How to Make the Break: Logistical Challenges of Volunteering Abroad
Whether it’s been something brewing in the back of your mind for years, or you’ve just recently decided that you’d like to spend some time contributing to a community in need, the decision to spend time volunteering abroad is an exciting one!
But for many, this initial excitement is often followed by a barrage of questions about how to actually make it happen.
So let’s take a look at a few of these common concerns, and how to solve them.
Grasp the Full Extent of Your Skill Set
We often define our skill sets simply by what we do professionally (“I work in marketing”; “I’m a dentist”). But we are all much more wonderfully well-rounded people than we often give ourselves credit for.
Are you great at communicating with others? A whiz with numbers? An avid sewer? Do you have experience taking care of children? Were you the one to teach your mother how to use a computer? Are you a dedicated fitness or nutrition enthusiast?
These skills could allow you to make a valuable contribution in a wide range of places across the world.
From vocational programmes like computer skills, sewing, or small business management, to educational programmes in English, math, nutrition, or physical education, the opportunities to contribute to a community might be broader than you think!
Take some time to think about your own skill set outside of your title at work. Then include hobbies, talents, and personal strengths. You might be surprised at all the wonderful things you are capable of contributing. You might find my post about How to Use Your Transferable Skills to Make a Difference to the Lives of Others quite useful!
Will You Need to Take Time Off Work?
It’s possible, but don’t assume it’s absolutely necessary!
Volunteer programme lengths have a wide range of structures. They can range from two weeks to a year, and there are also lots of different ways to arrange a volunteer stint with your current employer.
Let’s start with plain old vacation time.
But although this is one potential avenue for getting time off, don’t assume that your volunteer programme is simply a “vacation”.
While working in a different country and culture and dealing with all kinds of brand-new challenges, you’ll also be developing incredibly valuable skills. And these are skills that will also benefit you when you return to work.
With these practical benefits in mind, you could explore with your employer the possibility of taking a sabbatical, or an unpaid leave of absence. In the latter option, the costs for your employer would be minimal. They could potentially take advantage of the potential PR benefits of you helping communities aboard. Read my previous article on how to convince your employer to let you take time off, if you need a helping hand!
How to Get Back Into Work After Volunteering
Although we recommend taking things one step at a time, it’s natural to wonder about what comes next after volunteering.
First of all, it’s important to recognise that you will be returning with many new skills, experiences, and perspectives. These will have an undeniable positive impact on your professional skill set as well as your CV, per this article by recruitment specialists Reed.
Regardless of your professional field, having completed a volunteer experience in another country speaks volumes about your ability to adapt, confront challenges, persevere in the face of adversity, and communicate with people who are different than you.
These are all enormous assets in any workplace, and may set you apart as a candidate.
While it’s always advisable to save some funds for your return as well as for your time abroad, we encourage you to keep an open mind about your return to work. Not only will you be surprised at the skills you develop, you might even come back with new ideas about what you want to do!
Work Out What You’ll Be Paying For
There are lots of volunteer programmes out there, so it’s important to know what you need out of the programme and how much you’ll need to pay.
To begin, it’s important to understand the level of support that is offered. A good programme will include safe accommodation, at least two meals a day during the week, 24/7 in-country support, airport transfers, a pre-departure briefing, and the ability to travel and explore on weekends.
In addition to the programme costs, you’ll also have to pay for international flights, insurance, any uncovered meals (i.e. weekends), and any personal expenses you expect to have.
Finally, keep in mind that in many cases the purpose of paying to volunteer is to take the weight of your own expenses off of the people you hope to help, and to help keep the programme sustainable so that both volunteers and community members can continue to grow together for years to come.
Raise Adequate Funds
Now that you know what you’ll be paying for, the question arises: how will I pay for it?
The good news is that thanks to fundraising, many volunteers don’t have to afford the whole cost themselves. The channels for fundraising today are extensive, ranging from online crowdfunding sites to personal requests of support.
Other options include charity auctions or raffles, or putting on a show or gig in your own community to raise money.
Huffpost have even put together “10 Ways to Fundraise for Your Volunteer Travel That Actually Work which is a good place to start.
Lastly, of course, there’s good, old-fashioned savings!
If you’re planning your volunteer programme far enough in advance, you can work diligently at putting money aside bit by bit for your trip.
Whether it’s getting a part-time or temp job, selling off belongings you no longer use, cancelling unused subscriptions, or simply being careful about your everyday spending, you might be surprised by how much you can save up.
Convincing your family and friends
Although you’re the one going to volunteer, it can sometimes become a bit of a family affair — even for adults!
It’s natural for your loved ones to be curious or worried about the new place you’re going to.
As in most situations, communication is key.
It’s important to discuss with your family the reasons that you’ve decided to take on this experience. You should also demonstrate to them the safety precautions to be taken and the reputation of the company you’re using.
Provide clear information about when you’re coming back, how to get in touch with you, how often to expect communication. You can connect with them through free channels like Skype, WhatsApp, etc. and arrange times to catch up.
Also make sure you work together to make plans for loved ones worried about coping while you’re away, as well as plans for any logistical details (bills, pets, etc).
Decide What Happens to Your Home While You’re Away
If you’ll be volunteering for more than a couple weeks, you might want to think about what you’ll do with your home while you’re not occupying it.
If you’re interested in earning some extra cash, you could consider renting it out through platforms like Airbnb or Rightmove. Alternatively you could find a housesitter, or allow a family member or friend to stay there while you’re gone.
Of course, if you’re really ready to make a change and step into the unknown — you could even sell your home!
Where Will You Stay While You Volunteer?
With your domestic concerns handled, your mind will turn next to your trip: where will I stay while I’m volunteering abroad?
Types of accommodation vary greatly depending on country, geography, and culture. In general you should understand that while your accommodation should certainly be safe and relatively comfortable, you shouldn’t expect a five-star hotel!
Remember that part of the value of this experience is stepping outside your comfort zone and immersing yourself in another culture — and it’s okay if their bedrooms don’t look exactly like yours at home.
In order to put your mind at ease regarding where you’ll stay, make sure you go with a reputable company that verifies accommodation for volunteers. For example, Inspire often places volunteers in homestays — a great way to truly immerse yourself in the everyday life of trusted families in the local community.
Go It Alone, or Let an Expert Help You?
While there is certainly a wide range of options for volunteering out there, ranging from your own personal connections to all-inclusive programmes, it’s advisable to go with the support of an expert.
Often, just having a contact in the country isn’t enough to truly support you. Whether in the case of an emergency or in critical logistical details like accommodation and transport, a personal contact may not have the power to help 24/7.
By going with an expert organisation, you receive support throughout the duration of the programme. They will have permanent in-country teams with local understanding who can help you deal with any problems immediately, local liaisons within the community, security checks, and access to healthcare.
In addition to logistical and emergency support, an expert company can connect you with organisations that are doing meaningful and sustainable work.
This means that your time, money, and skills are being put to best use and you’re legitimately helping the right people. For example, Inspire works closely with all of its local teams to stay up-to-date on their current needs as well as form a long-term, well-established, forward-thinking plan for both the volunteers and the local community.
What If Your Chosen Destination Is Unavailable?
While you might have a dream volunteering destination (or several), it’s important to ask these 3 questions about the place in general before choosing to volunteer there:
- Is it currently safe to visit? In certain regions, security risks may make for unfavourable conditions for a volunteer stint.
- Are there volunteer programmes available in the location? As mentioned earlier, it’s advisable to go to a place where a trusted volunteering company can provide you with the support you need.
- Is this location in need of help in the form of the skills you can provide? The purpose of your volunteering trip is to be able to make a real difference. You should do your research to make sure that you can bring real value to a community there.
In the event that it turns out that your dream destination is not ideal for your volunteer trip, don’t get discouraged!
There are so many places throughout the world where you could put your valuable skills to good use to support a community’s needs, as well as learn a great deal yourself. Keep an open mind — there are endless possibilities out there for a rewarding volunteer experience, whether it was the first place you thought of or not!
Still haven’t decided if a volunteer trip is for you, or have a question we haven’t answered here? Get in touch with us any time or leave a comment below and we’ll be on hand to help.