Volunteering Abroad – 11 things you need to know

Reader's Digest Editors

11 Important Adult Gap Year Questions that will answer everything you need to know about volunteering abroad

1.     When is the best time to volunteer?

There is no best time to volunteer and most volunteer programmes run all year round. The main question will be climate and volunteer numbers. Ask when the busier and quieter periods are if you would like more or less company to volunteer alongside. Summer months will be popular with students and teachers, whereas between October and May you should expect to share your experience with maturer people of all ages and the self-employed whose business might be slow during winter months. It is not uncommon for the average age on a volunteer project in January to be between 40 and 70. You may also want to check whether it will be summer or winter at your destination, July is the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere so you will need to pay a hat and layers.

2.     Do I need experience?

Unless you would like to volunteer in a hospital, you probably won’t need any experience. Many projects need help playing with the children, building new classrooms and mending rooms which are falling down, jobs where the volunteers can get stuck in for a week and can easily be taken over by another volunteer once they’ve left. These are often jobs which wouldn’t get done unless volunteers help.

3.     Are there other volunteers my age?

Don’t be put off by group photos of students volunteering, younger volunteers tend to jump in front of the camera more and share their photos online, but many organisations welcome mature volunteers. There are a small number of organisations which create stand-alone programmes just for mature volunteers. Call an organisation and ask for their demographics for the time of year you would like to travel.

Most programmes between October and Spring with any organisation you’ll find a mixture of different ages. You will find career breakers with a couple of months off work to travel, retirees and self-employed individuals who have a gap in their schedule.  

4.     Is volunteering abroad safe?

No reputable organisation would send volunteers anywhere unsafe. It is not in an organisations interests to send volunteers to unsafe locations, think of the outrage in the media and the phone calls from worried family. If you are worried that your preferred destination may be unsafe, detailed and up to date travel advice can be found on the UK Government's Foreign and Commonwealth's official website, also known as the FCO. Do bear in mind, when researching safety at your destination that these days nearly every country in the world includes a mention of potential terror attacks and Europe is on higher alert than many African countries.

5.     Can I volunteer doing different things, or just one?

Most sending organisations prefer volunteers to be in the same place going to the same placement throughout their stay. However each organisation does things differently, some programmes will allow volunteers to spend a week in a different area of work whilst another organisation provides a weekly schedule where the volunteer group is taken each day to different locations. If you have the time and budget, there is nothing to stop you from volunteering in one country and flying onto volunteer in another. Flights in Asia may only be £50 so why not chuck in another country before coming home. Do check you have all the visas you need before your trip if you are travelling to more than one country as you may not be able to pick up visas along the way.

6.     What If I don’t speak the language?

It’s a bit of a myth that you need to speak the local language to volunteer abroad. Providing there is someone locally who speaks both English and the local language who will be settling you in and supporting during your stay you should have no problems. Even for teaching, knowing the language won’t give you an advantage. It can even get in the way.  Often children will complain they don't want to practise their own language with their teacher who endlessly repeats 'hello' and 'what's your name?' They would rather learn how to say it in English!

Teaching young children is all about repetition, simple words said over and over using flashcards with no explanation needed so it will be extremely rare you will have to teach any grammar.  If you are teaching young adults, they’ll be more fluent already and have a great range of vocabulary. You will be able to speak naturally, albeit a little slower whilst explaining anything they do not understand. And you certainly won’t be teaching any grammar that needs fiddly explanations as most of the world want to learn spoken English first, the next local teacher can teach the grammar next.

7.     Why do I have to pay to volunteer?

The volunteering work itself is free but there will be associated costs to make your stay as smooth as possible. Programme fees will cover accommodation, support staff, housekeepers and often will help go towards the projects you volunteer at. 

Typical programme fees are in the region of £100-£600 per week excluding flights, visas, insurance, spending money and vaccinations. Cheaper organisations may offer basic accommodation and self-catering arrangements whilst more expensive programmes may offer private more comfortable rooms with en suite bathrooms in better off parts of town. 

Original Volunteers is one of a growing number of affordable sending-organisations, others to try include Workaway and HelpX.

 

8.     Will I be able to communicate with home?

Ask your volunteering programme if there is Wi-Fi in your accommodation or at the project you will be volunteering at. If there is no internet access at your accommodation, Internet cafes still exist in much of the world, many people cannot afford to have a computer and printers at home. Many people still rely on internet cafes for doing business. Many public places offer Wi-Fi too. Remember to install WhatsApp or Skype on phones and set up accounts before you go. 

9.     What should I bring?

There is no correct answer to this, it really depends what type of accommodation you will be staying, time of year and the type of volunteering you will be doing.

One common mistake is forgetting to take items which you will actually use to volunteering with. Too many volunteers pack their suitcases full of items to make their stay more comfortable and one off donations to their project. Do not forget that you will probably need resources for your volunteering when you are there. Most organisations will recommend you take practical items which you will actually use as often there are no resources locally. Often it will not be possible to rely on a cupboard full of supplies and tools.

When working with children:

·      Arts and craft activities are always very popular, they can be used in group and solo activities.

·      Sports equipment is great! Don’t forget the repair kits as the equipment may break easily, the children can get more use if they can repair it.

·      Teaching resources can be used in schools, worksheets from textbooks can be copied out onto the board or paper to be handed out.

If you’re joining a practical, conservation or manual project ask your organisation what to bring. You may want to take protective gloves or better quality paint brushes from home which won't leave their bristles all over freshly painted walls. 

10.  Will I be met at the airport on arrival?

Most programmes organise airport transfers for flexible arrival dates and flight times. If your organisation has fixed dates for everyone to arrive together and you cannot join them, check what their arrangements are if you arrive on a different day.

11.  What if I don’t like it?

Researching your programme and the country you are travelling to will help you get a better understanding and make sure you have chosen the correct programme, lowering the risk of not having a good time. 

Unlike a conventional holiday you can usually expect a little bit more support than from your average hotel manager when things go wrong. If you aren’t having a good time or you become unwell, the project coordinators will help you get to a doctor or back to the airport.