7 Steps to Becoming an Effective Volunteer in East Africa

by Julia Kitlinski Hong

Becoming a volunteer in East Africa is an experience that can be mutually beneficial to both volunteers and the local community, if done correctly. It is critical to be aware of organizations that are in it for the monetary gains of the increasingly popular trend of voluntourism, versus effectively contributing to a local community. This may lead you to believe that finding opportunities to volunteer in East Africa that are reputable and match your needs will be entirely overwhelming. 

Safari tour in Kenya

How YOU Can Become an Effective Volunteer in East Africa

Don’t just sign up for any ol’ volunteer program in East Africa. Careful planning is key to becoming an effective volunteer abroad. So, here are the steps you need to take to ensure you are an effective volunteer in East Africa, no matter how much time you decide to spend abroad:

STEP 1: Brainstorm how you can help and where you want to go.

It can seem overwhelming, at first trying to sort through all the options, but it will be infinitely easier once you have a clear idea of what type of work you want to be involved in.

First, narrow your search to what particular type of volunteer program you want to participate in. You need to honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and determine how you can be a valuable asset to a community. Do you have a special knack for conservation? Are you a natural with children? Have you been a teacher for years so teaching is a natural choice for you? Make sure that your program is a good fit with your skills and values, because this is what will ultimately help determine the type of impact you will have.

Secondly, you need to decide on a location. Perhaps you are drawn to volunteering in Kenya or have heard great things about volunteer opportunities in Uganda. But, volunteering in Rwanda also seems like it would be meaningful, beautiful, and challenging in the best possible ways for you. Choosing a location is all up to you, and of course what you find through your research in Step #2 below.

STEP 2: Research the needs of people in East Africa.

After you narrow down your field and location of interest, it is important to consider where you can use your skills most effectively and where the greatest need exists. Research common social and environmental issues facing communities across East Africa, and then determine which area sparks your interest most.

To get you started, here are two of the most popular ways to volunteer in East Africa:

Gorilla in the forest of Rwanda

STEP 3: Start searching for organizations and program providers

Connecting with a reliable organization in East Africa can be a daunting task, so working with a well-established volunteer program provider can make the process of finding a program much easier. These companies are dedicated to helping volunteers find a sustainable organization that will help them have a measurable impact during their time abroad. You may be thinking: why give your hard-earned money to a company if you could just do the same thing for free? Good question -- signing-up with a third-party provider gives you the reassurance that you will be working with a vetted organization that you can trust with your experience.

Choosing the right program provider through notable third-party providers is key. Don't just choose the first organization or program you find; instead, do extensive research and weigh your options thoroughly before you apply. One of the most important things to do before becoming a volunteer in East Africa is ensure you will be a responsible voluntourist, so your volunteer work can make the greatest impact.

STEP 4: Investigate how the company is giving back.

Before committing to a particular organization, it is important to research their intentions and how exactly they give back to their local community. Reading the fine print will help you avoid an undesirable scenario once you are actually in East Africa, when it will be much harder to turn back. One of the most important things to be aware of is how a company is spending the money they receive, both from volunteers and donors.

Make sure you know what questions to ask any organization you are considering. Know who founded the organization, why it was established, where projects take place, how long they've been working in specific communities, and what is has been accomplished so far. If a company seems to only be completing short-term projects with various communities, this is a definite sign you need to investigate further. Bottom line: you want to be sure that you are going to make a REAL difference while volunteering in Africa.

Maasai herding goats in Tanzania

STEP 5: Get in touch with past volunteers and read reviews.

Read through online forums, reviews, alumni interviews, and blogs. Try to connect with former volunteers to get a realistic idea of what to expect from a particular providerFormer volunteers are great resources for firsthand experience with the provider or organization, so it is crucial to seek them out for details that might not be featured on the organization’s website.

It is also important to figure out how you as a volunteer will fit into an organization’s goals. Seek out former volunteers to get the low down on specific projects you are interested in. Ask them questions like What is day-to-day life like? or What was the best part about the program (and the worst)? Learn how volunteers impact and interact with the community, and contribute to the organization as a whole. 

STEP 6: Consider how to apply.

One way to cut out the middleman and reduce costs is through applying directly to an organization without the assistance of a program provider. For volunteers who are familiar with the region and feel capable in their abilities to navigate the local systems of transportation and housing, this is  a real option to consider. Also, often by saving money, you can donate more directly to the organization itself!

However, keep in mind that this route might not always save you a lot of money, since program providers usually have well-established connections with local housing and transportation companies, and therefore can get a better price than those who do not. Leveraging their relative expertise (and paying up front for it) usually saves you a lot of logistical headaches (and cultural faux pas) when you become a volunteer in East Africa.

One of the biggest challenges in working independently with a local volunteer organization is gauging whether the company is legitimate or not. This is where Step #5 comes back into play, as you really do need to comb through reviews. You also need to look out for red flags on their website, such as a requests to wire over money to “save” a spot for you.

Most importantly, trust your gut; if you have a sinking feeling about a certain volunteer organization, save your integrity and run (not walk) in the opposite direction.

Women in Uganda carrying baskets on their heads

STEP 7: Set yourself up for success.

One thing to keep in mind before becoming a volunteer in East Africa is to reflect on your own expectations. It can be easy to go into this type of experience with good intentions to help those in need, but giving back can often be a lot more complex than it seems.

The infrastructure in East Africa is not as developed as in Western countries, and adapting to the developing world can be frustrating for volunteers. Everyday tasks can take twice as much time, whether you are trying to contact another office or trying to get a permit for building a new structure, so keep this in mind when you are selecting a volunteer program. Also, plans often change at a moment’s notice, so be sure your organization has a strong foundation to ensure things go as smoothly as possible for you.

Effectively volunteering in East Africa can seem like a giant undertaking, but with the right mindset and thorough research, it can be an unforgettable and mutually beneficial experience for both you and the community you work in. If you follow these seven steps, you'll be on your way to a successful, impactful experience volunteering abroad.

Ready to volunteer in East Africa? Find a volunteer program now!