How to Prepare for Work As a Volunteer Abroad
Volunteering abroad is an exciting adventure, but can also potentially be daunting…
Solid preparation beforehand will help make sure you get the most out of your experience, and reduce any nerves you might have about your trip.
1. Organise Your Funds
First, find out what is covered in the programme. Then, have a detailed conversation with your volunteer programme provider to ensure you understand what expenses you will have to pay. You will need to look at both the programme fee as well as other living expenses.
Next, review your trip funds to make sure you have saved enough to cover all of these costs. Don’t forget to include a budget for any personal travel you would like to do on the weekends. Just make sure you don’t plan on using any charitable donations you have raised for your trip for this purpose!
Finally, do some local research and find out if you’ll be able to use ATMs or pay with a card frequently, or if you’ll need to bring cash. This information is crucial, so you don’t get stuck with no cash in a place where the nearest ATM might be several towns away.
2. Sort Out Your Paperwork
Not the most thrilling task, but a highly necessary one.
Don’t skimp on the research and preparation on this — to start, it’s what will allow you into your new country! Look into and apply for any visas or work permits well in advance, so you’re not stuck without a necessary document at the last minute.
Additionally, make sure your passport is valid for the full length of your placement.
You’ll also want to get any necessary vaccinations and ensure you’ll have insurance coverage abroad, either from your normal provider or through an additional policy from a travel insurance company. A good volunteer programme will carry out risk assessments for you, so that you can know what you should be covered for.
Finally, buy your flights within the “sweet spot” of airline pricing, which some say averages around 54 days before the flight.
3. Read up on Local History and Background
As a responsible and eager volunteer, this will be one of the most important parts of your preparation.
In order to make real impact in your new community, it will be critical for you to understand the basics of the local history, cultural background, and socioeconomic factors.
- With which other countries does your new country work closely?
- What are its main sources of income?
- What are the wider issues and challenges affecting the country or region?
- Are there any past or ongoing social or political conflicts that greatly influence today’s society?
History, as well as current affairs can shed much light on a country. Refer to trusted news and data sources like the BBC, The Economist, the WHO, or local English-speaking newspapers to thoroughly inform yourself.
4. Educate Yourself on Cultural Differences
When it comes to cultural differences, you’ll have lots to learn as soon as you arrive in-country. You can help soften the shock and avoid any major social gaffes by doing some research beforehand.
Read up on local etiquette, from greeting to eating to general interactions, which may be quite different from what you’re used to, especially if the main religion is different than that of your own country.
Find out if there are any subjects are taboo, including any traumas in recent history that should be avoided as a topic of conversation.
You should also prepare for social norms that may be quite different than what you’re used to, including treatment of women, the existence of a caste system, or more extreme and visible poverty and inequality.
5. Get a Handle on the Local Language
While you’re not expected to become fluent in just a couple of months before your volunteer placement, knowing a handful of basic words, phrases, and questions will help you enormously in getting around and interacting with your new community.
Just being able to ask basic questions and display gratitude and humility will help you demonstrate genuine interest in the local culture and build relationships in truly meaningful way.
There are lots of free language learning tools available online, like this one from the BBC.
6. Get Mentally Ready
During your volunteer experience, you’ll likely be outside of your comfort zone quite frequently.
Your workplace culture may be very different than what you’re used to. Your living conditions also may be more basic than your own home.
Being outside of your comfort zone is one of the best opportunities for personal growth, but it also requires you to know how to manage stress and discomfort, so do some research and brainstorming about the best ways for you to recognise and healthily respond to these feelings.
After all, just knowing that you’re prepared may reduce your overall stress considerably!
7. Prepare for Your Volunteer Role
You’re likely not the first one who has volunteered in this location. So check out some online forums of people who have travelled or lived in the area before, and see what advice or anecdotes they have to offer.
Your volunteer programme should also have a helpful list of FAQs.
If you’ll be teaching, it’s a good idea to research ideas for working effectively in a classroom with limited resources. You could also start by downloading any videos you’ll need while you still have a reliable internet connection.
8. Get Organised at Home
While you’re volunteering abroad, life as usual will still be going on at home, so make sure you’ve organised everything (and everyone) you’re leaving behind.
I touched upon this in my post a few weeks ago Logistical Challenges of Volunteering Abroad, but let’s recap how you should prepare to leave home for a while…
Create a communication plan with your friends and loved ones, including how you’ll communicate, i.e. via Skype or WhatsApp, and how often to expect to hear from you.
Keep in mind that some social media services are blocked in certain countries, so check first and avoid using it as your primary communication.
It’s also a good idea to write down contact information in a notebook, just in case your phone doesn’t work or something happens to it.
On the domestic front, consider whether you’ll need a house sitter or someone to take care of your pets. If so, make sure you arrange to give them the necessary keys or alarm code, as well as any money for pet food or supplies.
If you’ll be leaving your house unoccupied, inform your home insurance company — though if possible, it’s generally better to find a house sitter than to leave your home completely empty.
9. Get Excited for Traveling on Your Own Time
A good volunteer programme is not just a professional experience — it’s a personal journey and a time of exploration, discovery, and growth as well.
This means that during your off time, like on the weekends, you’ll have the freedom to travel and explore nearby areas. Have fun researching other local cities and attractions, and getting excited about the new places you’ll get to see!
It’s recommended to speak to your programme advisor about your travel plans, as they will likely have insider tips about getting there or what to see. It’s also good to make sure someone local knows where you’ll be going.
10. Dust Off Your Suitcase
For some, it’s exciting; for others, it’s a dreaded chore.
Regardless of your personal outlook on the matter, packing must be done, so consider carefully everything you will (and won’t) need.
First, for a basic picture of what kinds of clothes you’ll need, inform yourself on the climate, religion, general etiquette, and expectations for the job you’ll be doing. For example, in more conservative countries, you may need to make sure you’re covered up (even if the climate is hot), or possibly buy traditional dress once in-country.
A head torch may come in handy if the local electrical grid is not totally reliable, and a reusable water bottle is advised in order to stay hydrated.
Other travel basics include a notebook and pencils for journaling, mosquito repellent (with the appropriate strength for the area), and appropriate gifts for hosts, students, coworkers, etc. if applicable.
Overall, you should plan on packing as lightly as possible — focus on bringing the things you know you won’t be able to purchase in-country.
11. Get Moving
If you have been deskbound in a cool, rainy climate for the past few years, your body might be feeling a bit sluggish.
Remember that you are going to be heading to a completely different climate and doing very different activities, so it is advisable to start physically preparing yourself before arrival.
A few things you can start doing today include sticking to a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water; avoiding smoking and cutting down on alcohol and caffeine; building up your stamina with regular swimming, dancing, or walks; or doing some core strength exercises every couple of days.
These exercises don’t have to be extensive — just aim for around 20 minutes in order to loosen up your body and start to strengthen your muscles.
12. Tick Off Any Worries or Concerns
If anything is bothering you, or if there is anything about your placement or preparation that is still unclear to you, talk to your programme organiser right away.
This person is there to help you prepare for and complete your volunteer placement successfully, and he or she will be the best person to address any concerns you might have.
Additionally, make sure that the programme organiser is aware of any dietary requirements you might have, so that they can make local arrangements accordingly.
If so, then what are you waiting for! Start looking at some of our destinations now, you never know where you could be, or have been, this time next year.
Need more advice? Get in touch with me any time by calling us at +44 1635 285666, go to our enquiries page, or leave a comment below.