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5 Things I’ve Learned About Volunteering Abroad

This post is contributed by Christy Campbell, a SPS Featured Blogger.


If there’s a topic that can send me scrambling to find my soapbox faster than you can say “lather”, it’s volunteering abroad.

I get all hot and bothered on the subject as much as I advocate for it with passion. So forgive me while I pendulum swing between necessitating that you absolutely must go volunteer abroad and issuing stern stipulations about doing it right.

Aside from a trip to Europe with my parents when I was little, my first time going overseas was on a short-term missions trip with a huge group of teenage girls, at age 14. While Europe was intriguing in it’s own right, it was the stall-less showers in Sao Paulo and the fact that they served hamburgers with fried eggs on them in Rio de Janeiro that had me mesmerized by the “outside world”.


That summer, along with gaining an excruciatingly painful second degree sunburn on the beach, I played soccer in the slums with kids who had no shoes and hung out in local schools that opened my eyes to entirely different existence. It was a transformational trip in the way that it was the first time I became aware of the way a large portion of the world’s population lives.

In fact, it impacted me so much that I went on, years later, to get a Master’s Degree in Social Policy and Development. But not before volunteering in orphanages, schools and non-profits around the world, all the while I assuming I was changing the world, one pencil at a time.

It wasn’t until grad school, when I encountered leaders from these third-world countries as well as those who’ve championed huge non-profits, that I began to realize the impact—both positive and negative—of volunteering.

I eventually ended up in a job where I had the opportunity, among other responsibilities, to put together a volunteer program and handbook for an international non-profit. I don’t think I’ve ever expended so much effort on any one project in my life and while I moved on to other roles, I’ve never completely stepped off my “volunteering” soapbox ever since.

In the spirit of this series, I’m limiting myself to five things I’ve learned, so I’ll try to choose wisely, but it’s gonna be hard for me. Ready? Let’s dive in.

1) Go Volunteer Abroad

It is the most impactful, worldview-changing experience that you might ever have. I cannot recommend it enough. Not just for the good you can do but for the way it will change you. To borrow Nike’s motto: just do it.

2) Choose Wisely

Do a lot of research and, if possible, choose a place to volunteer where you have some sort of personal connection—even if it’s just a word of mouth referral.

Unfortunately, there are way too many shady organizations out there and even those that look super legit and amazing on the internet, might not know how to properly run or handle a volunteer program (I’ve definitely experienced some of these!).

You want to find an opportunity where you can provide a service or solution that cannot be found/sourced locally and where you can add real value and meet real needs (not just the needs you assume exist). But you also want to pick a place that is equipped and able to host a volunteer, because not all places are.

3) Offer a Unique Solution

Please be mindful in how you volunteer. While there are great opportunities to paint walls or provide shoes, please never take job opportunities away from local workers or bring goods that can be purchased in the community.

If it’s simply a matter of funds that are needed, I urge you to donate the cost of your ticket to hire someone locally for manual labor, whenever possible. Instead of lugging suitcases full of supplies around the globe, please ensure that you only bring things that cannot be found locally and then buy the rest upon arrival. One of the greatest things you can do is to put money into the local economy.

So what “unique solution” can you offer? Typically what is most needed is your unique skill set: if you’re an accountant, offer to help train or mentor the organization’s financial manager or check their books. If you’re a nurse, provide medical help and see if you can train someone up in the process. If you’re a painter, offer art classes.

My skill sets include photography and communications, so I always try to offer these services first when I find an organization that needs help.

Please, please, please be careful not to assume needs or project your own assumptions. Give the organization space to honestly tell you where they need help and see if you can fill that role. Sometimes, even if something seems obvious to you, it’s not an urgent need to them, so respect their priorities and requests.

4) Be a Considerate Guest

While living in a third-world country that attracts hoards of volunteers and aid workers, I began to twitch when I spotted “the volunteer”. Please don’t mis-understand, our organization, as well as many others, got started solely thanks to those willing to donate their time, resources and skills to the cause. They are not the people I’m referencing here.

“The Volunteer” is the person who is ignorant of the environment they’re in (for instance, sporting tank tops in a culture that values modesty), assumes their service has been in dire need (this is often not the case for these folks) and fails to appreciate the bigger picture in which they’re in (such as the context in which the organization operates).

When managing a volunteer program, I received more emails than I can count of folks who found our organization on the internet and simply wanted a week long “voluntourism” opportunity: to see a new place and do a little good along the way.

What they failed to realize is the heart and soul that went into our work, the true needs that we had (they were never manual labor related, but usually high-skill levels that simply didn’t exist yet in the country) and the amount of time and effort it took for our paid staff to manage a volunteer (introduction and orientation, overseeing their work and managing their efforts, answering questions, helping them with cultural adjustments, etc.)

A true volunteer is a “server”, someone who respects the privacy and dignity of those they’re with and works to learn how they can best serve them.

Would you be ok if someone came into your neighborhood and started photographing you without your permission? Or pitying your way of life and livelihood? I doubt it. What if you’re children were at a daycare where random strangers from far off places were allowed to enter, play with your children, give them strange things and take their pictures in order to post them all over the internet. Not ok, right? Sadly, this is exactly what many of us do on “volunteer” trips. I include myself in this, unfortunately.

After spending time working with organizations who protect the identity and dignity of individuals, I’ve learned to be extremely wary of any organization who lets people come in and interact with children, unless they’ve gone through extensive background checks and/or have a very specific, designated purpose and verified credentials (say, eye surgeon).

5) Set Mutual Expectations

This might be the biggest pitfall I see in volunteer opportunities: failing to set mutual expectations. The worst thing ever is when you spend a lot of money and your vacation days to go and volunteer somewhere, only to feel like you didn’t really get to contribute, people were too busy to engage you or that your time and effort wasn’t even appreciated.

The BEST volunteer experiences (for both sides) are when both parties express clear expectations up front. For instance, they hope you can help them do _____ while you’re there and you hope you get to learn/meet/do __________ during your time. Be clear before you even go and then clarify once again when you get there to ensure that you both profit from the experience.

Whew, that soapbox is squeaking. That was a lecture, wasn’t it? I get pretty opinionated on the subject but I truly believe volunteering can be transformational and can actually do good for those you’re serving if you’re wise about it.

But the onus is on you, my friend. Do your research, offer something unique, set mutual expectations and be a considerate guest, so that you’re not the only one benefiting from your volunteer service.

What’s your experience with volunteering overseas? Have anything you’d add?