Thoughts on Volunteering Part 2

Volunteering overseas exposes you to people, lifestyles, history and daily life different to anything you would find at home, and as such, encourages you to grow and develop further as a person but there are other aspects to consider as well.
Following on from part 1, here are the rest of my thoughts (or at least another 5 of them) on volunteering overseas.

6. Be creative, be focussed
What do you want to get out of your time? It’s good to arrive with a plan in mind of what will make your time spent volunteering internationally successful for you. This may or may not happen in reality (see points 8, 9 and 10), but the project manager in me says if you don’t have a plan, you can’t work the plan. Do you want to work on your novel in your spare time? Eat all the food? Travel in your weekends? Learn to salsa dance/lithograph/hot air balloon/cook like a whiz? Knowing the skills or experiences you want to leave with will help your focus, especially given your time overseas will go very very quickly. Joining local classes also helps you integrate, and be less of a tourist and more of a local.


7. Learn the language
This one is essential. If you can’t communicate with the locals apart from mimed gestures, your time overseas will be harder than it needs to be. Learning the local language (or at least words on it) changes the dynamic from visitor to local very quickly. Most people are incredibly generous with non-local speakers – forgiving botched tenses and mispronounced words. At the end of the day, it’s what you are trying to say that matters, not your perfect grammar. Unless of course you try to say something like “she is coming back with her husband”, and actually say “she is coming back for your husband”, which I mention as someone with no experience doing that at all.

8. It is still work
Volunteering is still a job like anything else. You will have people in your workplace that you love, and those you would prefer to avoid. There is bureaucracy everywhere. Things will not run the way you think they should, or in the timeframe you think (see point 10), and your good ideas may not gain any type of traction (see point 9). IMG_2487
Volunteering overseas sounds fun when you are stuck in your car in rush hour in the same street every evening at home. Countries overseas have rush hour too, and you might trade places for a seat on a crowded bus in traffic, blasting latin pop, and literally stuck to your seatmate with sweat. Your work may not be set hours, or set days. You may work from cafes, home of an office. You may not see other volunteers on a daily basis, you might see them every day and wish you didn’t. The key thing is to be resilient, and to remain flexible. A sense of humour is a good thing too.

9. You don’t know everything
Just because something works this way at home, doesn’t mean it will (or should) work that way in another country. Before I left for Mexico, I read that you may work for 2 years making changes in your organisation, and after leaving, if you returned 2 months later, you may find everything has gone to the way it was before you arrived. Just because you have some answers and ways things could be improved doesn’t mean they will be. You need to know when you arrive that organisational or process change is hard to implement, and takes time to embed. Quite some time.


10. Time works differently
Time is a hugely subjective thing when living in different countries. Just ask anyone who makes dinner plans with people from Spain!
In Mexico, I have got used to flexi-time. That is, when you have something scheduled for say, 7.30pm, people will arrive from 7.40 to 8.15pm and that is actually normal. Times, I have found, are more of a suggestion than a rule. That is of course unless you are getting public transport. Then you should get there to board on time, but don’t expect to leave on time, or arrive on time.
When volunteering overseas time has this bizarre way of telescoping in so you feel every day is the same as the previous, and then time snaps back again, and all of a sudden you are 7 months into your time commitment and wondering how you got there. Set goals for what you want to have accomplished – both personally and professionally each week/month. Hold yourself accountable, as time will keep marching along regardless, and you are there only once. Use your time well.


So, those are my thoughts on volunteering overseas, refined during my time here. I hope they will be of help to anyone thinking of making the move to volunteer. It’s definitely one of the most-challenging, most-rewarding things I have done, and I have learnt so much – both about myself, other people and cultures, and different areas of the world.