What to Do When Your Volunteer Abroad Program Doesn't Go as Expected

Not all volunteer projects are smooth sailing. Pete R.

Written by  April 6, 2015

What happens when the reality of your overseas placement doesn't meet expectations?

You've done your research, read reviews, packed your bags, charged your camera and flew thousands of miles to aid in a cause you believe in. You've spoken with program advisors, financial offices and confirmed pick-up plans with your in-country contact. Behold, your volunteer program abroad begins!

Before you know it, your starry-eyed expectations of your adventure in altruism quickly loses its shine. You are doing minimal, if not worthless work and you realize your good intentions and deep desire to "help" are not being utilized. Since you sincerely hoped for a meaningful travel experience, playing around with kids all day or learning the names of the plants in the conservation park really aren't cuttin' it.

Having completed volunteer programs in a number of different countries for a number of different causes, I am no stranger to the fact that sometimes, volunteer abroad programs aren't what they were cracked up to be. While this is definitely the exception rather than the norm, volunteers-to-be are wise to consider what alternatives they will seek should their experience be a bust.

If you're feeling discouraged in your volunteer placement, it's high-time you take off your rose-coloured glasses and get to work on fixing the problem (as best as you can). No matter if it is your first time volunteering or your tenth, be prepared to advocate for yourself and your needs when your project goes awry.

Here's what to do when your volunteer abroad program doesn't go as expected:

1. Reassess your situation.

Perhaps you are jumping to conclusions. Don't let one or two bad apple days spoil the whole bunch. The root of the problem might be your highly-inflated expectations versus the situation itself.

Are your expectations based on fact and information from the company or from reading about past volunteers' experiences (maybe even a personal friend's story)? Are your expectations based on marketing materials or inspiring photos on the website? Are your expectations flustered by your longstanding dreams of volunteering in another country, or perhaps some bias that you didn't even realize you carried?

If you have a hunch that it might get better, wait it out another 24 hours. Yes, we know that your time travelling is limited—sometimes it is only a week—so this step should be shortened/lengthened depending on your patience, your time allotment and how bad the situation really is.

2. Talk to your main contact.

If you are feeling frustrated by expectations-meeting-reality, connect with the project manager in the field. Ask to speak with them briefly and come prepared with a number of questions or concerns you would like to address. If you are keen to exercise some of your specific skills, you might consider suggesting your participation in related activities.

Remember that the organization you are volunteering with might be currently experiencing a "slow season" or have little work that can be completed by relatively unskilled volunteers. If you have a healthy respect for the overall organization and their mission, you will not be overly demanding in your requests—and will speak assertively but compassionately when discussing your present issues.

3. Revisit your intentions.

Think back to when you first decided to volunteer abroad. What were your overarching motivations for going on this volunteer trip? Were you hoping to have an ultra-cool experience that you could brag about to your friends about back home? Did you have a "save the world" mentality? Were you hoping to get an edge on your college apps or resume? Be honest with yourself.

If your intentions ran deeper than a glorified vacation, you might take into consideration all of the information presented to you in your meeting with the main contact. Perhaps, the best thing you can do to support the organization is to hang tight and only pitch in where needed. If you are truly psyched about the cause and dissatisfied with your current contributions, you might even consider using your extra free time to research alternative ways to get involved.

4. Revisit the organization's intentions.

It is important for volunteers to "walk the circle" and observe their issues from all points of view—especially the volunteer organization itself. The developing world operates at a different pace and with different systems than what most volunteers are accustomed to. While you might be quick to criticize, also take the time to reflect and remember that you are experiencing an entirely new culture. Sometimes these cultures are so different from our own that we get frustrated easily.

Also bear in mind that even the concept of "volunteering" is a fairly foreign notion in many countries, so what you consider to be time spent wisely might differ significantly from what your local contacts' think. 

5. If all else fails, consider leaving early.

This is never an ideal situation, but some volunteer projects can be so poorly organized that you might feel helpless. If you are falling asleep each night extremely irritated by your current state of affairs, you don't deserve to endure that heart ache. If it becomes increasingly clear that you have been conned into paying money for an experience that you aren't being given, you might consider removing yourself from the situation entirely.

Don't assume that you will be given a refund in any of these instances, but there is no harm in asking. The best you can do is to inform your contacts of your leaving, kindly wish them well, and feel prepped and ready to handle your volunteer abroad experience differently the next time.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Megan Lee

Megan Lee is an international educator, traveler and writer. She is currently working in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda with nine American college students. Read her blog as she makes new rafikis and learn more about Africa this spring.

Website: https://twitter.com/peglegmeg

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