By Erick Widman
Sarah’s note: Erick interviewed me before I transitioned out of Volunteer Global to join Frayed Passport in winter 2012; this article is a case study about that interview.
One starting point for aspiring volunteers is Volunteer Global. Sarah Vandenberg founded this organization while working as an intern for the Peace Corps, which is an excellent option for many people. However, if you’re unable to commit to two years, you’re not an American citizen, or you’re not old enough, you need to pursue other options. The good news is that there is a huge universe of opportunities that are available.
Why is it Worth Taking the Time to Volunteer Abroad?
You should commit to serving abroad because it has a positive impact in at least four different ways:
1. Benefits the Volunteer. You get to experience the satisfaction that comes from helping others. You learn about a new culture, make friends from other countries, and you see the world. You also are able to travel as much as your time and resources allow for.
2. Benefits the Organization. Whether it’s a local or international non-profit, an NGO, or a company, you are able to help fulfill the organization’s mission. Staff typically is the most expensive part of an organization’s budget, and you can help accelerate their impact. The ultimate goal for many sustainable volunteer organizations is that volunteers can eventually be replaced with local staff.
3. Benefits the Community. When volunteers arrive, they inject money into the local economy. In addition to revenue, volunteers help the organization fulfill its mission, which benefits the community overall.
4. Benefits the Service Recipients. All quality, reputable volunteer organizations were founded to meet a specific need in people’s lives. Your efforts as a volunteer will improve the lives of people where you are living and working.
Why do Most Volunteer Abroad Organizations Require a Fee?
A good distinction to make is that we often are not paying to volunteer—we’re paying for support, training, housing, food, and often the tools needed to do the job. Since the people we’re helping can’t pay us themselves, we need to come up with the money somewhere else. This of course depends on the organization you work with.
Why do Costs Differ Amongst Volunteer Organizations?
Quite often the more expensive fees are charged by placement organizations. Overall there are two types of volunteer organizations: Placement and Host.
Host groups are the local organizations that accept volunteers to work directly with them. Placement organizations partner with the Host groups to market their worthy cause and help find people to come volunteer.
Sarah Volunteers Regularly Overseas—We Should Too
Sarah truly loves serving abroad and makes it a regular practice. She has been doing about two volunteer trips each year, and just a month ago she spent a week volunteering with some friends in Jamaica. She’s found that putting the focus on other people as she travels with others makes for a rich and memorable experience.
Funding Your Volunteer Trips
Some think it can be a good choice for people new to volunteering abroad—or traveling overseas in general—to sign up with a placement group, which, depending on the entity, can provides an extra amount of assistance and may include support from both the the placement organization and the local group you are serving with.
Although Sarah has self-funded all of her trips so far, an approach to consider is turning to crowdfunding (going to masses of people to chip in a bit of money) for help. An organization she recommends that focuses specifically on crowdfunding for volunteers is Volunteer Forever. They provide a platform for aspiring volunteers to raise support and also have reviews of a number of organizations.
Occupational and Professional Volunteering
Most people have specific skills and training that form the basis for their long-term career—whether you’re an actuary, marketing manager, or a doctor. A fantastic approach to volunteering abroad is to put the skills that you use every day in your regular occupation to good use in a developing country.
For example, when Sarah and the Volunteer Global team started sending travelers overseas, they had opportunities for medical students or seasoned medical professionals in Nicaragua. The volunteers worked within Nicaraguan hospitals and, depending on one’s skill and experience, could work directly with a specific local physician and help with certain procedures. Similarly, some American medical students participating in this program had the responsibility of taking the vitals of patients who were being admitted to the hospital.
Professional volunteers have to watch out, however, because they might like the service opportunity so much that they may not return. The head of Mercy Ships, for example, is a physician who went to Africa to volunteer for a short period but is still there decades later!
Does Sarah think you can find work volunteering abroad as an accountant, for example? She says: “absolutely!” She thinks the most likely scenario is that your skills would be put to use by an organization abroad that desperately needs help with balancing their books.
In addition, there are opportunities available—typically long-term commitments of a year or more—to effectively become an employee of a host government or an organization. This approach usually allows you to have all your living expenses taken care of through a monthly stipend. Such an arrangement is often described as a “volunteer job” or “professional volunteer.” On paper, you won’t get rich doing this, but it most likely would be the richest experience of your life to date.
Sarah’s organization offered something similar: they listed “volunteer positions” along with “volunteer opportunities.” The “positions” required specific skills and a commitment similar to taking on a regular job—you’re just doing so in an exotic foreign land.
Sarah’s Final Advice for New Volunteers
Do lots of research to ensure you are exposed to many of the options that are available. Certain programs will be a better fit for you than others, and you’ll be a better fit for some organizations over others. However, it’s also the case that you won’t be able to know for sure what will be the absolute “best” option. You’re trying something new in a new country—so, by definition, you won’t have complete certainty about everything. But doing research (and a GOOD amount of it) can help.