If you're considering volunteering abroad, read up on the pros and cons before you go.
Volunteering abroad, or “voluntourism” for short, is more popular now than ever before. It seems that millennials are the ones who made volunteering abroad such a hot travel trend. According to The Business Journals, as of 2016 more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending over $2 billion a year. These numbers make volunteering abroad one of the fastest-growing travel trends today.
You've likely seen photos of your friends volunteering abroad on your social media timelines in the past. It has become an popular alternative for college students instead of hitting the beach for spring break. You yourself may have gone on a voluntourism trip at some point or another. And chances are you spent your time in an African or South East Asian developing country, as a general study has shown these destinations attract the majority of volunteers.
Dubbed as a big travel trend to watch out for in 2019, voluntourism is quickly becoming a must-do adventure for travelers. But before you decide to volunteer abroad, consider some of the pros and cons of your trip.
There is a lot of good to be said about voluntourism. So before we get into the cons, lets read up on some of the top pros and positive influences you can cause by volunteering abroad.
1. It's an opportunity to be a part of change
If you are choosing to volunteer abroad, chances are that the community you are visiting is in need of some assistance. You are inevitably bound to be doing some good on a voluntourism trip. And it always feels good to help other people out.
Of course, your decision to volunteer abroad will not prompt change overnight. It is unlikely your presence will solve a poverty crisis or put an end to illiteracy. But that doesn't mean you can't positively impact the community that you set out to help. Remember that even the smallest gestures change change someone's day or life. And it is likely that your time abroad will be full of small moments that cause a bigger kind of change.
2. It will give you a new perspective on the world
Choosing to volunteer abroad typically brings travelers to an underdeveloped country. Therefore, you can expect that the quality of life of the community you are assisting will be more impoverished than what you are used to. There's a chance you will not have access to hot water. The meals that you eat will likely be less filling and flavorful than what you are used to. And it's possible that you will come across people and children who lack basic goods that you take for granted.
These are common images you will come across when you are volunteering abroad. And while some of these situations can be difficult to swallow, they will likely give you a new perspective on the world. This will help turn you into a more empathetic person, and you likely will become a more conscious traveler.
3. It's an opportunity for cultural immersion
Travelers who volunteer abroad have the chance to explore a native culture in a way that no other tourist can. Volunteering abroad brings travelers up close and personal to the community they are helping. It also gives them a first-hand look at another culture's way of life. And there is no better way to understand what another person is experiencing than by directing stepping into their shoes.
While you are abroad, you will eat, live, clean, socialize, and dress as the locals do. You will become more in tuned with their customs and culture. If there is a festival or celebration going on, you get to be a part of it. Volunteering abroad gives you a new view of an unfamiliar place. And in turn, you are exposing another community and culture to your own customs and ways. Cultural immersion is a beautiful, eye-opening thing. And by volunteering abroad, you get to be a part of it.
4. It gives you the chance to learn and try new skills
Depending on the type of trip you embark on, you will likely use and learn new skills while volunteering abroad. Maybe you are traveling to Puerto Rico to provide hurricane relief. This voluntourism trip can have you learning how to rebuild homes. Or you might be learning culinary skills in a soup kitchen. You could also be learning a few medical basics and volunteer at a clinic.
Another popular form of voluntourism is teaching English abroad. If this is the route you choose, chances are you have never taught English to a classroom full of non-English speakers before. Therefore you will have to refine your patience and public speaking skills. This job will also require you to be logistical. No one is there to provide a lesson plan but yourself. Not only does volunteering abroad give you new practical skills, but you are likely to learn a life skill or two along the way.
5. Develop relationships that will last a lifetime
If you have traveled abroad before, then you know how easy it can be to bond with the people you meet. You and the other volunteers are sharing a unique experience together. No one back at home will quite be able to understand the journey that you are going through. And that in itself will help form relationships with the other volunteers that can last a lifetime.
You may also find yourself developing close relationships with the locals. Avid travelers know how easy it is to fall in love with another culture. And it's just as easy to fall in love with the natives of that culture. Volunteering abroad will give you the opportunity to expand the network of people you know. And you may find yourself making impactful relationships that will last for the rest of your life.
6. Enhance your career and boost your resume
Personal career gain is not the main reason to volunteer abroad. And if this is your top priority while volunteering abroad, then a trip like this is not for you. Rather this is an added perk to volunteering abroad. You may not realize it in the moment, but choosing to travel to another country and immerse yourself in another culture can be very enticing to hiring managers. This shows that you are willing to take chances and step outside of your comfort zone.
Volunteering abroad also shows that you have a humanitarian edge to your personality, which can show you are a team player. And as we stated earlier, volunteering abroad gives you a new outlook on the world. This in turn can make you more mature than others who have not gone on such a journey. And this maturity and awareness are both very desirable, hirable traits.
As you can see, there are a lot of benefits to volunteering abroad. But as with everything in life, there are also a few cons to go over.
1. There is not much time to relax
You will find that volunteering abroad is unlike any other trip you have been on. If you think a volunteering trip will give you time to relax, you could not be more wrong. On average, volunteering projects require volunteers to work for five to six hours a day. And you may even find yourself working six days a week. The hours will be long, the mornings will be early, and times for rest will be infrequent.
Unfortunately, that is the reality for many of the people in the communities that you are visiting. Therefore if you are volunteering abroad with the hopes that you will have a fun trip full of sightseeing and relaxation, you may want to rethink going. Yes, there will be time to explore the place you are staying. But again, sightseeing is not the main purpose of volunteering abroad. It is simply an added perk.
2. Volunteering abroad is expensive
The point of volunteering is to provide unpaid work. And most volunteering projects cannot afford to pay for you to travel abroad and help out. Therefore you will have to pay your own way there. And that can be expensive. If you are going halfway across the globe to Africa or South East Asia, you can expect to pay $1,000 for a plane ticket. Other costs you have to consider includes visa and passport fees, medical insurance, travel gear, etc.
Luckily, many volunteering projects will provide room and board in exchange for your assistance. So you won't have to worry about finding and paying for a place to stay while you are there. But do not expect to be put up in a five-star hotel or top-notch Airbnb. The living conditions may be uncomfortable. That's part of the deal when you are volunteering abroad.
3. It can be extremely challenging
Volunteering abroad is no walk in the park. As we stated earlier, volunteers are expected to work for multiple hours a day. The assignments you will be given may not be too glamorous. You will likely be performing chores and tasks that you have never taken on before. And this can understandably be an extremely difficult adjustment for volunteers to get used to.
On top of physical exertion, you will be in a country where everything is new and unfamiliar. You will not have the comfort of your own culture and home surrounding you. It is likely you will face a language barrier while you are volunteering abroad. And this can add an extra layer of difficulty and discomfort. But when the going gets tough, keep in mind that even the bad days are an important part of your experience. You will likely look back on some of your toughest times volunteering abroad with a smile. And that's because you grew from your experiences abroad, both the good and the bad.
4. There is no quitting your commitment
You can't just go home if you find you don't like volunteering abroad. A volunteering project and group of people are depending on you. Therefore if you sign up for a month long excursion and decide you want to go home three days in, you have to suck it up. There is no backing out to a volunteering trip. And this can be seen as a con to many. But you can also view this as a positive chance to grow. Volunteering abroad can teach you the power and importance of committing yourself to a project. It will likely make you a more selfless person, as well.
Think about it. If you have signed up for a month-long trip and decide to leave during week two, you will be messing up the schedule for everyone else. Another volunteer will have to pick up your tasks in addition to your own. By letting go of your end of the bargain, you are negatively impacting the lives of others. And that is the opposite goal of volunteering abroad. So if you are not confident that you can handle a trip like this, you may want to reconsider going.
5. Communities learn to depend on short-term development
A more overarching negative side affect to voluntourism is that is teaches communities to depend on short-term aid and development. Additionally, trust is not developed overnight. Keep in mind that you are a complete stranger to the locals. Therefore it can take some time for volunteers to connect with the people they are assigned to help. Because of this, it has been argued that short-term volunteer work is simply not as effective as long-term work.
For example, teaching children English is typically a long-term job. It takes time to first connect with the students, to gain an understanding of how they learn, and to teach them effectively. If new teachers are rotating through every few weeks or months, it will be more difficult for the students to retain the information. And because you will likely only be volunteering abroad for weeks at a time, there really is no room for error. This adds another layer of pressure to volunteering abroad that many volunteers do not consider before committing to the work.
6. Voluntourism can prevent communities from self-establishment
Unfortunately, voluntourism can lead to locals depending on volunteers and tourists to feed their local business. Therefore when the volunteers and tourists all leave, local vendors and businesses can suffer. It is important for communities to establish themselves and stand on their own two feet. And it is not sustainable to run a business when your clientele is unreliable. A report from Newsweek focused on the problem this creates within the community. Pacific Standard published an article that argued voluntourism in the medical community often does more harm than good.
It is also worth noting that volunteers may be taking paying jobs from locals in need of money. This was a major problem that arose after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Catherine Porter, a journalist for The Star, offered a different solution in 2011: “If you want to help Haiti, take a vacation there. Send money to a charity you trust working on the ground. Even better, set up a micro-credit loan for a single mother so she can rebuild her shattered market stall and send her kids to school. Just don’t go down there to volunteer for two weeks.”
What To Look For In A Volunteering Organization
Another con worth noting is that not all volunteering projects are legit. Some fake organizations are out there in hopes of taking your money. But once you have found a legit volunteer organization to work with, there are a few questions you should ask:
- What is the project type? (medical, educational, building etc)
- What is the reasons behind this volunteering project? In other words, were the local people consulted? Is this project necessary?
- Is there are ethical legitimacy to this project? Does it respect the customs and lifestyle of the local community? Will I have a positive influence on those I work with?
- Is there any local involvement in this volunteering project?
- Will the use of skills and resources from locals be utilized? Or will the skills and resources of the locals be ignored?
- What is the time period of this project?
- Will room and board be provided? Or is this something I need to figure out on my own?
- What is the overall goal of this volunteering project? Will it likely cause more harm than good on a community?
Personal Requirements Before Volunteering Abroad
As you have hopefully realized by now, volunteering abroad is not for everyone. And that is okay. Before you leave to volunteer abroad, make sure you have these personal requirements fulfilled and these questions answered to avoid any conflict on your journey:
- What is the estimated cost of this volunteering project? Do I have the means to participate?
- Is there a refund or cancellation fee in case of emergency?
- What are the means of communication during this volunteer project? Will I be able to contact people back home?
- What safety measures are being taken to ensure a safe environment for volunteers?
- What is my role for this project? What are the requirements? Am I confident that I can successfully and effectively carry out this role?
Volunteering Organizations Worth Looking Into
Hopefully by now you have a better understanding of what it is like go volunteer abroad. If you have read through all of the pros and cons – in addition to doing research of your own – and still think this is an experience you want to take part in, then it's time to look into organizations to volunteer with. Here are a few notable volunteer organizations to look into if you want to go volunteering abroad:
For Something Long Term: The Peace Corps
You likely already know about this organization. The Peace Corps is a volunteer program run by the United States government. The Peace Corps' official mission statement is to “provide social and economic development abroad through technical assistance, while promoting mutual understanding between Americans and populations served.” The first thing you should know about The Peace Corps is that this is a long-term commitment. Volunteers sign up to work for 2 to 3 years abroad. And while you can request countries to be sent to, you do not have the final say in your assignment.
Volunteering with The Peace Corps is an intense experience. And it is certainly not for everyone. Before signing up to be a Peace Corps volunteer, explore their website and see if this experience is right for you.
For High School Students: Youth For Understanding USA
Youth For Understanding USA (YFU) is one of the world’s oldest, largest and most respected intercultural exchange programs. The non-profit organization allows volunteers to live with a host family in Ecuador's capital, Quito. You will have the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Spanish language and volunteer at a childcare facility. YFU has connected more than 270,000 students with host families. The organization has also been selected to administer more government and corporate scholarships than any other high school exchange program before, according to the YFU website.
If you are a high school student interested in getting an early start on your world travels, then consider checking out YFU. They are a reputable, trustworthy organization that will help provide you with a journey of a lifetime.
For Travelers With A Green Thumb: WWOOF
If you have always fantasized of living off the land – and have a desire to see the world – then look into WWOOF. Otherwise known as Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOF's mission is to link “visitors with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences” to help build a more sustainable global economy. The goals of WWOOF is to grow the organic movement by providing volunteers with hands-on farming experience.
WWOOF links volunteers with farms across the globe. If you have a passion for sustainability and food and wish to see the world, WWOOF one of the best volunteering abroad opportunities for you.
For College Students: GoEco
GoEco is a notable organization that sends college students to volunteer abroad. They are an eco-tourism company that offers a variety of affordable and ethical projects for young people who are interested in volunteering abroad. GoEco has a wide range of countries and volunteering projects to choose from. This is one of the best companies to look into if you are interested in volunteering abroad and are passionate about the environment.
You may opt for rescuing sea turtles in Bali. Or maybe volunteer at an African wildlife orphanage. There is also the option to work with a desert wildlife program in Israel. The world is your oyster with GoEco.
For Older Adults: Armenian Volunteer Corps
If you have already graduated but still want to work or study abroad, you easily can. Armenian Volunteer Corps is one of many volunteering projects that encourage adults to apply. AVC was founded by a former Peace Corps volunteer in 2000. The goal is to make volunteering, learning, and working in Armenia accessible and affordable. Applicants can choose to looking into a professional internship or “something less formal.” There are more than 800 active placement partners currently working with ACV. Sectors and organizations you can apply to includes business, education, arts and culture, and more.
Additionally, AVC provides logistical support for volunteers and participants. This includes airport pick-up, a host family to live with, Armenian language classes, and more.
If you dream of volunteering abroad, there is no time like the present to make it happen.
What are you waiting for? If you have read the pros and cons thoroughly and still wish to volunteer abroad, there are so many opportunities to look into. GoAbroad is a great resource to look into even more incredible opportunities to volunteer and travel. As long as you understand what you are getting into – and can commit to the program you sign up with – then you should have a great time volunteering abroad. It can be expensive, but it's still less pricey than other trips you may take.
Have you ever gone volunteering abroad? Where did you go? And what was your assignment? Do you have recommendations on organizations for Trekbible readers to look into? Leave us a comment and let us know!
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