AKA how NOT to volunteer abroad
After reading through articles on where to volunteer abroad, you finally decided where you are going to spend time giving back to the global community. Congratulations! While you probably already covered the essentials before your travel, take some time to think about the host organization where you will be volunteering and how your actions while there will impact not only their work, but also their work culture.
Consider not only the country where you will be serving, but also the specific organization. Reach out to previous volunteers or current employees to get a better idea of what kind of volunteers thrive, and ask for suggestions on how you can be a stellar volunteer as soon as you get there. Then check out the list below to learn more about undesirable qualities of a volunteer, and suggestions on how you can avoid making them yourself. If you keep these in mind, you are sure to have a great volunteer experience, without making anyone go bonkers! Trust us—these six habits of international volunteers drive hosts crazy.
6 seriously unwelcome volunteer traits
When it comes to volunteering abroad, avoid these negative volunteer qualities to improve your overall experience and ability to build relationships with the locals—all of which will help you maximize your impact and contribute helpfully to the sustainability of the project.
1. No cultural sensitivity.
You didn’t take the time to learn the cultural norms before arriving.
It is your first day at the office and you are excited to meet your colleagues and get started with your volunteer assignment. They are excited to meet you, too, and they offer you some tea as a friendly gesture. You accept their hospitality by reaching out your left hand to receive the cup. If you are volunteering in a predominantly Muslim country, like Morocco, receiving items with your left hand is taboo, since it is considered unclean. While your co-workers will give you a break the first few times this sort of thing happens, they will also expect you to pick up on what is considered right and wrong. Avoid putting your colleagues in an uncomfortable situation and read up on what’s considered taboo before you go—one of the best qualities of a volunteer is a willingness to humbly learn and adapt.
Anywhere you go will have a few quirky, subtle cultural norms that can be hard to pick up on unless someone points them out to you or you seek them out beforehand.
Check out what you should and shouldn't do before you pack your volunteer bag and share your own recommendations for other traditions to be aware of in the comments below!
2. No language capabilities.
You assume everyone speaks English.
Maybe you selected a country like Belize, where the official language is English, to volunteer in since you hit snooze on your alarm for that 8 a.m. Spanish class one too many times. While it might be smooth sailing in the capital city, once you go into more rural areas you are likely to encounter locals who don’t speak much, if any, English.
To avoid blank stares, take the time to learn at least a few phrases in the local language. Also, instead of asking "Do you speak English?" in English, why not learn how to ask it in the local language? The effort will be minimal on your part but the reward will be great when your counterparts see how much you care about learning about the culture and language where you are.
3. A lack of presence.
You continually compare your volunteer experience to how it is where you’re from.
Wherever you are coming from is probably a great place, but just like that friend on social media who gushes about their perfect life in every post, your host organization will get tired of hearing how much better everything operated where you volunteered/lived/worked/studied before coming to volunteer with them.
Instead of comparing cultures, why not embrace the culture where you are? One of our favorite volunteer qualities is when someone can be present in the moment and appreciate it for what it is—rather than playing the (ALWAYS DISAPPOINTING) comparison game. Take the time to learn not only how your colleagues are doing their work, but also why. Another bonus: if you take the time while volunteering to reflect on your experience you’ll have an even easier time of translating it on your resume!
4. No patience.
You’re a complainer.
The food isn’t the same. The animals are everywhere. You miss your mom’s cooking. We get it! Volunteering abroad and stretching out of your comfort zone is not easy. While your colleagues may seem to take things in stride that drive you crazy (like will your neighbors ever turn down their music or could the bus come on time for once?), you will be sure to drive them crazy if you complain all the time.
Make sure to laugh off as many frustrating experiences as you complain about them.
Read this post to make sure volunteering abroad is right for you, especially since complaining alone is not going to change things once you arrive!
5. A lack of commitment.
You spend more time traveling than you do volunteering.
You chose to volunteer abroad in Thailand because, hello, it’s Thailand!, but also because it’s optimally located in Southeast Asia for quick trips to nearby countries, like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. As you pack your bag for another quick getaway, maybe you are thinking that you’re a volunteer and shouldn’t your host organization be grateful you are there at all sharing your knowledge and experience, as you simultaneously feel guilty about skipping out for another weekend away?
Your host organization is likely appreciative of your efforts when you are around, but remember: They posted your volunteer position because they had a gap they needed filled in their organization, a gap that you willingly agreed to take on. If you are spending more time traveling than actually volunteering, you might want to reconsider your priorities! Volunteer traits like dedication and follow-through are prized by international NGOs and organizations.
Pro tip: For short-term volunteering, plan ahead for trips following your volunteer experience. If you are staying a little longer, try and plan your meaningful travel for when your colleagues are also on break or when there is a lull in the workload.
You don’t take the time to say hello.
You are on your way to your host organization for another day of volunteering and you are trying to get there on time but you get stopped, again, by a friendly neighbor who wants to say good morning and ask about your family. You let out a big sigh once you finally get to your host organization and you complain to your co-workers about how many times you had to repeat the same greetings to people, or endure their greetings. It can be especially frustrating when you do not speak the language!
You might shake your head at how long everyone spends greeting one another and think that you should all be getting to work to make the best use of the day, but taking time to greet will strengthen your relationships with not only your co-workers, but also your community. If being on time is important to you, make sure to leave for your volunteer shift early so you can have enough time to greet your neighbors and co-workers and get to your host organization on time. Otherwise, you’ll not only drive your coworkers crazy as you complain about greeting everyone, you’ll drive yourself crazy, too!
Don't be the worst volunteer ever. Please?
Ultimately, we hope you will avoid having regrets following your volunteering experience, and that you leave your host organization wishing they had more helpers with volunteer traits just like yours.
Volunteering abroad is not easy but it is sure to be rewarding if you put the effort in to integrate into your host culture and organization before you leave and while you are there. If you take the time to learn about the country and host organization where you will be volunteering before you go, the only driving you will do is in a car, and you can leave the crazy behind!