International Volunteering: 5 Steps to Finding a Fit

Volunteering & Giving Back — By on September 30, 2009 at 6:00 am

Today guest blogger Kelly Newsome returns to Lost Girls World, sharing some tips from her article “Giving Back While You’re Gone” on how to find a fulfilling international volunteer opportunity.

A self-described “recovering business attorney,” Kelly took a career break to explore Asia, Australia and, most recently, Europe. She’s also a yoga teacher, freelance nonprofit consultant, entrepreneur and community service devotee. You can read about Kelly’s travels, check out her volunteer activities, learn more about the “I Participate” campaign described below, and find the full “Giving Back While You’re Gone” article on her blog, Kelly’s Gone Again.**********

International Volunteering: 5 Steps to Finding a Fit

Volunteering AbroadIn case you haven’t heard, service work is getting a great rap these days. The Obama Administration has been vocal about its “call to service,” encouraging Americans to increase their commitment to community work. Nonprofit jobs are some of the hottest on the market. Even Hollywood is highlighting the importance of volunteering with the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s “I Participate” television campaign scheduled to begin in October.
Researching a volunteer opportunity while traveling overseas, however, is still a difficult proposition. Doing an internet search for service projects leads to, literally, thousands of hits. Volunteer opportunity databases are often inaccurate, incomplete, and/or confusing. Not to mention that it can be awfully tough to figure out whether a program that looks good on paper is the right “fit” for you.
Don’t let that stop you from trying. In fact, please believe me when I say that it’s worth every moment of the effort.
Here, I’ve put together a list of five steps to help you spend less time getting started, and more time actually giving back. The first step helps you develop an umbrella list of potential opportunities. The next three steps are basic questions that will help you narrow down your list (when answered honestly, these questions can greatly increase your chance of finding a satisfying service commitment, thereby greatly reducing your chance of having volunteer’s remorse!). The final step offers tips for initiating contact with the organizations that have made the cut.
Step 1 The “How”: Creating Your Own Database As noted above, most current volunteer opportunity databases leave much to be desired, especially when it comes to “voluntourism” overseas. As an alternative, consider creating your own “opportunity database.” Start with an internet search and online database (I know, I already admitted that you’ll get thousands of hits and some inaccurate results, but that doesn’t mean one or two won’t stand out right away and grab your interest). Next, think of nonprofit entities with which you’ve had previous contact, of any kind (like a financial donation), and investigate whether they have international operations. Do the same with your network of friends and colleagues, thinking of the nonprofits they support. Write down anything that catches your eye — an organization name, a specific task, whatever. Keep track of your findings in a notebook.
Step 2 The “What”: Know What You Will (and Will Not) Do
Looking at the list of volunteer opportunities you’ve accumulated in your notes, think about the activities you’d be doing. Do you actually want to do manual labor building water pumps in the middle of the desert? Are you up for the emotional challenge of working in an HIV clinic? Can you seriously stand being in a hot classroom with 40 kids, all under the age of 10, every day? How do you really feel about being in an emergency zone? If you’re answer is no to some things, no worries. Not wanting to volunteer for everything doesn’t make you a bad volunteer. It just gets you one step closer to finding the service work that will make you really shine. Write down your thoughts in your notebook.
Step 3 The “Where”: Where Do You Want to Be?
If you already know where you’re traveling, awesome — this should make your research a bit easier! If you don’t, start brainstorming about where in the world you actually want to spend some time, and think about those locations in relation to the non-volunteer part of your trip as much as the pro bono part (you won’t be in that classroom or at the building site 24 hours a day, after all). It’s a double bonus to volunteer in a place where you also want to sight-see, and the community you’re serving will be impressed or touched that you really have a genuine interest in their homeland. Again, track your ideas in your notebook, working from the outside in as necessary, starting with continents, then countries, then cities or towns.
Step 4 The “When”: Knowing When You Want to Go
Once you know where you want to be, try to determine the timing of your trip. Consult travel guides and online resources to make sure it’s not rainy season. Also, think about how long you want your commitment to be — are you interested in staying for 2 months? 2 weeks? 2 years? Think about how long you need your commitment to be to make it both meaningful for you and beneficial for your project. Once you have some answers, you know what to do (i.e., notebook).
Step 5 Making Contact
By this point, you should have a pretty messy notebook. This is a good thing. From your notes, create a nice spreadsheet with your top organizations, their programs and application process (if any), contact information and contact preferences. If you can get a personal introduction, go for it. If not, gather your wits and start reaching out! Be prepared to submit a resume at any time. Be polite. Spell check. Proofread at least twice.
Final Thoughts on Financing, Journaling, and Charitable Extras
First up, money, honey. One of the most important factors of international volunteering is figuring out how to pay for it. It seems ironic at first, but many organizations require volunteers to pay a flat participation fee, room and board costs or, at the very least, their own airfare. The short answer here is to use common sense. Make sure that you do your due diligence on an entity before forking over thousands of dollars. If it claims to be a US charity, you can look it up on the IRS’s website to be sure. Ask questions about what your money will be used for, and how previous volunteer fees have been used. If you don’t get straightforward answers, trust your instincts. Volunteer grants and stipends are also sometimes available, and worth researching.
Second, journaling your experience. The short answer is this: Write. Down. Your. Story. You could use your trusty notebook, a blog, or anything else you wish. These kinds of experiences can change your life, so I highly recommend taking notes on how it’s going, with honesty and without judgment. You’ll be happy that you did.
Lastly, if for some reason you don’t end up with a volunteer opportunity, consider doing good in some other way. Stay in eco-friendly accommodations, or buy foods or goods from a local nonprofit in your area. There’s a lot of good to be done in this world, and luckily for us, there are many ways to do it! Best of luck, and happy voluntouring! Photo credit: The Namaste Song, The English School at Children’s Future International, Cambodia; Kindergarten Yoga, Gedong Gandhi Ashram, Indonesia.
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  • Heather Rae says:

    Thanks for the great information! I've been wanting to plan a volunteer vacation in 2010, and this list will definitely help get me started.

  • Historic Traveler says:

    Great ideas! I volunteered in Galveston earlier this year and thought it would be great to try somewhere else. Of course, first I have to finish the details for my company's first Day of Service–we have 250 people working at 9 different locations next Friday! (Sorry to gush…but I am really excited).