Posted: 31 Jan 2013 06:28 AM PST
I’m frequently asked about volunteering overseas and unfortunately, I don’t know much about it. So today, I’m turning the blog over to friend and volunteer tourism expert Shannon O’Donnell from the blog A Little Adrift. She’s been volunteering around the world for years and recently published a book on the subject. She is the expert so without further ado, here is Shannon’s advice on finding good volunteer opportunities.
A foundational motivation underpinning the past four years I have been traveling around the world was a notion that through serving others I would find a clearer direction for my own life. There are many prisms through which we can better understand and respect other cultures as we travel, but for me, the most effective prism has been volunteering. I left to travel for a range of reasons and I had many ideas and notions about what I would find when I left the confines of the United States. The mere act of travel dispelled many of those notions almost immediately, but it was only when I slowed down and spent time volunteering within these communities that I was able to sink into the travel experience in a way that goes beyond photographing the major temples, churches, and iconic sites.
When I first left in 2008 on what I thought would simply be a year-long round the world trip, I was overwhelmed by how convoluted and ethically ambiguous the international volunteer industry seemed. Simple searches to find projects I could support on my trip yielded a bevy of companies touting volunteer experiences operating in the poorest countries in the world and yet costing many thousands of dollars—it didn't make sense and it nearly discouraged me from doing any work at all. But once I traveled, and researched, and learned, I realized there are so many quality, ethical options out there for travelers interested in volunteering, but finding them is tougher than it should be. It is the very nature of this quandary that motivated me to write my book, The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook.
I know what it's like to want to volunteer and travel, but to be confused by the sometimes huge fees, the equivocal ethics, and the sheer number of options. With that in mind, I jumped at the opportunity Matt gave me to share five clear steps that show how to find and vet good-fit volunteer projects.
Step One: Understand Development and Aid
Two core themes I analyze in my book center on how too many volunteer projects can actually foster dependency on international aid and compromise the dignity of the people they are trying to help. Before you volunteer, your job is to understand the macro-industry around volunteering. I've collected a list of fantastic books, TED Talks, and websites that provide context for international aid conundrums and the interplay between volunteering and development work. Each one of these three offers a good start towards broad-level understanding:
Step Two: Choose a Good-Fit Type of Volunteering
Step Three: Research Organizations in Your Interest Area
These websites allow you to sort and sift through the whole gamut of types of volunteering (conservation, teaching, medical, etc.) and requirements (family, timing, location). For now, simply fill your spreadsheet or folder with projects that excite you and in the next step we'll look at vetting potential volunteer projects.
Step Four: Ask the Right Questions
Vetting the volunteer projects you researched is your next step and allows you to narrow your list. Diligently follow through with this stage of the process because there are heartbreaking consequences to supporting projects that are not sensitive to the needs of the people and places. An example, and a cautionary tale, is the current orphanage scandals reported in Africa and Cambodia; something as innocuous as volunteering at an orphanage often has sad and heartbreaking side-effects on the children.
Frustratingly, there are disparate issues within each volunteering niche so I wrote up a full list of questions to ask your volunteer organization on my volunteer site. The core issues most volunteer projects face come down to:
At the point that you have effectively questioned the organizations and projects that interest you, you are only left with the personal decision of weighing time, costs, and project details to decide which one fits your volunteering goals. My 11-year old niece and I volunteered during our seven month trip to Southeast Asia and my volunteer goals then were quite different than when I travel solo, and so my various projects over the years have reflected my differing circumstances … as will yours!
Step Five: Take a Deep Breath
The single decision to weave international service into my round the world travels changed the direction of my life. I left the United States back in 2008 confused about the direction I should take—I left behind my previous dreams as an actor living in Los Angeles and hoped that travel and volunteering would help me re-focus. It has done that and more; the regular integration of service in my life gave me a new lens through which to experience the world and an ability to experience communities and cultures in a way that simply traveling through a country does not allow.
Once you've picked your volunteer experience, take a deep breath before you tackle the planning phase and those practicalities. I have travel resources and volunteer resources when you're ready for that, but pause first. It's easy to get bogged down in the details, but the larger picture is very rewarding when you are able to sit down on the airplane—your bags are packed, vaccinations done, details planned—and simply anticipate the new experiences and new perspectives you are about to face.
Shannon O'Donnell has actively traveled around the world since 2008; she travels slowly and volunteers in small communities along the way. She recently published The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook, and her travel stories and photography are recorded on her travel blog, A Little Adrift.
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