Five Essential Tips For International Volunteers

by Eileen Loh

Anyone who decides to volunteer abroad already has the most important qualification you need: the urge to make a positive change in the world. This is the element that can carry an international volunteer through frustrations, disappointments, or conflicts that arise when fighting the good fight in challenging foreign conditions.

Volunteering abroad in an orphanage in the Philippines.
Volunteering abroad in an orphanage in the Philippines. Photo courtesy Eileen Loh

Most pending volunteer stints abroad are daunting, because few volunteers have lived or worked under those specific conditions before. Nothing can really prepare them for it until they’re thrown into the mix. But some issues are common to most or all volunteer projects abroad. Here are five things to take on board if you’re planning a volunteering program anywhere overseas:

Work Within Their Culture. A common mistake that new volunteers make is to arrive at an international project expecting to immediately share their knowledge with the people there. Chances are, you’ll need to learn a whole lot about the people and place where you’re visiting before you can even think about doing much teaching. In a developing country, you might immediately come up with solutions to common problems they face — and these solutions might make perfect sense, from a Western or First World standpoint. But if your ideas don’t mesh with their cultural norms, religious practices, or social expectations, they’re not going to fly. Often, volunteering abroad means you’re not so much solving a problem, as figuring out how to help make improvements based on the lifestyles and traditions where you are.

Make An Effort To Learn The Language. Yes, even if your job is to teach your language to them. Yes, even if you’re only going to be volunteering there a few days or weeks. Yes, even if lots of people there speak English anyway. Learn common words, phrases, and popular sayings in the language where you are volunteering. You will make a positive impression on the locals, and that goes a long way. Plus, it will likely make day-to-day life in that place a lot easier for you.

A woman riding a motrobike.

Eileen riding a motorbike in the Philippines.

Find Out About The Culture Before You Go. Don’t show up for a volunteer program in Uganda with shorts or skirts that reveal your scandalous knees, or wear a tank top when you’re volunteering in an orphanage in the Philippines run by nuns. Little behaviors you barely notice back home might be a big deal in your chosen country, and these could interfere with your ability to be taken seriously in your volunteer project. Find out about the culture beforehand so you can learn what’s expected of you in day-to-day life. Ask your program provider to hook you up with volunteer alumni, so you can get their first-hand accounts. Other sources of info are travel blogs by volunteers abroad, ex-pat forums online, and magazine or newspaper articles about your chosen country and culture.  

A volunteer in an orphanage.

Chantale, volunteering in an orphanage in Tacloban.

Be Appropriately Generous. Especially for first-time volunteers abroad, the urge to give and give and give can get overwhelming. The sight of beggars, street kids, and other people in sad and difficult conditions often leads volunteers to “guilt give” money whenever asked. While giving a handout might be an act of kindness to you, it can be counterproductive in the grand scheme of things. A street kid who’s learned to work tourists for handouts is less inclined to get involved with programs that can help him become educated and self-sufficient. Your monetary donations are best spent with community or humanitarian organizations providing outreach and support to those who need help. If you are inclined to give to people you encounter on the street, food is a better gift than money.

Be Realistic About What You Can Accomplish. Most of the time, volunteers abroad are working against tough conditions that developed over many years and by many factors: social, political, cultural, religious, geographical, economic, and more. No international volunteer, no matter how hard-working, can undo years or generations of damage in one trip. Learn to recognize and appreciate the “small” victories that you achieve with your project in your time abroad. You are a small cog in a big machine — one that’s much larger than you, and one that will eventually bring improvement on a mass scale. Your contribution might be small, in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still vitally important.