After spending months, if not longer, preparing to volunteer abroad, you’re likely optimistic about how the experience will turn out. You may have fundraised the money for your volunteer abroad experience or worked long hours to book your ticket and pay for your room and board. You have told all your close friends and family about this next step in your life and have likely received a lot of praise for being so selfless to give of your time and effort so freely.
So what do you do once you arrive at your volunteer abroad destination (or have been there for a few weeks) and you take a step back and realize found yourself stuck in a dead end volunteer project? The first thing to remember is to not freak out. There are many ways to tackle the inevitable obstacles to the success of your volunteering abroad experience.
Recognizing you have a problem on your hands is the first step to finding a solution. We’ve come up with a list of four common ways volunteer projects can go bad fast and suggestions for how best to handle them. Knowledge is power, and after reading this article you’ll have all the power you need to turn that dead end volunteer project frown upside down! Here's our best tips for dealing with problems when volunteering abroad.
4 negative volunteer experiences abroad (and how to handle them effectively)
1. The project is disorganized or lacks direction/focus.
Everyone has a bout of disorganization from time to time. However, there is a definite difference between having a disorganized day or two (heck maybe even a week), and just being plain old disorganized. What is essential for a successful volunteer project, especially if it is short-term, is that your time is planned wisely to make the most impact. If you, or the project you are supporting, are disorganized or lacking focus - having a real impact is going to be very difficult.
Make sure to do your research before you volunteer and get in touch with alumni of the volunteer program you plan on supporting. Whether you are building schools in Honduras or supporting a project that addresses gender-based issues in Argentina, you can organize your time and efforts wisely to ensure you avoid a dead end project.
What to do: If you find yourself in this situation once you arrive in country, you will need to find a solution - and fast! Talk with your supervisor about your concerns and make a list of what you are having trouble facing. Brainstorm solutions so that when you go to your team leader with an issue, you already have a suggestion for how it can be addressed!
2. The initiative is being run by dispassionate leaders.
When you spend months researching your volunteer location and weeks perfecting the art of packing you are probably expecting the managers of your volunteer project to share your enthusiasm for your experience. Spoiler alert: you may encounter some dispassionate leaders along the way.
It is draining, and daunting, to work with, or for, people who are not excited about their work. This means the responsibility for maintaining your enthusiasm about your volunteer project falls on your shoulders. In order to ensure you don’t end up working on a dead end volunteer project, with leaders who are only seeing dead ends, you need to maintain a sense of purpose.
Pull out a sheet of paper and write a list of the top 10 reasons why you chose this volunteer project. Do you have a passion for the welfare of children? Write it down to remind yourself why you sacrificed your time, money, and effort to volunteer in the Philippines (or wherever you are!).
What to do: Are you a strong believer in the the power of small business development to transform communities and the world? Put it on your list as a reminder when you’re feeling like your project leader is only seeing problems. Disorganization and a lack of focus can be discouraging, but they are not a reason to throw in the towel on your volunteer abroad experience. Try to organize as much as you can on your own while communicating your need for support to your volunteer project managers.
3. The program is too focused on photo ops instead of change.
Take a look at your social media postings over the past few days. How many pictures of your volunteer experience have you posted recently? Is your volunteer coordinator and project leader constantly looking for that perfect photo op? Has your short-term volunteer abroad experience changed your social media profile picture forever?
If you find yourself or your team members (and your leadership team being complacent about) spending more time scrolling through social media feeds or posting scenic views than actually volunteering- you’re more than likely headed toward a dead-end volunteer project.
While sharing your volunteer abroad project with your family and friends back home and around the world can be a great way to process your experience, and promoting the project and organization is important, it is also essential to have the experience in the first place. And to work for an organization that recognizes this pitfall and proactively works to avoid it.
What to do: Put down your phone and your camera, ask that your fellow volunteers and volunteer coordinators do the same, and get your hands dirty (literally and/or figuratively) to contribute to the project you traveled so far to support. If you think it’s imperative everyone see what you are experiencing, consider making a few #TBT posts once you get home and have had time to reflect on your contributions.
We promise you, waiting to post your favorite pictures of your volunteer experience will not diminish the value of your efforts. In fact, your social media posts post-volunteering may actually be more meaningful as you take the time to process what you have seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched.
4. Your schedule gives you too much downtime (Volunteering is WORK, right?).
Going back to that photo ops suggestion above; if you are posting too many pictures relaxing in your hammock, you might not be on the right track with your volunteer project and could be headed toward a dead end, fast.
Then again, you can use the extra downtime from your lackluster volunteer project to be constructive. Have you wandered over to your neighbor’s home (when it is culturally appropriate to do so!) to sit down and talk over tea? Have you laid down on a friend’s mat in front of their home to chat about the goings on in village or what is happening a town over?
Volunteering abroad is not solely about having a polished product at the end of your service. It is about developing lasting relationships and the capacity to learn about yourself while serving others.
What to do: If you find you’re making more progress on your list of must-reads downloaded to your Kindle than your actual volunteer project, it’s time to step back and remind yourself why you wanted to volunteer abroad in the first place. Try taking on more responsibility in the project if you can, identifying new ways your skills can contribute to the project (aka. make your own work!), and, as always, communicate concerns with your volunteer coordinator.
Should you quit your volunteer project abroad?
It sucks to to volunteer abroad and have a negative experience. In the end, even if you apply all of the advice we shared you still might have a dead end volunteer project on your hands. Remember that being a part of a successful project isn’t the only (or even the best) way to grow as a person or learn new skills when you volunteer abroad.
If you try everything above and conclude there’s nothing you can do to turn your volunteer project around, you may need to learn to talk about a disappointing experience abroad. Learning how to transform an experience that at the time felt like a failure will serve you well long after you unpack your suitcase following your volunteer abroad experience. Spending time articulating how you tried your best to turn a bad situation good will help you grow from what you experienced and choose a better volunteer project to support the next time around.
Practicing complacency or proactively seeking solutions will each yield vastly different results as you follow our tips for dealing with problems when volunteering abroad. While we encourage you to use the ideas shared above to turn your volunteer project experience around, make sure to look in the mirror long and hard before (and after) you do.