Volunteering – Is It For You?

18 January 2011

Why Do People Volunteer?

People volunteer for a number of different reasons, ranging from a desire to learn new skills, have fun or make a difference. Some are completely devoted to the cause, while others simply wish to do their bit where they can. In actual fact, many of the reasons for volunteering abroad are the same as those for volunteering at home but here there is the added bonus of getting to travel. However volunteering abroad is a much more meaningful experience, taking you further out of your comfort zone and offering far greater rewards.

Give Something Back

One of the more obvious reasons why people volunteer is because they find something they are passionate about and want to do something good for others. People who volunteer in their community have a personal attachment to the area and want to make it a better place for themselves and for others. People who have themselves struggled with social issues usually have a certain empathy for those in a similar situation and will often wish to help out. Many people who volunteer think that they are very fortunate to live the way they do and want to give something back to society, as a way of balancing the scales.

Unique Opportunities

As a regular tourist you don’t have the opportunity to see as much as you would as an insider. Particularly when working with animals or on conservation projects, being a volunteer has tremendous advantages. Unless you have a strong animal science background, you are unlikely to find a paid position caring for lion cubs in South Africa or turtles in Costa Rica and you certainly can’t get behind the scenes as a visitor! Volunteering abroad offers unique opportunities that are usually off-limits to travellers and that means they also offer a unique experience.

View a Culture from the Inside

One of the greatest benefits of volunteering abroad is being able to spend an extended period of time in a new country. It’s a truly unique learning experience that will see you interacting with new cultures, trying new food, speaking new languages and meeting new people.  As a  volunteer you will get a real glimpse of the local culture, allowing you to become a traveller instead of just a tourist.

Many volunteer travel experiences offer the opportunity to stay with a local family, so you will have the chance to really get to know the local people and experience the traditional lifestyle for yourself. Tourists staying for a few days in the Holiday Inn barely scratch the surface but as a volunteer (living and working in the community, talking to locals and staying for months) you will have a real opportunity to experience your chosen destination from within.

Personal Growth

Many people choose to volunteer because of the personal benefits that volunteering has on their character. Indeed, volunteers often say that the experience has made them a better person. In most cases, volunteers also become more concerned and aware of the problems facing the world and  many feel that they were ignorant or narrow minded before. Volunteers returning from abroad are usually more independent, more adventurous and more courageous, especially if it was their first foray into independent travel.

A huge part of the personal growth of a volunteer is becoming more compassionate. People who have volunteered in the past often become emotionally involved and are more likely to volunteer again in the future, either on the same project or a new one. It is not uncommon for volunteers to return home with a determination to continue their good work in the local community as well.

Personal Benefit

As well as offering travellers the opportunity to develop their skills, build up their CV and explore the world, volunteering can also offer personal benefits. Many volunteering organisations, including i-to-i, offer past volunteers a discount on their products, so their future travels can be a lot less expensive. In some cases volunteers offer their help because it is an issue that is close to their own hearts and if this is the case it can be even more rewarding when they see the fruits of their labour.

In most cases the biggest personal benefit is simply feeling good about yourself. Volunteers make a real difference to the world we live in, be it through conservation work  or teaching, and they can go home knowing they have done something amazing. What’s more, Volunteering abroad encourages significant personal development and volunteers will usually go home more confident, happy and outgoing people.

A Sense of Accomplishment

Many people choose to volunteer simply for the pride that comes from completing something. Imagine the sense of accomplishment when you put the last roof tile on a house you’ve been building or watch the baby turtles you’ve been caring for being released back into the wild. Even if this isn’t the main motivation for volunteering it is certainly a major bonus!

Recognition and Feedback

Recognition of your efforts is another thing that keeps volunteers coming back again and again. Not recognising what a good job a person is doing causes frustration and a feeling of abandonment. It can cause you to doubt your abilities, to think that maybe you aren’t doing a good job and that your presence is just a waste of time.

Of course, to tell someone that they are doing a good job is always a good thing to hear but it is especially important in a volunteer position where the volunteer isn’t receiving monetary recognition of their good work.

Telling someone that they are doing a good job inspires confidence and pride. It reminds you that the work you are doing is important and that you are making a difference. Plus, it just feels good to be appreciated.

Most volunteer projects are aware of this and are genuinely grateful for the time and effort that volunteer contribute to their cause. Though they are unable to offer monetary rewards, they are often determined to show you their gratitude through kind words and actions.

Learn New Things

Volunteering abroad opens a window onto how the other half lives. It is only after you’ve witnessed extreme poverty that you realise what state the world is in. Travelling abroad allows you to explore these issues in person, to see them for yourself and get a deeper understanding of what it means to you and the rest of the world. 

Spending time abroad also allows you to learn about the little things, like what Costa Rican’s eat for breakfast or how South African’s greet their friends. The world is filled with unique experiences but it’s easy to miss them if you’re just passing through. So why not stay a while?  Try your hand at salsa, explore local customs and see if you can learn a little of the local lingo.

Some volunteers are there to gain insight into an organization or a field. Think of the parent who volunteers in his/her child’s classroom, curious about teaching methods or the citizen who wants to learn more about local politics.

Friendship and Belonging

People often find lifelong friendships through volunteer work. While meeting people is often an added bonus, many people choose to volunteer primarily to develop friendships with people from different cultures.

Making friends with your fellow volunteers is also a strong motive for many of those who choose to volunteer abroad. Volunteers are bonded by their experience; they share jokes their friends at home could never understand and are touched by an experience that is uniquely theirs. There is an inherent bond of togetherness that comes from being sole outsiders in a foreign environment. Many volunteers make lifelong friendships that come from working through difficulties and exploring new things together.

Skills and Experience

Volunteer work is a great way to gain experience in a broad range of fields. You can gain experience in education, journalism, social work, animal care, health care, marketing, politics, web design… the opportunities are endless. Volunteering is a great way to put in a little of your time and gain some valuable skills, whether professional or t practical.

Many employers won’t hire a person, no matter how much education they have, if they don’t have any relevant experience. Similarly, many medical and veterinary schools expect applicants to prove their interest in the subject and their determination to succeed by volunteering for medical roles.

Learning a Foreign Language

If nothing else, volunteering abroad will tremendously develop your language skills. The best way, almost the only way, to learn a language is by actually using it in real situations. You don’t get very far practicing Spanish three hours a week if when you speak English for the other 165 hours of the week. When spending a significant amount of time abroad, you will be speaking a foreign language twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. You will be amazed at how quickly you pick it up.

Knowing a foreign language is a huge bonus in today’s job market. International communication is of growing importance because of the rapidly expanding global economy. Employers see great value in an ability to communicate, so a person that speaks three languages is much more desirable than a person who can only speak one.

Even if an employer doesn’t find a need for a person who can speak Swahili, the ability to communicate effectively across cultural barriers is a generic quality that looks good on any resume or CV.

Learning a foreign language opens doors for you as well. It allows you to communicate with more people and will relieve you of much stress and confusion commonly associated with travel. For example, whole continents will open up to you when you learn Spanish and knowing Mandarin enables you to speak to some 864 million people.

To Get a Job

Volunteer work can often lead to a paying job. Volunteers have the possibility of becoming volunteer coordinators. Similar to interns, volunteers can try out a field to see if it suits them and also show that they are dedicated enough to work for free in the hopes that it may lead to a paying job. English teachers are a great example of volunteer jobs that often turns into careers.

To Have Fun

I don’t think anyone would volunteer, despite all the benefits, if the work was intolerable and they didn’t have any fun. Volunteer work can be hard, strenuous, dirty and frustrating but it is also usually great fun and extremely rewarding. It will send you spiralling from homesickness, illness to culture shock but the fact is – you wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t worth it.

Volunteering abroad gives you the opportunity to play with children, go swimming in the local watering hole, shop at traditional markets, climb mountains, touch lives and see people smile! It’s something different, memorable and, for many, life-changing!

So whatever your reason for volunteering, you’ll find that it offers you a truly unique experience. In today’s busy world, many people think that they don’t have time to volunteer but placements can be as short as a week and they make a truly memorable summer vacation.

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