There are two main parts to making a decision about which type of agency to volunteer with. The first relates to assessing your requirements, skills, and the type of work you would be best suited to undertake. The second involves deciding on the type of organisation that would best match your needs and skills. When making a decision, it’s important at all times to consider the host community, remembering that your presence will have an impact not only on you but also on them. Use the following list as a guide to assist you with identifying what you have to offer as a volunteer.
As well as asking yourself these vital questions it is useful to consider how much you know with about development and the different issues that shape the lives of many of those experiencing disadvantage in developing countries. Comhlámh recommends taking the time to start learning about these issues whilst you are researching and planning a volunteer opportunity.
1. What are my motivations? And how do they link to my expectations?
Volunteers’ motivations for going overseas can be very mixed and vary from person to person. It is very important to examine your motivations before you make your final decision as these will help you to better reflect on the reasons that you are going overseas to volunteer and the particular placement that you have chosen. Do remember that although there are no “right” or “wrong” motivations, there should ideally be a balance between meeting your needs and meeting the needs of others when making a decision to volunteer overseas.
Understanding your own motivations will help you build up a realistic expectation of what you hope to achieve through volunteering overseas. Volunteers who have unrealistic expectations of their placement can often end up feeling disappointed, frustrated and disillusioned when the experience does not meet their expectations. On the other hand, having realistic expectations will help you get the most out of your volunteering experience and should make it all the more fulfilling and rewarding for you.
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2: What are my skills?
Make a list of all the skills you have that you think would be relevant to volunteering overseas. This could include educational qualifications, paid and voluntary work experience, knowledge of languages, previous experience of living abroad, and any other interests that you think would be of use to a project. This will assist you when you approach the list of organisations, and give you a better idea of where you might be able to make the most useful contribution.
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3: What type of work would be best suited to me?
It is very important to think about the type of work that will be the best match between your skills and the needs of a project. Think carefully before taking up a voluntary work placement that involves activities of which you have no experience. Aside from the fact that the host organisation may have to spend time and money on training you in, there is also a possibility that you could find yourself in a position where you could cause more harm than good. Ask yourself whether you would be given similar responsibilities in Ireland: if not, think about the reasons why. For example, if you have no teaching qualifications or experience, would you get a job in a school here? Why should it be different in another country? Is it because there is a huge shortage of locally qualified people to do the job, or would your volunteering displace someone from getting paid employment? Or is the main point of the placement to provide an intercultural experience, rather than for you to pass on particular skills? Additionally, being away from home in a new country where you’ve made a commitment to stay for a certain period of time may not be the best setting in which to discover that you hate your work. Think about the different types of placement that are available, eg, short-term/intercultural or long-term development, and the pros and cons that you have drawn up for each. This should help you to make a decision about the type of placement that would be most suitable for you.
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4: Would I like to work directly with the host community, or would I prefer to volunteer alongside other expatriates?
Some volunteer programmes may involve volunteers working only with local people, some will involve working primarily alongside other expatriate volunteers, and some involve a mixture of both (for example, having a local counterpart with whom you carry out your assigned work). Many people can find some comfort in working with other expatriates with whom they have a common cultural background, especially if it is their first time volunteering overseas. On the other hand, some people prefer to completely immerse themselves in the local culture and not to have contact with other expats. Once you have decided, be sure to clarify what the situation will be with any agencies that you contact.
“Working on an equal level with an in-country volunteer is the most effective way of reducing the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. My Ugandan partner became such a close friend, and I think he had much more of an impact on our students than I did because they could relate to him and he acted as a role model for them”. Orla, volunteer in Uganda, 2003
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5: What kind of conditions would be best for me when volunteering?
The conditions in which volunteers live and work can vary enormously, depending on whether they are based in urban or rural areas. You should carefully consider which you would be happier with, bearing in mind that the answer could affect your access to clean water, food supply, medical supports and the availability of electricity and telephones. Your access to social amenities will also be affected, depending on the location you choose. Remember that while a placement in a rural area may impact on your access to these, it may also offer you a more easy going pace of life, in a community where everyone will know you. These issues can have much more of an effect on your day-to-day life as a volunteer than you might have expected. For example, would you find it problematic to share accommodation with others, whether they are locals or expatriates? Would it bother you to live in accommodation that was of a higher standard than that of your co-workers? Would you find it difficult if you did not have access to a vehicle? Would you be able to cope with the local climate? One former volunteer who worked in an isolated rural area did not realise that she would have to spend up to two hours every morning making breakfast, due to the lack of piped water and electricity. Depending on your viewpoint, this could either be an adventurous and enriching experience, or a huge aggravation.
“One needs to be mentally prepared for the nature and pace of work which may be very different from ‘back home’: entertainment and social life are also areas needing much adjustment.” Gram Vikas, Rural Development Organisation, India
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6: How long am I prepared to commit myself for?
Former volunteers repeatedly stress the importance of organising a ‘time appropriate’ placement. There are several different aspects to this. Some projects may be very interesting and attractive to you, but may require a greater time commitment than you can give in order to see them through to their conclusion. For example, long-term development work often involves spending a prolonged period overseas. It may take months before you know the country and the issues well enough to become really effective. In some cases, if you are not prepared to commit a particular amount of time, it may limit your contribution. However, it is very important not to commit yourself to something that you know you will not be able to conclude. Another issue to consider is whether you are comfortable with spending a relatively short amount of time working on a project where you can build up very close relationships with local people, then having to leave. Previous volunteers have said that this can, in particular, have a detrimental effect on children who become very close to volunteers that they may never see again. Make sure that you consider these issues before making any final decisions.
“Choose the project you want to work on in advance if possible and ensure the timings are right (e.g. school work from start of year term and not end of term or during holidays).” Aoife, volunteer in South Africa, 2004
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7: What are my personal health and emotional needs?
Ask yourself under what circumstances you might find these needs to be overstretched. Volunteering overseas can require a certain amount of emotional robustness and flexibility. For any project you are considering, take these needs into account when making your decision. You may decide that you would prefer to work on a project with other expatriate volunteers, who could provide emotional support. Or you might like to look for a project that has a full-time contact person that you can talk to if you are having difficulties. If you have problems coping in very warm or very cold climates, bear this in mind when considering your destination. If you are considering volunteering for several months or more, think about the impact that this might have on relations and friends.
“Some of the things I saw and heard and experienced really broke my heart but I had too much of a workload to process the many emotions which I was feeling until I got home. This was extremely stressful and it took a long time for me to recover. I would recommend that people make sure they will be well supported emotionally on placement and on their return and to be certain they are not taking on more work than they can reasonably do.” Gwen, volunteer in India, 2004.
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8. What are the personal circumstances that may affect my choices?
Your personal circumstances will have an influence on where you go, the type of volunteering you choose to do, and the length of time you choose to do it for. Your family situation, financial circumstances, age, physical and mental health, employment situation, level of education, qualifications, work experience, and personal traits, will all, to some extent or another, influence your decision. When making a decision to volunteer overseas it is essential to bear these factors in mind. For example, if you have a partner or children, can they come with you? If you have a disability, can this be accommodated by the placement organisation? Do you have any outstanding financial commitments (for example, rent, a loan, or a mortgage) that will be affected by your volunteering overseas? If you are requested to pay for your placement, will this be a problem? For example, will you have the time to fundraise for the organisation, if that is required before you go overseas? These are all the things to consider carefully before you make your decision.
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