Guest Post: Volunteering Overseas—It’s All About Being Responsible

July 23, 2012

This guest article is brought to you by Nick Adie. Nick is the Communications manager for Lattitude Global Volunteering, an international youth development charity with 40 years’ experience in sending young people on challenging overseas placements.

A growing trend around the world, particularly in the UK, is to squeeze in as much as possible in as short amount of time as you can. It may be a reflection of our increasingly busy lives, or our need to simply do more. Whatever it is, it has undoubtedly starting to affect many aspects of our lifestyles.Hikers in Appalachia - Volunteer Global

Unfortunately this trend is now apparent even in the overseas volunteering industry, an industry built on what we should be doing for others, not for ourselves. Yet we are seeing more and more opportunities for people to volunteer for just a week, or as part of a holiday package in which volunteering is an add-on as opposed to the primary reason for travel. I believe that it is very sad that an activity traditionally meant to be part escapism, part learning, and (a big) part altruistic is increasingly being dictated by work or other commitments.

Now to be clear, this article is not discussing a decline in the willingness of the masses to give up more time to their own pursuits—that is a personal choice. Nor is this article one about the differences between long- and short-term volunteering. It is simply about doing the right thing.

Short-term volunteering is not always ‘wrong,’ just as long-term volunteering is not always ‘right.’  It is not black and white. What is important, however, is that people volunteer for the right reasons, and whatever their commitments are, they donate their time and efforts for the benefit of others—not for their own enjoyment or to simply build their own skills or CV. It is well known that volunteering overseas is enjoyable and does build important skills. But that should not be the main draw—it should always be about what is best for those that volunteers help. However, in this fast paced world it is evident that this is not always the case.

Numerous examples exist where volunteering for profit alone has led to detrimental effects for local communities that should be benefitting from a volunteer presence. There is more and more temptation to go and do something because it is enjoyable or as a box checking exercise for a CV. And with big organisations, such as large travel corporations primarily interested in the bottom line, the communities need for a volunteer can play second fiddle. As a consequence, the onus is on the volunteer to ensure the organisation they go with is doing the right thing.

The good news is that with a little thought and planning it is easy for a volunteer to ensure the trip they are going on is one that has the host community as its primary focus.

Do what you’re good atVolunteers care for a small goat - Volunteer Global

Sounds simple, but do an activity that you enjoy, that you are competent in and that will benefit others. We are not all Doctors or engineers or something else that may have required years of training but that does not mean you have no value. If you find you are forcing yourself to volunteer, then maybe it simply is not right for you! You may not know what you are best at—but ask your friends; they will always have suggestions. If not, a good organisation will be able to match you to a programme that utilises your skills for the best.

Volunteer for the right amount of time

Now, this does not mean it is has to be a long time or a short time. But simply think about what is sensible. For example, as a teacher it is usually better to be available for a whole term. This will allow you really get behind a syllabus, work towards exams and support your class. Put yourself in their situation—would you expect your teacher to change every week at school?

Be committed

Every volunteer has good days and bad days, but hang on in there! Part of the experience is being outside your comfort zone, and besides, it is no longer just about you anymore, there are other people relying on you!

And most importantly, enjoy it! Don’t worry about work, home life or anything else, you are there to help others, so let that be your primary focus – not how to fit more in to the trip!

For more advice on volunteering overseas responsibly, see the campaign for real overseas volunteering.

Images courtesy of Julie Baykova and Visions Service Adventures.