How to volunteer abroad without being a dick

Don’t just do it for the ‘gram

Volunteering abroad – a way to broaden your experiences, bolster your CV, contribute to important causes and fall in love with a completely different part of the world. Sounds perfect, right?

Unfortunately, however, the mere mention of such volunteer work abroad is more likely to solicit eye-rolls than praise. These days it conjures images of privileged students imposing themselves on under-resourced communities, posting photos with local children they don’t know, building structurally questionable community centres and leaving said communities no better off for the indisputable joy of their presence.

But is this reputation of ‘voluntourism’ fair?

While there are a great many volunteers who do it with the best of intentions, it cannot be doubted that there is a loud minority of self-indulgent soul-seekers who ruin it for the rest. If you’re thinking of volunteering abroad, here’s a list of questions you should probably ask yourself to make sure you’re not one of them.

Am I doing it for the right reasons?

Perhaps the most important question – why you’re volunteering to begin with. Is it to contribute in some meaningful way to important causes? Or is that important cause the prominence of your social media profile? Now, of course volunteering abroad is never purely altruistic. It is a wonderful way to see the world and gain transferable skills.  But if you’re looking for what essentially amounts to a free holiday, then maybe someone who actually cares about the project would be a better fit.

Is the organisation I’m volunteering with any good?

There are good ones, there are bad ones, and then there are bloody useless ones. It’s always a good idea to check the history of the NGO or charity you’re volunteering with and whether they have made tangible and sustainable differences in the communities they operate in. Also, if they charge a hefty programme fee then it’s a good indication of where their real priorities lie.

Do I have the necessary skills?

Fixing a tap doesn’t necessarily mean you can lay out a road. Speaking English might not help you a great deal when teaching if you can’t stand children. Volunteers may not be paid but it isn’t fair to expect to be hosted by people in a different community who could most likely do a better job on a project than you can. Try to choose a program suited to your skills and interests, otherwise you’ll probably just be wasting other people’s time – and your own.

Am I prepared to work and live abroad?

Whether the program lasts for days or for months, being unprepared can leave you in some serious trouble. Forgetting an important vaccine might not make you a twat, but forgetting to get travel insurance and forcing your parents to pay for the hospital bill will most certainly qualify you. The Travel Aware campaign is helpful in giving government hints and tips. Also, although it may seem obvious, laws, cultures and customs differ across the world so it’s a good idea to research them well in advance of your trip on the government’s Travel Advice pages. Few things make you look more like a twat than preaching about the wrongs of social or cultural norms of a country you’ve gone out of your way to visit. It’s much easier to save the hassle and not go there to begin with.

Are my expectations realistic?

Contrary to popular belief, not every volunteering program ends with the volunteer being thrown into the air by jubilant locals, filled with praise for ending systemic poverty and showing them the light. Volunteering can be frustrating, precisely because of how difficult these issues are to tackle, and the enormity of the problems can be overwhelming. Don’t be demoralised though! In the words of a man far more articulate than myself, ‘the smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.’

So perhaps the best way to avoid looking like a dick while volunteering is not being a dick to start with. Simple, really.

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University of St Andrews