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Guidelines for International Volunteering

Guidelines for International Volunteering

Before you embark on your international volunteer opportunity, consider these guidelines to make the most of your journey (and be most effective to the communities you’re working with).

Learn about the place you’re visiting

Research the country's culture, history, current political and economic situation and the main religions and languages. The more you know, the more realistic your expectations will be and the more prepared you'll be to stave off the inevitable culture shock.

Many national governments and media outlets offer country descriptions:

It’s helpful and respectful to learn several basic phrases and words in the primary language of the country you’ll be traveling to. Even using the simplest words and phrases such as “Please” and “thank you” can show respect and demonstrate your openness to the local customs and culture.

You'll most likely be volunteering with a charitable organization, which may also be called an NGO (nongovernmental organizations), nonprofit organization, or voluntary organization. Spend some time learning about the general situation of NGOs in your host country. For example, can they operate freely or does the government restrict their activities? How are most organizations funded - by grants and donations or the government? Similarly, and related to the issue you'll be working on, learn more about the unique challenges faced in that particular country.

Knowing a bit more about how NGOs—and by proxy, their volunteers—are perceived, as well as the realities of working on their chosen cause or mission, will help you be better prepared for your experience. Also, look to see if the country you'll be traveling to has a national association of nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations as they'll likely be a great source for information on this topic.

Finally, consider participating in one or both of Unite for Sight's free online courses in Volunteer Ethics and Professionalism and Cultural Competency.

Getting ready to go

As soon as you know where you're going, check with the closest consulate or embassy to determine if you need an entry visa. There is often a lag-time of 30 - 60 days to secure a visa. If you're going with a volunteer-sending organization, ask the staff if they provide assistance with this process.

Once in-country, register with your own country's embassy so they can contact you in emergency situations. Most national governments offer a travel advice website where you can learn more about their traveler registration process and what to do should you run into trouble abroad. Here are examples of such sites:

Create a plan for your first day abroad—from leaving your home to connecting with your host organization (if you have found the volunteer opportunity in advance). The more details you arrange in advance, the less stressful your arrival will be. 

Your life at home

The steps you'll need to take to keep things humming along at home while you are off in another country will vary quite a bit depending on how long you'll be gone. For example, if you'll only be gone a few weeks, you may just need to prepay some bills, put a hold on your mail, and arrange for someone to water the plants or house your pets.

If you'll be gone for a longer term, you may want to consider renting or subletting your home. You'll need to arrange to make rent or mortgage payments from abroad as well as have someone check on things periodically (nothing like a burst water pipe or broken window to ruin your homecoming). You'll also need to make arrangements for paying your bills (automatic withdrawal payments or prepaying are good options), seeking deferral on student loans, storing or lending out belongings (including your car), and selecting someone to serve as a surrogate pet owner.

Set up a support network at home. Send a copy of your travel itinerary and contact information to a handful of close friends or family and leave a copy of your passport with someone you trust.

Your health

In order to be an effective volunteer, you'll need to take good care of your health. This means getting any necessary vaccinations, ensuring that you have medical coverage abroad and taking with you enough needed medical supplies (insulin, prescription drugs, etc.). For more information on taking care of your health, visit International Travel and Health (WHO).

Between the different diets and culture shock, your body will likely be going through some pretty dramatic changes. If possible, incorporate some of the foods you'll be eating abroad into your diet before you leave. And if you are a vegetarian or vegan, research what your dietary options will be.

Outline a few strategies for how you might deal with culture shock, and check out this article for even more information. If you regularly see a mental health provider, it's a good idea to jointly develop strategies to help manage transition abroad.

Check to see if emergency services are covered by your health or travel insurance. Whatever the case, be clear on what to do should you run into trouble abroad.

Security and Safety

Explore issues of security regarding foreign visitors. For example, is it safe for foreigners to travel there? Are any particular nationalities targeted for crime or violence? Be sure to read any existing travel warnings posted by your government.

Come up with an emergency exit plan. This can be following the procedures of your volunteer-sending organization (most reputable programs will have them) as well as your home country's embassy (again, a good reason to register with them) or simply developing your own exit strategy.

Closely guard your personal information; this should include keeping your legal and financial documents in a safe, preferably locked, place while abroad as well as choosing to use payment options that protect your financial information (e.g. credit cards, Western Union, PayPal) when paying volunteer program fees in advance.

Personal Finances Abroad

Carry some local currency with you (you can exchange it at a bank before leaving your home country, exchange upon arrival, or withdraw from a local bank machine; be sure to confirm that your ATM card will work abroad as some countries have different limits for PIN lengths); traveler's checks are also a safe option but may be difficult to use in rural areas. Also, most credit cards provide protection against theft. Notify your bank and credit card companies that you'll be traveling abroad or they may interpret your new international activity as a stolen card and put a freeze on your account (requiring a cumbersome phone call to unfreeze).

If you'll be gone for a long period of time, consider opening a joint bank account with a trusted family member (or giving this person power of attorney over your existing account). This will allow your relative to make deposits, write checks, and perform other maintenance on your bank account while you're away. Even if your bank has branches in the country where you'll be, don't count on being able to do many of these activities yourself—few global banks treat customers with accounts from other countries the same way they treat local clients.

What to pack

A good rule of thumb is to pack lightly. You'll need to carry things around as you travel and, especially if you're doing outdoor volunteer work, your clothing may look worse for wear by the time you're done. Check the expected climate for your time abroad and pack accordingly. Pack a few comfort items that might be hard to find abroad—whether it's your favorite hand lotion or breakfast cereal—as they can sometimes be invaluable as you navigate the ups and downs of culture shock.

Try to keep to a minimum—or even possibly just leave at home—valuable items like jewelry and expensive electronics. Not only will these make you a target for theft but, if you're volunteering in an economically depressed area, they can serve to visually exacerbate the difference between the haves and have-nots. Similarly, try not to bring too many items that will just end up in the trash (e.g. individually or plastic-wrapped items). Having a small environmental footprint is another way of being a good partner abroad.

For suggestions on what to bring and what to leave at home, check out JourneyWoman (tips and suggestions from women around the globe on topics like what to wear abroad).

As a note, if you’re the self-reflecting type, spend some time writing down your goals for your volunteer experience and create a list of places you'd like to see, sites you'd like to visit, and experiences you'd like to take part in.

In-country do's and don’ts

Collect stories, ask questions, and learn from both locals and fellow volunteers; be respectfully proactive in case they are hesitant to approach you. Be open to new things—new foods, new customs, new music, new styles of dress.

Be mindful that your actions can have an impact on both the current community and future residents and international volunteers (e.g. bring photos instead of gifts, try to limit your environmental footprint, etc.). Take photographs (remember to ask permission as some people may not wish to be photographed and photographing some sites, especially those of religious significance, might be considered offensive or disrespectful while photographing military and police installations may be flatly illegal).

Stay in touch with friends and family—start a blog, send emails and letters, consider writing a column for a local newspaper. Create an in-country network of support; this is especially important if you've gone abroad solo without the umbrella protection of a volunteer-sending organization. And allow yourself to feel a bit homesick and out of sorts.

Learn local phrases - at the very least “Please” and “Thank you” which can show respect and appreciation for your host community.

Take care of yourself. You may at times feel overwhelmed or overworked, so be sure to take time to center yourself—whether that's by writing a letter, finding a quiet place to read, meditating, or exercising.

You probably shouldn’t get too involved in politics or potentially explosive situations. Whether it's to avoid unintentionally disempowering local citizens or simply to stay safe, keep a low political profile. Also, don’t be too vocal with complaints. While you should always talk to your volunteer manager or other supervisor if you are unhappy with any aspect of your volunteer abroad experience, any negative opinions you might have of the community, cultural norms, or country could be considered very offensive to locals. Try to air those complaints that can't be readily addressed via your journal or discreet chats with fellow volunteers rather than public conversations.

Three rights of international volunteers

When you’re volunteering, there are some basic things you have a right to expect:

  • Feel valued. Whatever your volunteer task, you should feel that your time and contribution are valued.
  • Negotiate your volunteer role. Find yourself in a volunteer position that just isn't working for you? It’s OK to your volunteer manager or supervisor to discuss ways you might be able to shift your role or take on another project or position. And if you still can't find a good fit…
  • Leave. Not a decision to be made lightly, but if after talking to and working with your volunteer manager or supervisor, you still feel unhappy, unappreciated, or unsatisfied with your volunteer experience, it’s OK to leave. Ideally with notice.

Three responsibilities of international volunteers

  • Follow through on your obligations. Unless you are deeply unhappy with your situation, do what you say you'll do, whether it's honoring the volunteer role and schedule you agreed to, or providing ample notice if you're unable to perform your tasks or responsibilities.
  • Communicate your needs. Feel like your work isn't meaningful? Not what you thought you'd signed up for? Or just bored and ready for something else? Talk to your volunteer manager or supervisor, providing specifics about your dissatisfaction and ways to make it better. If you don't let them know that you're not satisfied they can't work with you to improve the situation.
  • Honor the organization's investment in you. While you may be donating your time, you are not a free resource to the organization. They’ve invested invaluable time—and probably also training, tools, and other resources—in supporting you.

Coming home after international volunteering

Don’t make promises you can't keep. As stated by Nicole Sheldon-Desjardins with Hostelling International, "whether it's to write every week, send money, [or] return in a year, while you are still there you may have the best intentions of keeping these promises, but when you return home and life picks up where you left off, it's easy to get caught up and find it hard to follow through."

After weeks, or possibly even months, of planning and anticipation, it may come as a surprise when your time as a volunteer abroad starts drawing to an end. As you start preparing to return to the life you left behind, take a few moments to reflect on the goals and motivations that inspired you to volunteer in the first place: do you feel like you accomplished what you'd hoped? Was your time abroad what you'd expected? What did you love? What did you hate? What might you do differently if or when you volunteer abroad again?

Prepare for some changes

Chances are you've been through a life-changing experience. Be ready for moments of culture shock. Employ many of the same open mind strategies you used when arriving in your host community. For example, if you hear someone saying something false or stereotypical about the part of the world you've just come from, see it as an opportunity to start a conversation. For more tips on dealing with re-entry and culture shock, check out Coming Home After Volunteering Overseas at TransitionsAbroad.com.

Some people who will almost definitely understand what you've experienced are fellow international volunteers. Be sure to find out how to stay or get in touch. Check out the closest branch of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to find similarly minded folks.

Finally, don't forget some of the nuts and bolts of returning home. Inform the institutions behind your credit cards, student loans, and other financial obligations that you've returned and schedule a medical appointment to make sure you didn't bring home any unwanted guests (e.g. viruses, rashes, or anything more serious).

Share your stories

In addition to family and friends, another great strategy for sharing your stories is to seek opportunities to write and speak in your community. Write letters to the editor of your local paper or see if they would be interested in writing a feature story on your time abroad. Get in touch with community groups, service clubs, and local schools to see if they'd be interested in having you as a guest speaker.

Also, be sure to share your experiences with others who are thinking of volunteering abroad. If you went with a volunteer-sending organization, let them know that you're happy to serve as a resource.

Stay involved and stay in touch

Having volunteered in a community abroad, there's a pretty good chance that you know quite a bit about the area, the organization you volunteered with, and the issue or cause they were addressing. With all that knowledge gained through on-the-ground action, it makes sense to stay involved from afar. So whether it's continuing to stay informed by following the news from your host region, volunteering with local organizations addressing the same types of issues (or even with local immigrants and expatriates from that part of the world), or engaging in advocacy and online volunteer projects from home, you can remain actively involved with your host community.

Translating your international experience into a career

Maybe you left a flourishing career to volunteer and are ready to step right back into it. Or, perhaps you took time off partly to reassess your professional path. Maybe you’re looking to start university or graduate studies, or you’re fresh out of school and just beginning to build your paid employment resume or CV. Wherever you are on this spectrum, you'll need to do some self-assessment to figure out where to go next.

Start by making a rough list of everything you learned during your time as a volunteer abroad. Include skills that you've both acquired and broadened. First, focus on skills of a physical or craft nature. Second, brainstorm those skills that are more social, interpersonal, or organizational in nature.

Be specific and detailed about what you've learned. This may be an ongoing list that you work on over a few days as you continue to review your trip and identify the different skills you were able to take away from the entire experience.

Next, brainstorm how you might be able to apply these different skills to specific careers you might be interested in exploring. The key concept here is the transferability of your new skills. How might your strengthened cultural competency be an asset to a social services agency? How might these same skills be applied at a multinational corporation? Would you be interested in working with local immigrants from the country you volunteered in? Spend some time thinking about your career goals and translate how the skills that you learned and broadened during your volunteer experience can also serve you in future endeavors.

A career in the international volunteerism field

Thinking about building a career in supporting international volunteers and host communities? With your on-the-ground experience, you should have a fairly good idea of what the work might be like. To get the full picture, though, be sure to set up a few informational interviews with staff members of volunteer-sending organizations or other volunteer abroad programs.

To learn more about informational interviews, as well as additional job search tools and resources, you may want to read this TransitionsAbroad.com article on working as a volunteer travel advisor.

Lastly, to learn more about volunteer management as a career path—whether working specifically with international volunteers or helping local citizens connect with organizations and issues in their own backyard—click here to visit Idealist's Volunteer Management Resource Center.

A career in international development or aid

With experience as an international volunteer, you're a significant step closer to building a career in international aid or development. Your next move should be to sit down with individuals doing this work to learn more about the day-to-day realities of a career in the field as well as to determine which skills, experience, education, or other requirements you might need to acquire. You might also want to read the articles on working in international aid or development by TransitionsAbroad.com.

Finally, once you're ready to begin your job search, be sure to check out the thousands of global nonprofit employment opportunities listed on Idealist.org as well as the diverse tools and resources offered in our Career Center.

Launching your career in another country?

As an experienced international volunteer, you're on your way towards launching your career in another country. Hopefully you used your time abroad not only to volunteer but also to strengthen your local networks, learn more about the nonprofit community, further develop your cultural competencies, and hone your language skills—all of which will assist you with your job search. And while, given your time spent in a specific community, it may be easiest to launch your career in the same area in which you served, it is possible to find paid employment elsewhere.

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