Many approach volunteering abroad with the attitude that they are doing the organization a great favor by volunteering their time, and that any nonprofit would be glad for the extra help. They are shocked when nonprofits make the barriers to entry really high or, worse, charge you for volunteering for them.
I’m coming into my third year working in development aid for an NGO called The SOLD Project; I’d like to explain things from the organization’s perspective, sharing my experience to show you how best to present yourself if you want to work with similar organizations.
I’ll start by dispelling the myth that nonprofits should bend over backwards in gratitude for your offered time. Most people, for valid reasons like they need money to eat, cannot afford to donate much of their time. So they can only put in a few hours a month, or, if they want to work in developing regions like South East Asia, Africa, or Latin America, they will come out for a few weeks or a few months, ready to go pedal to the metal…and then leave.
For example, many travel here to Thailand with the intent to do something positive with their time and get an “authentic” experience, and look for a place they can volunteer for a few days, conveniently scheduled in between riding elephants and snorkelling. Most do so without any relevant work experience and training.
There are some organizations that have short-term volunteering programs, but they are few and far between. Consider this from an organization’s perspective: What business do you know would accept an untrained employee who comes and goes as he pleases?
Short of unskilled duties like cleaning bathrooms and sweeping floors, the time and effort necessary to teach someone how to do a job puts a lot of strain on organizations whose staff are already over-burdened and under-paid. Meanwhile, the organization cannot assume there will always be enough volunteers to perform these functions, knowing the majority will soon leave.
Furthermore, most organizations are trying to serve people, environments, or animals that are already exploited or at-risk of exploitation, and are disadvantaged in often severe ways. These organizations have a responsibility and an obligation to protect their charges, including from well-meaning, but uninformed, volunteers.
For example, the organization I work for seeks to prevent children from being trafficked into prostitution. We can’t just accept any volunteer because we run the risk of exposing our kids to sexual predators and traffickers.
We also have to be very careful about the psychological and emotional well-being of our children, ensuring that their privacy is protected (which means we won’t be sharing their personal stories with fly-by-night visitors who might share the photo of “this poor victim child they helped” on Facebook or a blog and thus expose the child to potential predators), that they aren’t exposed to volunteers who behave — whether intentionally or not — in culturally inappropriate ways, and that we have given them a safe place to interact with foreigners, who almost assuredly will eventually leave them behind.
Any NGO serious about doing good will focus efforts on finding volunteers who are also serious about helping, and will do what they can to support these volunteers and keep them on board. NGOs will be exceedingly grateful if you can provide support in ways that are meaningful, rather than creating more work.
If you’re serious about wanting to work with an NGO abroad, here is how you can stand out from the crowd and ensure that you and the organization make a good fit.
Find an organization that suits your values.
What kind of work do you want to do? Where do you want to work? Does the organization do the kind of work you believe in, in a way you can whole-heartedly support? Not all organizations have a mission or approach you’ll agree with (in fact, some exploit and even abuse those they are “helping” to draw more guilt from Westerners). Do your research on the organization, then assess: What are their needs and goals and how can you serve them?
Use your skills and experience to find a fit in the organization.
“Find me something to do, preferably something where I can feel like I made a stupendous contribution…in three days.” No. Create your own job if you don’t already see a need listed in job openings.
When I approached The SOLD Project, I had just finished a Ph.D. in Political Science and the research I had done had given me knowledge, skills, and connections that could be useful in work that I did with them. I had a vision of how this lined up with what they were trying to achieve, so I put together a five-page proposal, complete with a proposed budget, and sent that with a CV and cover letter outlining my goals and relevant training / experience.
Know how you will feed, house, and transport yourself.
If you’re hoping to volunteer abroad for a sustained period of time, you’ll need to figure out how to house, transport, and feed yourself for the duration. I’m not a fan of organizations that charge you for working with them, even though I do understand the impetus. If they do charge, it should be because they are providing you with food and housing and are helping you sort out visas or other necessary documentation. In that case, the money is providing you with a little added convenience.
If you’re going to find your own housing and transportation, etc., the organization should be able to provide you with a reasonable estimate of local living costs. You can either try to get another part-time job near the NGO, or you can work and save up well in advance in anticipation of your time abroad.
Another option is to raise your own salary from friends, family, church, and community members. You can set up a donation page online or use social media to spread the word. Be clear with people how much money you’ll need to raise and what it’ll be going towards. Keep a list of who donated so you can thank them personally and keep them updated. This is a great way to show gratitude and make people feel like their money was well spent on you.
Take some time off for yourself to avoid burnout.
I recommend building in some vacation time for yourself (a reasonable amount – like one week out of six months, or two out of a year), and being upfront with your donors that you’ll be taking that time. When doing social work, it is common to experience burnout, so it’s important to have weekends off and holidays, just like a normal job. Another good reason to take that time is to have an opportunity to explore more of the country and culture you’re working in. It’ll provide greater context for understanding the populations you serve.
Anticipate your emotional needs.
Moving abroad can be intense, so try not to expect that you can just fly overseas and jump right into work. Include time to get over the jetlag and to get accustomed to your new home. Also, culture shock is real and often draining – even more so if you’re on an extended stay.
Try to anticipate what kind of a support system you’ll need to help you adjust and stay happy and healthy, whether it’s time to yourself, a network of friends and family you can call on, or some of your favorite things you’d like to have from home, even if it means paying extra charges on your luggage.
If you’ve found a good organization to work with, they’ll understand. Hopefully, you’ll be able to open up to other staff members who can give you advice and moral support. To be at your best when helping others, it is essential to first take care of your own needs.
Treat volunteering like a paying job.
Just because you’re doing unpaid work doesn’t mean you have an excuse to be unreliable. Many organizations become jaded with volunteers because often people say they plan to come out and help, and then they fall off the map. Treat volunteerism just like any other career opportunity. Be professional; who knows, the director of the nonprofit might just be well placed to write your next recommendation letter.
Doing social work abroad is challenging yet rewarding, and will provide you with experiences that cannot be found anywhere else.
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