Editor's Note: This post is brought to you in partnership with MovingWorlds.org.
A truly “immersive” travel experience is like the search for the holy grail. We all want it, and yet it’s so hard to find. And, often to the dismay of travelers, it’s not something that can be advertised or bought. It just happens.
But as any good backpacker knows, the key to an authentic travel experience is not trying to buy your way into it, but rather to have “stumbled upon it” by putting yourself out there, exposing yourself to chance, and getting the odds in your favor.
Volunteering overseas is perhaps the best way to set yourself up for a truly immersive experience.
Done correctly, it can also create real change and help you develop your skills in the process. But there is a right, and wrong, way to volunteer your skills abroad. Here are four tips to help you volunteer overseas while backpacking.
Volunteering Your Skills is Good for You and Good for the World
According to the United Nations, volunteers are recognized as important contributes to the field of global development.
This is because there is a “talent gap” that is hindering growth… meaning that small organizations working in the field are struggling to solve “last-mile” challenges and create jobs because they don’t have access to the right skills to grow and make an impact.
Since these organizations need skills, they are often able to provide homestays and other unique experiences in exchange for the right person. As a result, people can trade their skills for immersive experiences, and not have to pay for it. I
find that these matches only happen when the motivations of both the organization and the volunteer are aligned.
Are looking for support with projects that they lack the skills and resources to accomplish. They want someone to establish a solution that they can then use independently. They are NOT looking for money. Also, they realize that success is not just delivering a project, but also learning new skills.
Are looking for more than a great Facebook photo. They are looking to learn new cultures, they want to expand their skills, they want to create a social impact, and they approach the work with humility.
This is very different from the more common “voluntourism” trips where you pay to volunteer or teach. Done incorrectly, it can cause more harm than good, as documented in the haunting story about the “Cambodia Orphanage Business.” Stories like this have fueled the “voluntourism” debate.
Find a Partner, Not Just a Volunteer Project
Organizations are looking for help to tackle skill-related challenges. So a volunteering engagement shouldn’t be based on a project, it should be about transferring knowledge and skills to the areas that need it most.
While this often takes the shape of a project, you need a partnership in place between you and the host organization to allow for a productive engagement and the opportunity for skills and knowledge to transfer both ways.
There are lots of options to find a partner. But before you look for one, check out these resources from LearningService.info, especially their short video about how to find a responsible placement.
I also recommend reviewing this post: 8 Factors to Consider When Choosing Your Volunteer Experience.
A few partners that can help you:
- VSO & Cuso International: Compensate you if you can volunteer for a year.
- MovingWorlds: Live for free while volunteering your skills for any length of time. Projects on MovingWorlds never charge you to volunteer, though MovingWorlds does charge a small membership fee to access opportunities and to provide you planning support.
- Omprakash: Very economical, pre-screened volunteering opportunities that relate to skills.
When Volunteering Abroad, Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail
We always say that the match is the easy part. There are so many organizations that need skills that you can find a project in most any country that aligns with your profile. What’s important is that you plan effectively to create a true partnership. To do that, we recommend the following:
To do that, we recommend the following:
- Take an orientation / training. We developed free training for international volunteering, and we also like Serve Smart’s work.
- Plan out your work. We advise all volunteers work with their partners in advance of their travel to plan out all elements of their work and trip.
- Document expectations. Use planning calls to clearly document and align both your and your partner’s expectations about the work you will be doing, and the outcomes expected. You can use the MovingWorlds Experteering Planning guide as a template to help guide your conversations.
To Have a Great Experience, Focus on Being a Great Volunteer
To get the most out of your experience, make sure to focus on the needs of the organization. If you build a partnership and work on the things they need the most help with, then you will set yourself up for success. A few tips from our
A few tips from our guide includes:
- Be Culturally Sensitive – Learn about differences and talk about them openly
- Be Open and Humble – Approach the project and partnership with humility
- Communicate Effectively – Work hard to clearly set expectations and discuss progress
- Continue to Learn and Grow – Work on new skills and help them develop theirs
- Focus on Impact – Do what is important, not what’s most interesting
- Start Something That Lasts – Success will happen long after you leave
Other great resources to check out including this video from LearningService.info: Being a Valuable Volunteer; and this article, How to Make a Real Impact While Volunteering Overseas.
Volunteering overseas can be a truly transformative experience, mainly because it connects you to the local culture, helps you build strong partnerships, and can help you make a long-term impact.
As exciting as it is, great care should be taken to ensure that it’s beneficial to you, your hosting organization, and the people you work with.
We hope these tips will help you, and if you have a good story, tip, or experience, tag #Experteering so Nafessa can help amplify your impact.
About the Author: Nafessa Kassim is the Director of Global Engagements at MovingWorlds.org where she is responsible for the quality and impact of all matches. She supports both individuals, as well as our corporate programs. As part of her work, she has been published for her best practices in international skills-based volunteering, and is also a StartingBloc mentor. Previously to MovingWorlds,
Previously to MovingWorlds, Nafessa worked in Indonesia and India on global development projects with Audi, Purpose, Columbia University, and the William J Clinton Fellowship. Nafessa holds a dual Master’s Degree in Global Health and in International Social Enterprise Administration.
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