Volunteering abroad can be an eye opening, life-changing decision: it’s a chance to discover and engage meaningfully with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and faiths in some of the globe’s least-visited but most fascinating places.
Sounds great, right? Before you get too carried away, it’s important to remember that volunteering is a decision that should never be taken lightly: volunteering without a proper commitment damages projects and gives the volunteering sector a bad name.
If you’re someone looking to dedicate themselves to a new cause, read on to discover if you’re exhibiting any of the five signs that you need to volunteer abroad – right now.
Sign 1: Travelling means more to you than sunshine and selfies
Although it should involve a lot of sunshine and selfies, if travelling has inspired you to see how jetting around the world can be meaningful and unforgettable, start searching for that volunteering placement NOW.
Perhaps you’re looking for a deeper, rawer connection with a country, or the chance to feel part of a community: either way, volunteering puts you in touch with people you wouldn’t ever usually meet travelling. I’ve been welcomed by indigenous families in rural communities in Bolivia and learned about the lives of young women from villages buried in Peruvian mountains. I might not have taken as many selfies, but I saw how donating my time could be beneficial and helped me to connect with new countries very differently than as a “normal” tourist.
Sign 2: You’ve got something tangible to offer
One of the easiest things to forget when deciding to volunteer is that’s it isn’t all about you. Sure, you’re driven by altruism to help people or wildlife around the world. But if you’re lacking the skills that a project needs, you might as well just donate the money rather than waste the organisation’s time.
You don’t necessarily need to have experience in the workplace to be able to offer something beneficial to a volunteering project. Are you fantastic with children, or a people-person who immediately puts others at ease? Skills like these will always be greatly appreciated by a project, making you ten times more useful, and them a million times more grateful. And never fear, some programmes even offer training: a perfect way of learning new skills and applying them meaningfully.
Sign 3: You’re seeking inspiration and a new challenge in your life
Perhaps you’ve been working a while, or have just left university and feel without a clear sense of direction. Sound familiar? Volunteering could change this – it certainly did for me. Yes, it’s a demanding experience, but the rewards of proving that you’re up to the challenge are endless.
Volunteering abroad requires you to adapt to new rules and cultural expectations, and maybe even pick up a new language. You work alongside a diverse group of people, often a mix of locals and other international volunteers. For many, the most thought-provoking part is when you’re confronted by the reality that few people have the privileges that you do back at home.
Yes, these experiences can be exhausting, emotionally-taxing, and demanding skills that you may not yet know you have, but by agreeing to this challenge and learning from every moment and every person you encounter, you come away with a new lens to look at your life. It’ll make you re-evaluate how you want to live, perhaps offer a new sense of purpose, and even provide inspiration for your future career path.
Sign 4: You’ve got a vision but you need some experience
If you’re looking for a career in international development or hoping to become a teacher or a marine biologist, for example, the experience from the field that volunteering offers will be highly beneficial to your future. The added bonus is you can make 100% sure that this is the career for you.
I was a teacher back at home, and while I knew I wanted to continue in education, volunteering in different roles in this sector has provided me with concrete experiences to add to my CV and an idea of what type of position I would return to in the future. Whatever stage you’re at in life, volunteering is a positive way of taking a potential job for a test run, safe in the knowledge that you’re giving something back along the way.
Sign 5: You want to have an impact – however small it might be
Volunteering is a positive act that you can do and it will have an impact. But change takes a long time and often when we volunteer, the differences that we are making are not easy to see. The best volunteers are those who go abroad ready to accept every small – yet still significant – change that they might help to affect.
Maybe it’s teaching a few words of English that give confidence to that student in Guatemala, or assisting in the long process of rehabilitation of animals in South Africa so they can be re-released into the wild. Your actions will have powerful consequences, even if you don’t see them while you’re there. Volunteering is all about contributing to something much larger than yourself and being proud to have played even a tiny part in it.