Home » An Expat Guide To Responsible Volunteering

An Expat Guide To Responsible Volunteering

There are a number of organizations overseas that offer volunteering opportunities, and there has been a rise in the level of interest from people who wish to do something worthwhile during their stay abroad. Volunteering can be a rewarding and life-changing experience, and also an opportunity to explore a different culture and become acquainted with the local people.Of course, many people who want to volunteer have concerns, which basically revolve around whether the work they do is really helpful or merely self-indulgent, or worse still, actually harmful. To help you along your journey, here is an expat guide to responsible volunteering.

Why volunteer?

Volunteering is a way of dedicating your time and assistance where it is needed. Volunteering options could range from visiting an old age home nearby to spending a year working with children in Cambodia. There is usually a host community involved in volunteer projects. These are the people who are involved in deciding to have volunteers in their community. They should be consulted at the start of a project and the volunteer placements must be taken forward based on their needs, which they themselves have identified. There is usually a local organization that takes care of the volunteering project and works with the local community. Some organizations may work with an organization that sources volunteers for the project, based in the home country or abroad.

It is important to assess your motivations when deciding to volunteer. The first step is to figure out why you want to do it. It usually stems from altruism as well as a desire for a kind of personal gain. Wishing to experience personal gain out of volunteering is completely natural, and many volunteers gain much more personally than they are able to contribute. However, it is helpful to carefully evaluate your motivations and have a balance between your own personal gain and what you want to give back.

Finding the right placement

Once you make up your mind to volunteer overseas, you need to choose the right placement. You can begin by exploring your interests. Your own basic needs must be considered. Some helpful questions you may want to think about are as follows.

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– What do you wish to gain from the volunteering experience? For instance, gaining experience that may be beneficial to your career plans.
– What are the skills or experience you can contribute?
– What kind of volunteering experience are you best suitable for?
– Do you wish to volunteer directly with local people?
– Do you prefer volunteering for organizations associated with the environment or wildlife?
– Do you wish to work on something practical with a definite end result?
– Are you looking for a long-term project?
– Do you prefer working with a team of volunteers?
– Do you prefer having a local project coordinator and support system?
– Would you be okay with being the only volunteer on a project?
– Would you be okay with working in an isolated area where there are no foreigners?
– What are your communication needs? For instance, how often do you require telephone reception or Internet access?
– Would you be comfortable with living in basic accommodation, or sharing a home with a local family?
– Are you comfortable with eating unfamiliar food?
– Would you be able to manage not having running water or electricity?
– How will your volunteering choices be affected by your personal and financial situation?

Types of volunteering placement

There are different types of volunteering placement to choose from. Here are some of the main types.

Conservation: These projects involve working on scientific research and the protection of endangered ecosystems and animals. You don’t need to have any previous experience or skills, and these types of projects will give you field experience.

Teaching: The most popular choice of overseas volunteers is teaching English or other subjects at a school. Those who lack teaching qualifications can take up the role of an assistant to a teacher. This ensures that volunteering does not displace locally employed teachers.

Working with children: Caring for children in a foster home or orphanage is also a popular volunteering option. The ethics of this type of volunteering must be explored carefully, especially the effect on the children. There are a number of privately owned organizations opening up, as volunteers and tourists pay to spend time with the children. But research has shown that children do better when they remain within the family and community.

Building and construction: These projects range from constructing homes or erecting community buildings, to renovating schools. These projects can be physically challenging, but have a tangible impact, making it productive for those who can only volunteer for a short duration of time.

Community development: This category consists of projects that are focused on a community’s needs. There is likely to be a local organization that co-ordinates the project. It could be assisting in the improvement of sanitation systems, constructing buildings or caring for a community garden.

Health care: These projects usually require volunteers with specific experience in this area. Many communities face a shortage of doctors, nurses, midwives and pharmacists, and therefore medical professionals are highly sought after. Volunteering work in the field of health care usually has a clear impact and tangible results. This category also involves non-medical health care projects such as promoting hygiene and disease prevention.

Specialist placements: These opportunities require specific skills and experience and include agricultural projects assisting small businesses and journalism.

Do you have the right skills?

Having the right skills needed for the work you choose is an important factor. Responsible volunteering organizations will take the time to match your skills to a placement, thus enabling you to decide if you are right for the work. Avoid those organizations that welcome you for a placement for which you do not posses the right skills or experience. Skill shortages in developing countries do not mean that unqualified people can be taken on board. There is a multitude of volunteering opportunities where specific skills are not needed. For instance, conservation projects train their volunteers when they first arrive. Construction and building opportunities also do not require experience. Another responsible way to go about volunteering is to consider whether a local person could be selected to do the work instead of a volunteer and also if the project is sustainable. For instance, if the project is the building of a school for the local community, it is helpful to explore if someone who is locally based can do the work, and even get paid for it. Also, will the community be able to manage the school and do they have the required materials.

Choosing the right organization

A large number of organizations offer volunteering placements across the world. So how do you choose a placement that is suitable for you based on your values and interests? One thing to consider is whether the organization is a charity or a company. Volunteering with a charity may appear more ethical, but companies that are based on ethical principles and which place volunteers based on the requirements of local communities are good options. These companies can also offer you security and protection when needed. But it depends on your values. How do you feel about companies who sell volunteering placements? One way to look at it is to consider that they are providing a steady stream of volunteers to help with projects. Seen another way, it appears unethical that companies are profiting from people with altruistic intentions.

There is the option of choosing between a big and a small organization to do your voluntary work with. Small organizations that have just one or two projects, offer more personal service. You may prefer to support smaller organizations. If you opt for volunteering with a charity, you will find that they have a steadier focus on long-term results and poverty reduction in their areas of work. The cost of working with a charity is less than with a company, and much of what you pay is likely to go towards the project. Another step in responsible volunteering is to examine the languages and imagery used when offering volunteer placements. Some organizations tend to use patronizing language and stereotypical images of developing countries.

When choosing the right organization, take into account the preparation and training the organization is offering you. A responsible one should give you specific information about the project and what to expect. There should also be some kind of training in your home country or after you arrive. Look for organizations that provide a minimum of one day of training. Responsible organizations are likely to recommend that you learn the local language and will also provide you with resources. If the project requires certain skills, the organization must convey this to you, and help you gain those skills. A good selection process is another mark of a responsible organization. The process should be one where the organization and you, can examine if the placement is suitable to both. The interview should be the time to ask questions and gain further details of the project.

Many people wonder why volunteers should have to pay to volunteer. But overseas volunteering is quite different from volunteering at home. In the case of organizations that send volunteers, you will be paying for their know-how in developing placements, their relationships with local organizations, logistical support and insurance cover. The costs of transport and accommodation should also be factored in. Responsible volunteering organizations are transparent about how this money is spent. If it is not mentioned on their website, you should ask them for details.


With a little amount of preparation, you can have a fulfilling experience of volunteering overseas. The first step is to manage your expectations. Many a time, when volunteering in a developing country, the reality is starkly different from your expectations. If your volunteering period is a few weeks or months, the effect of your work may be quite low. You are also likely to encounter real poverty and difficult political and social circumstances, as well as overwhelming levels of red tape. Being prepared for all this can help you handle the challenges and let go of unrealistic expectations. It also helps to speak with a past volunteer, who can appraise you about the local situation and how things work. Learning the basics of the local language is another useful step towards responsible volunteering, as is finding about the local culture, which will help prepare you for culture shock.

Think about what you need to take with you. There will be a maximum baggage allowance depending on the airline you are travelling with. Avoid taking too much and leave space for things that will be helpful for your placement. You will not know what is exactly needed until you arrive and you may need to take personal possessions which can help you adapt and provide you with some of the comforts from home. Ensure that you have insurance, which will provide full coverage for your time abroad. Regular travel insurance may not be adequate. There are likely to be specific policies that apply for volunteering. Your health while overseas is an important consideration. Consult your doctor and take all the required vaccinations before you leave. It is also helpful to check with the organization you are volunteering with about where the nearest medical facilities are located in case you fall ill during your placement. Check your government’s travel advice on the country you are visiting to check the safety situation there.

When you arrive

Volunteering in a different country is likely to be a culture shock and you may experience mixed emotions when you first arrive. Learning how to use public transport, ordering food at restaurants and asking basic questions in the local language can be quite confusing and overwhelming, especially if the new country and culture is completely different from your home country. Here are some tips for navigating through this challenging period.

– Take the time to know the place where you will be living. It is unlikely that you will fit in immediately or know what to do, so allow yourself the time to see how everything works
– Focus on the basics such as using the local currency, where to eat, and buying the things you need
– List out key phrases in the local language in a notebook and carry it with you
– Respect the local culture and customs
– Try out the local food and beverages
– Attend local events
– Make friends with the other volunteers

Have you volunteered abroad? Share your experiences in the comments!