5 Step Guide to Volunteering

The reason I first went to India was to volunteer.

And the fact that I returned 6 months later is testament to how much I enjoyed the experience. But it was the initial researching and waffling around in the dark of not knowing where to begin which was the difficult and painful bit. It can put you off going at all. But behind the overwhelming choice presented to you when you google ‘volunteer work’ is a real cosmos of need, charity and business which is both fascinating to navigate and inspiring to become involved in. You’ve just got to get past the googling.

That first step.

So! I’ve decided to put together a 5 step method to tackling this black hole of research and getting on the way to a rewarding, incredible and, most importantly, USEFUL volunteer experience. Follow these steps to easily find the best volunteer experience for you!

Step 1. – do you want a holiday?

Right. So in my first trip to India I was a volunteer, and believe me the team of people I was with were there to work.

But the second time I worked at this camp, in November last year, many people (in fact including myself) seemed to be less than 100% committed. Now of course you are allowed your off days, duh, but what I am talking about is the motivation behind being there at all.

To me, on my first trip, the whole adventure was about putting every fibre of my being into teaching and motivating my kids to learn. But on the second trip I realised there were many people who had come to volunteer expecting more of a romantic, feel-good experience than a good, hardworking camp of dedicated people.

Many people volunteer because they want to help out, but they’re a bit vague on what that means. Find out. How much do you have to work? What kind of work? Do you like doing that? Are you motivated to do it? Whats the reality of the whole ‘volunteer’ thing anyway?

Others like the idea of meeting cool people. GUYSSSS if you just want to meet some travel buddies, book your first night at a youth hostel! Go on an Intrepid or Contiki tour, get off the beaten track with Edge Adventures, catch a ride on the Party Train, or find yourself very drunk and completely wild at a Club 18-30 holiday!

And there are plenty of other options out there besides these, including just hopping on a plane and hoping for the best (my preferred way to travel).

But the point here is that volunteering is a lot more than just friends and a good time. So! My advise is this: before you go to volunteer, figure out if what you want is a holiday, or if you’re expecting to work, perhaps even harder than you do at home.

There’s no shame in wanting a holiday! Who doesn’t. But be clear on this one because, in the end, whats the use of a worker who really wants to play?

Step 2. – how intrepid do you feel?

This is not about calling one type of work ‘superior to’ and more ‘intrepid’ than another, since volunteering isn’t about how ‘intrepid’ you are – its about the impact you make and your attitude whilst there.

But still, it is important to consider your personality type before you book something.

For example, some volunteer work is catered to the volunteers. You go with a company, 24 hour emergency assistance, safe camp accommodation, etc. Other work is mush less planned and formal, with potentially rough accommodation, no company backup and a great deal of self-organisation.

Obviously these are two extremes, there are many bits in the middle. But my advise is to not be ashamed or snooty about your level of intrepidness – just look at it objectively.

You need to be honest with yourself and with what sort of living situation you would be comfortable with, because if you are comfortable you will be able to focus your attention on the work at hand, but if you are not then believe me an awful lot of energy goes on worrying and stressing and generally being uncomfortable.

Step 3. – what do you want to volunteer as?

This is the fun bit. What are your strengths?

I volunteered as a teacher during my time in India but, being an art fanatic, I also had the opportunity to paint the playground of two different schools whilst there (below is a slide I worked on with two other lovely girls for an orphanage in Goa).

All around the world there are a variety of different opportunities. From construction work, bar work, farm work and teaching work, to domestic work, admin work, cooking work, anything! You just have to figure out how you could best contribute and go looking for that.

This can often involve calling up your in-country placement and discussing options with them. In Goa I was only asked to do artistic work because someone found out I could paint, and the company happened to really need artwork done in their teaching placements.

It wasn’t a usual, advertised volunteer job – it was a spur of the moment thing. But it was so helpful for those lovely kids and the camp was really happy to have people who could contribute in that way. So get talking! Got any skills? Any passions? Could they be useful? You never know what people will need.

We painted this slide!

Step 4. – where do you want to go?

I found out a year ago that you can actually volunteer in Australia, my home country. Yes. I guess we don’t think about volunteering in our home countries really, or at least I didn’t, but that in itself can tell you a lot about why you want to volunteer.

Are you being romantic? Does volunteering in a poverty-torn Burmese village sound a lot better than working somewhere a few hours drive away?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get out and see the world and volunteering is a great way to do so, but if its sorta the only or main reason you want to go anywhere then maybe go back to question 1…

Also, consider how different levels of economic and social development will make for different types of need in different countries and localities. Think about both what part of the world you want to see, and what sort of work they have there, and try to marry the two.

And finally…step 5. – get looking!

Ok, so now you’ve answered the toughies and you’re onto the fun bit – looking for your opportunity! For this stage you need to know two things: whats out there, and where to find it all. Well! You have sooooo many options, but the best places to start are the internet, the people and the travel books. You can find volunteer opportunities on Facebook… Here are some actually, and some great forums for finding this kinda stuff:

  • VolunteerMatch – based in California, yes, but a good platform to finding volunteer opportunities and networking
  • Solo Travel Society – great for asking questions and finding out about travel, volunteer work and all things exterior to your own four walls from other solo-travellers who’ve done it all before)
  • Nomadic Matt’s Page – This guy is inspiring! Check out his adventures and ask him some questions

Being swamped at famous Old Goa… ‘one photo ma’m?’ haha!
Travel books and websites such as the Lonely Planet link up to other sites to provide info on all sorts of opportunities, including volunteer work (check them out at The Lonely Planetand following other people as they travel and adventure is also a great way to discover what’s out there to do. There are some incredible blogs out there! Check these ones out:

Beautiful Jodhpur. You can volunteer here through http://www.idex.in and many other in-country organisations.
You can also find volunteer opportunities with a simple bit of googling. Type in the type of volunteer work you want to do and where, and your screen will be inundated with companies and corporations like Antipodeans Abroad and AVI, who  will cater to your every need. There are also organisations like UNICEF and The Red Cross which organise work both abroad and locally, for all those who want to help out in their hometown.

Finally, a great way to find the less commercial opportunities is to talk to people. Do you know anyone with family in the country you want to visit? Anyone who’s been there recently? Anyone with connections?

Well look, get talking. This happened to me out of the blue in a bookshop last year. I met a woman in line waiting to pay for a big bundle of classics, and somehow in the 5 minutes we had to wait we started discussing volunteer work.

I think she’d asked me about my occupation and I’d divulged my lack of studiousness and current aim to get back to India ASAP and work/travel again. And, as it turned out, she had a brother in Tamil-Nadu who had just set up a rural school for kids who couldn’t access the government education provided.

She told me how, as a private start-up business, he was really in need of teaching and construction help to get off the ground. This was a completely un-official opportunity, and there would have been no way of finding it without such a well-timed and brilliantly coincidental conversation with a complete stranger in a book store.

It doesn’t have to be as bizarre as this! Friends, family, lecturers, associates – just do a bit of fishin’ around.

And then, perhaps the greatest website of all time for ‘off-the-beaten-track’ volunteer opportunities is HelpX. No need for an explanation – if you want to work, live and breath the local culture, people and living conditions, if you want to volunteer without paying half your yearly salary for the privilege, and if you want an experience that is as far from commercial as your average bat is from having a swim, this is the place to go. People register on this site and advertise their local projects.

For example, when looking at opportunities for Indian volunteering I found a number of start-up schools with stressed start-up owners who needed people to come, live with them and eat with them for either free or a tiny contribution, and work with them on building the school, teaching their masses of students or some other important work to get their business moving.

There are also farm-work communities on HelpX, construction work, even the opportunity to help out in Goa with the local bar owners who have to re-set up their bars every season and need a hand constructing, designing and painting the beautiful beach-huts we all sleep in when we tourists turn up for a relax and an unwind.

So many things! And it’s all real. Proper stuff. Not commercialised, not incredibly expensive (often free!) but it is in exchange for real, hard and dedicated help – this is what volunteering is actually about. Do be careful though – there is no safety net.

Not that I am, but working with animals is a great thing to do.(Try www.animalexperienceinternational.com)

In conclusion…get on it. Get volunteering – its great! And more of us should do it. If you’re reading this, chances are you live in a house for which you can pay, you eat food regularly, cleanse yourself every day and have surplus for recreational purposes…

This means that you’re in the lucky few.

So, without ever telling yourself ‘I SHOULD…’, well done for being here and keep thinking about what you COULD do, which you may find is a lot more than you once believed!

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6 comments on “5 Step Guide to Volunteering

  1. THANK YOU. I am currently looking at going to Latin America to volunteer with street kids education – after I learn more Spanish. I am undecided but yes I want to party as well – I am not sure whether to party before or after. When do you suggest?

    • Hey! Ahhh si, es una idea practica. Where in Latin America are you thinking? Well from personal experience its great to party after – that way you make friends whilst you’re there and very often they’re looking to hang out afterward as well. My all time favourite travel experience was a month I spent with someone after I’d met her at a volunteer camp! How long do you have?

      • I’m thinking Ecuador. But haven’t decided. Well I’m thinking 6 months. But haven’t done it before – so not sure if that’s too long. What do you think?

  2. Ecuador sounds great! There are some areas to flat out avoid since the crime rate is dangerous, and I have to say do check the political situation in all Latin American countries before going! But honestly, Ecuador would be so amazing – you lucky thing!
    As for how long, I found 1 month to be enough in the type of volunteer work I was doing. I am no teacher, and I felt frustrated by the strict schedule and safety net of my program. I would have been better suited to something a lot less formal, like what you find on HelpX. There’s also the question of if you want to volunteer, or you want to explore a new place – there’s no shame in either, its just good to be clear. It can help with picking stuff like length of time!

    • WOW only just looked up HelpX that’s amazing – but so scary. Is security an issue? Have you used that site before? I wish to do both, probably in different countries. Thank you

  3. Yes, be careful with all sites like this I’d say! I’ve not worked with HelpX before, but my advise would be to look at reviews and go with an opportunity that has good ones. Do some research – are they listed on any other sites? Email them/call/look them up – do they have their own website? Do they look legit? Its also a good plan to perhaps go to the area a week or so early, so party first! And then you can check it out before you commit to anything. I guess like with anything just be careful – the internet can be so dodgy

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