere Meg to ensure I am empowering people and not enabling them. If you want to genuinely aid humanity, volunteer to ensure that people do not need volunteers down the road. Focus on allowing people to be self-sustaining if you want to make the ultimate difference. Then maybe these folks will be volunteering in your home country down the road.

    • Absolutely Ryan, I totally agree re your sentiments about empowering communities and making sure the work done results in long lasting and sustainable change 🙂

  3. This is incredibly helpful, thankyou.

    • You’re welcome Brianna, glad the post was helpful 🙂

  4. Anther question to always ask is where your money goes too. Unfortunately there are many volunteer organizations now who only care about profit, and the larger impact suffers as a result. Organizations who aren’t transparent with this information should be avoided.

    • Absolutely Racheal, it’s very important to be realistic about the costs involved, and aware of exactly what they’re going towards. A great question to ask of every placement you consider 🙂

  5. Really is so important nowadays to make sure you’re actually making a difference. It’s true where you mention that individuals may not actually see the impact they make, but asking questions about the bigger picture even if you’re there on a shorter program goes a long way to understanding what you’re contributing too. In this sense too, there’s never anything wrong with staying in touch with the project leaders or other volunteers who might be staying longer than you for updates as to how everything’s going after you’ve returned home. I have a lot of continued interest in the projects I have contributed to over the years.

    • Great tips Nicholas, it’s fantastic to hear that you’re still taking a keen interest in your past projects even after having moved on to the next. Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

    • Can you Help to travel from Africa to Europe. If you have anything to ask, message me with rosezy715@gmail.com

  6. Such a practical post, going to make a check-list out of it. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome Melanie, I’m glad that we could help 🙂

  7. Great examples, how long do you think is a good amount of time to volunteer for?

    • Hi Gina, that’s really up to you. Some people volunteer for as little as two weeks, some people set themselves up permanently for two years. You’ll have to decide how much time you’re able / willing to commit, and what type of project – for instance, if you’re working with vulnerable children, they try to secure longer placements so that short term voluntourism doesn’t foster feelings of abandonment, but if you’re building a house, or contributing to animal research, two weeks might be enough to lend a helping hand.

      I hope that helps 🙂

  8. Also as important I think are the questions you need to ask yourself – what do you want to get out of the experience, how much time can you really commit, what are you really good at that you could contribute etc.

    • I totally agree Becki, thanks for sharing such great insight 🙂

  9. A lot of these questions like the arrival info, accommodation etc should be covered on a company’s website, so pretty easy to get answers to. The same questions can usually also be answered by people who’ve done the placement before. I did a placement last year and they had a facebook group for past volunteers which was really helpful.

    • Great tip Suhana, those who came before you would have such valuable insights into the experience and what to realistically expect. I love the idea of a Facebook group, such an easy way these days to connect 🙂

  10. I like to ask too how old an organization is and what their mission is. Since you’re committing a lot of time I think it’s really important to be completely on board with their values and goals.

    • Great advice Kathleen, thanks for sharing your insights 🙂

  11. Megan,

    As someone who has considered volunteer abroad opportunities – I did an interview with the Peace Corp, etc., I found your blog useful and inspiring.

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