Grab a blank piece of paper and place your pen somewhere in the middle. The ink mark left behind could easily represent you, right now, about to embark on a volunteer abroad experience. Choosing the right experience is a lot like drawing on a fresh piece of paper: the world is massive, the future is a clean slate, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the different directions. But even the best-adapted traveler was once a beginner, an individual dot in a great big space, asking the same questions you have right now.
Step 1: Decide How to Volunteer
Picking a successful program means taking the time to access yourself and what you hope to gain AND give through the experience.
What do I enjoy? Too many new volunteers begin this process by asking “What am I good at?” Though the two questions hopefully share answers, they’re not quite the same. Differing volunteer programs require different skills, and requests for a TEFL degree or First Aid certificate can scare away potential applicants. Yet, no matter where you volunteer, the personality skills you bring with – like a positive attitude or a sense of humor – are more important than those on your resume. The best qualification you can offer is a willingness to volunteer and some excitement about what you are will be doing. So don’t worry about past professional experiences.
Where do I want to go? Ever dreamed of snorkeling Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or biking through the ruins of Bagan, Myanmar? If one particular location has drawn your attention for a long time start there. There are placements in nearly every inch of the globe, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one in about any destination.
How long can I go? Are you fitting this volunteer stint into a school break or looking to fill three months next summer? Do you typically get homesick after a weekend away, or are you desperate to escape familiar surroundings for a while? It’s important to understand how much time you can offer a placement. Leaving early will hurt both your experience, and that of the people you work with, so consider this carefully. The duration of a placement can vary from two days to 12 months or even longer.
Step 2: Choose a Volunteer Program
The answers to these questions should act as a rough guide to begin your volunteer program search. Consult your list frequently, draw lines between the activities and places that correspond, star the idea that strikes you the most. Most importantly, trust your gut and use some resources!
- Talk to friends
- Ask for advice on a social networking sites
- Email relatives
Search GoAbroad’s database of volunteer abroad opportunities!
- Searched Volunteer Placements by location, area of interest, and length of stay. Not only will you find programs that fit your criteria but articles covering topics about potential locations
- Carefully compiled by a team of like-minded volunteers and travelers who want to see you make a successful choice
- Each program is rated and reviewed through multiple tools and feedback is easily accessible
- Hear the opinion of the people who matter most – alumni who have participated themselves
- Read honest responses on particular programs and placements
Step 3: Research Program Fees
Many programs charge the volunteer a set amount in fees – usually for food and accommodation, training, and other essentials during the placement. As a volunteer, you are there to help not place any type of burden on the organization. When researching your list of preferred placements, double-check the cost of the program and what these costs cover.
Where the money goes. Fees go toward the orphanage or school you’re working in, cover educational field trips and fun cultural activities. They help pay wages for the program’s staff and develop communities. In some more remote locations, costs increase to cover the potential need for emergency medical care. Your few hundred dollars might merely be set aside for an evacuation flight. Don’t be afraid to contact volunteer programs and enquire about the costs of your placement.
Trust your gut. If things don’t look right, cross that program off your list and focus on one that is sincere and truthful about the use of money. Also note that there are thousands of free volunteer opportunities. These placements may be harder to find, as they are often smaller and unable to afford flashy online marketing or international advertising. If you don’t want to tap into your savings account, or don’t believe in paying to volunteer, use the GoAbroad Online Advisor. Spend only a couple of minutes filling out your interests and the expert staff will provide you with a list of programs that match your needs in less than 48 hours.
Step 4: Complete a Volunteer Application
If you’re torn between two programs, apply for both. Some programs take a small number of volunteers and are highly competitive. Some have specific monthly or quarterly application deadlines; others take volunteers on a rolling basis, with no pre-determined start date. Mark your calendar with the deadlines of any applications or interviews you may need to complete, especially if you have to send any information by snail mail. Bottom line, yes you are guaranteed to find a placement somewhere but it might not be your first choice.
Filling out the application. While a volunteer program application will resemble a job app in the beginning – contact details, citizenship information, evidence of education – these programs tend to focus more on long-answer written essays. Expect questions like:
- Why did you chose this volunteer program?
- What previous experience will you bring to this placement?
- How do you deal with working with people of backgrounds much different from yours?
Rather than the brief points outlined on a resume or CV, these allow you to elaborate and explain yourself. Be honest, don’t worry about how cheesy or silly your responses sound. If you write openly about your interest and desire in the program, it will surely shine through in your words.
Step 5: Prepare for Volunteer Work
The placement organization will likely provide a recommended packing list but make sure to cross these items off your list in advance.
Passport. The passport application process can take weeks and occasionally months; so, if you do not currently hold a passport, apply straight away! If you currently hold a valid passport, double-check its expiration date. Some countries will refuse visitor entry if the passport has less than six months left before its expiration.
Entry visa. Visa requirements vary between countries, so consult your program for the specific type of visa needed. This information can also be found online at each country’s immigration web site. Be proactive and start the visa process as soon as possible.
Health Insurance. Many placements include international insurance in the program fees. You may even be covered by your current insurance. A simple phone call will answer your question and if the answer is no look at GoAbroad for affordable health insurance abroad.
Medical vaccinations/medications. A volunteer program in England will not likely require any extra medical preparations; however, a stint in Cambodia could demand malaria medication. Make sure to gather information on medical alerts and disease control; these will also list optional treatments, necessary vaccinations and essential packing items, such as pills and first aid items. Traveler’s Health in Center for Disease Control and Prevention is an excellent resource.
Contact your program for other necessary items besides any important medical or health-related items you will need to bring with.
Consider these for whatever room is left in your suitcase:
Gifts. A great start for co-volunteers, host family, students, or anyone else who might be sharing a little of their knowledge, hospitality, or kindness with you during the placement.
Piece of home. These can be a great gift, or used as a sort of show-and-tell for people unfamiliar with the place that you’re from.
Volunteer supplies. From children’s books or batteries, to pencils and notebooks, these types of donated items could be an extra treasure to your volunteer placement.
Write it down. One of the best methods for processing the things you see, the friends you make, and the thoughts you have, is by recording them in a journal or through a blog. Who knows – you might even end up sharing your stories on GoAbroad.
Now, you’re ready to go. That blank piece of paper can be folded into a paper airplane; for you’re no longer a tiny dot upon it, but a passenger about to embark on the experience of a lifetime.