8 People You’ll Meet While Doing Volunteer Work Overseas

by Mary Ellen Dingley

International volunteering is a great way to meet people from all sorts of backgrounds, from students and backpackers to local leaders. Volunteer programs overseas must always prioritize how we can best help the local community, rather than the volunteer experience. But, that doesn’t mean volunteering overseas can’t be a growing experience for the volunteer, especially via the relationships they can build, whether those are relationships of admiration and love or….not. Read on to check out some of the types of travelers you could meet as an international volunteer!

Volunteer with Project for Hope working with women in Nicaragua
Look out for the Local Lieutenant, the Lifer, the Rock Star Volunteer Coordinator, the Well-organized Project Manager, and the Pragmatist. These are the people you want in your corner. 

1. The Local Lieutenant

This is the key to a well-run volunteer project; the born-and-raised local who knows everything and everyone there is to know. This lady or gentleman has the inside scoop on it all. No matter how prepared a visiting team might be, they can’t possibly have the same local insight. Outsiders can’t know that they are causing tension just by what store they choose to shop at, or that their presence isn’t wanted because the last group didn’t clean up after themselves. But the local leader knows that. They can help volunteers avoid mistakes and smooth things over. They can point out why a specific project isn’t going to work long term, or give alternatives. They know that the one shop down the street has the best deals on bulk food or that monsoon seasons means that the brand new school building also needs a paved pathway.

Recruit as many Local Lieutenants as you can find and put them in charge so your volunteer work overseas will be a success!

2. The Naïve Do-Gooder

They’ve got enthusiasm to spare, but please don’t ask them to explain how their project is sustainable or efficient because they have no idea. They’ll run around snapping pictures with other people’s babies and/or of their homes without once thinking to ask for permission. They’ll buy local kids a bunch of candy without asking parents if they should be pumping little Jimmy up with sugar. And if you bring up that their actions could be problematic, they’ll get upset and start talking a lot about “just love” or something.

They are the Barbie Saviors of the volunteer world. They’ve never once questioned if they are being disrespectful of local culture, messing with the local economy, or wasting precious time and resources. They do not bring skills to the table. Critical thinking is not part of their “just love.” They bring imperialist vibes without even meaning to.

Trying to discuss volunteering in a nuanced capacity does not work with them, they are too busying instagramming with a baby they just found. 

Girl snapping a photo on a film camera
The Naive Do-Gooder is too busy snapping photos to really make a sustainable impact.

3. The Rock Star Volunteer Coordinator

This person is utterly devoted to their job and to making sure the community gets the help they need and the volunteer finds the best fit for them. They are always at the site early, bringing snacks, shooting the breeze and jumping in to help wherever and whenever. They know everyone’s name, no matter how many people come and go. When you smash your finger hammering a roof, they show up with the First Aid Kit. When you have questions about the efficiency of the project, they have answers. They’re the ones smiling at 6 a.m., while you’re moving like a zombie. They maintain the perfect balance of high excitement for volunteering and practical perspective on complex issues in needy communities.

Hats off to these rock stars, they’re the glue that holds volunteer programs overseas together.

4. The Apathetic Volunteer

This lad or lady was sent to volunteer overseas by their parents, or maybe to fulfill requirements for school. They are completely unenthusiastic about the task at hand. They’re most likely found dawdling far past the end of break time or taking multiple pee breaks. They don’t understand what problem the volunteer project is supposed to solve and they don’t care. Rather than getting to know the local community, they spend evenings Skyping friends back home or pouting in the corner if there isn’t any wifi. Attempts to get them excited about volunteering are met with blank stares. They hide from the Naive Do-Gooder.

These people might not be the ones you want to spend your entire trip with.

Girl on laptop with phone
The Apathetic Volunteer is that one millennial all the news magazines complain about.

5. The Well-Organized Project Manager

They have done their research. They have surveyed the local neighborhood to make sure everyone is onboard with the project. They have a budget. They have a monitoring and evaluation plan. They have data. They have read the working papers on prior iterations of their project, and they have learned from others’ mistakes. They have a list of all the reasons this project can and will work. If they aren’t a local themselves, then they have recruited local leaders. They speak the language. They have a hand-picked team, a schedule, and backup plans.

The Rock Star Volunteer Coordinator is their right hand. Nothing they work on will ever be a dead end project. They are the person you want when everything feels like it’s going to fall apart, because trust me, they thought of that too and they brought along duct tape.

6. The Lifer

This is the volunteer who has made volunteering overseas a priority in their life. They volunteer on the reg, both in their own community and abroad. They’ve seen it all: well-run projects, projects that fell apart, local buy in, local coups, and so on and so forth. They’ve gone weeks without showers and know first aid.

They have stories for days on volunteering in elephant sanctuaries in South East Asia and building homes in Nepal. Nothing phases them. Parasites? They’ve probably already had them. Natural disaster? Don’t worry, they’re trained in disaster response.

While they are as practical and as down-to-earth as it gets, they still have the pure idealism of the life-long volunteer who truly believes that helping others is the most important thing they can do. They are tight with the Project Manager and Volunteer Coordinator. Buy them a coffee and soak in some of their wisdom.

Hiker in shorts standing in a mountain pass
Beware of the backpacker disguised as a volunteer.

7. The Tourist

The tourist isn’t a real volunteer at all; they are a hanger-on who came along because they had never been to South America and really wanted to see the sights. They skip out on every bit of work or training they can to go explore the area. You are more likely to catch them ogling the architecture or buying souvenirs than going the extra mile to help someone out.

They should never have signed up for volunteering overseas, but whether because they couldn’t afford to backpack or were embarrassed to “just” travel, they have decided to disguise themselves as a volunteer. They will excitedly talk to you all day about the great hole-in-the-wall cafe they found or the museum their Lonely Planet book recommended, but ask them to take on another task and the excitement disappears.

They hang out with the Apathetic Volunteer on site. Gently encourage them to consider saving up for a round-the-world backpacking trip next time, rather than joining a volunteer program overseas they have no enthusiasm for. 

8. The Pragmatist

Other volunteers might call them the Cynic; they can’t help but tell it like it is. They are passionate about helping others, but don’t care about fuzzy, warm feelings. Instead, they hate to see injustice, inefficiency, or waste. They are constantly asking if what they are doing is actually helping. They send people copies of To Hell with Good Intentions. They probably studied engineering, economics, or public policy, and before they decided to volunteer overseas, they emailed a bullet point list of questions to the Volunteer Coordinator.

If they think the project won’t work they will be gone in an instant, but if they buy in (probably through long conversations with the Local Lieutenant and Project Manager) they will work from sun up to sun down, and then write a memo about how they could cut waste by installing solar panels.

Want to know what kinds of volunteers will be on your volunteer program overseas?

The more sure-fire way to get a pulse on the types of volunteers attracted to any specific volunteer program overseas is to do research and to read reviews from past volunteers. If you’re lucky, your program coordinator will also hook you up with the contact details of a few program alumni; just keep in mind that they only collaborate with super-satisfied participants to fill this role. Scour hashtags, read in-depth interviews, and see which group of past volunteers most jive with the type of experience you’re looking for. 

Be prepared to meet all sorts of wonderful (and not so wonderful) people while volunteering overseas. And remember: everyone can teach you something. Stay open to new relationships and experiences and work hard as you help others through volunteer work overseas!

Ready to volunteer abroad? Make a MyGoAbroad profile to bookmark & compare program options today!