How to Be a Star Volunteer

By Jessica Lockhart

An element of uncertainty accompanies any international experience. Here are five tips to help you get and give the most as an international volunteer.

1. Take a personal inventory of your skills and experience—and don't discredit the small stuff.

You've applied to volunteer overseas, you've been placed with a host organization and maybe you've even received a job description. But until you step off the plane, it's often unclear what your exact role within an organization might be.

"Having a clear sense of what you're good at and what you'd like to learn is going to be invaluable," says Erin Barnhart, Founder of Effective Altruism and the Graduate Program Director for IPSL in International Development and Service. Through Barnhart's doctoral research for her paper Organizational Motivations for and Perceived Benefits of Hosting International Volunteers, she found that of the 57 international organizations surveyed, respondents were overwhelmingly looking for volunteers who were not only able to contribute specific skills, but also able to assist in skill transfer. "[Organizations are asking] 'Can you come with a particular skill set and train our staff and our local volunteers so that once you leave we can sustain it?'" Barnhart explains.

She recommends taking an inventory of your personal skills—an act that can also aid organizations in placing you appropriately. "Especially if they don't have a pre-determined role for you, you may be able to spark something that they hadn't thought of before," Barnhart says.

But unless you're a medical professional or a humanitarian aid worker, figuring out how to best align your skills with the needs of an organization might not be an easy exercise.

"In terms of discovering your skills, think about all the things you did and forget about all the labels we have on things," recommends Heather Auden, who has prepared volunteers to go overseas with both Youth Challenge International and Right to Play. She cites the example of a volunteer that she placed overseas whose only previous work experience had been as a tree planter. While the volunteer dismissed the experience as irrelevant, Auden saw inherent value in the skills they had developed—time management and the ability to live in a remote location.

Similarly, organizations may be in need of basic skills that many North American volunteers already unknowingly possess—for example, the capacity to set up and manage social media sites. The simple act of creating a Facebook or Twitter account for an organization can help them to share information, recruit more volunteers or fundraise.

But even if you are volunteering overseas to contribute a very specific set of skills, don't be afraid to ask for help. "Often people will go overseas and they are thought of as experts. They're sometimes left to work on their own and don't have a lot of guidance from the organization," says Auden. "In every case make sure you ask questions."

2. Always be prepared.

"Once you know where you're going, it's sort of a fifty-fifty thing—it's to the organization to help you out, but it's up to you to do your homework," advises author Ken Budd, who volunteered in six different countries for his book The Voluntourist

In addition to researching the country's history, culture and language, read up on your host organization and thoroughly review any preparation materials. If you know what type of a placement that you will be completing, investigate whether there is any training you can take in advance. (For example, if you'll be completing a construction project, take a carpentry class at a local community centre. Or if you're going to be working with kids or teaching English as a second language, volunteer at a local organization that does similar work.) If you're not sure what to expect, see if you can get in touch with current or past volunteers who have worked with the same organization overseas.

Finally, once you've done your research, don't forget the physical aspect of volunteering. Budd says one of the projects he felt the most well prepared for was his placement in Ecuador, because he had physically trained to deal with the high altitude prior to his arrival.

3. Develop realistic expectations of what you will achieve.

For Matt Reimer, an IT professional who quit his job to pursue an interest in international development, identifying how his skills best fit with the needs of an organization overseas wasn't his primary concern. So when he began his placement in Morogoro, Tanzania at the Faraja Trust Fund, he was pleased to discover that he would be facilitating computer training for Tanzanian youth. But that was just one piece of the puzzle—he was also expected to complete HIV/AIDS, governance and gender equality workshops. "You'll be required to wear a hat that you've never had to wear before and you'll always have to do things that are a little outside your comfort zone," advises Reimer.

Even after you've identified the key skills that you're able to contribute to an organization, don't forget to be flexible and willing to take on whatever work is assigned to you. Similarly, Auden cautions against making assumptions about an organization's needs—observe and ask questions first before approaching your host organization with potential projects. "Some of the most effective volunteers are the ones that go with open minds and flexibility," she says.

This was also one of the major findings of Barnhart's research. "At the top of the challenges list was volunteers having unrealistic expectations," says Barnhart. "Volunteers can really prepare for that by establishing a mindset of, 'I'm not going to change the world, but I'm going to contribute to world-changing actions.'"

4. Account for differences in culture—including work culture.

Volunteer placement organizations are rife with horror stories of skilled volunteers going overseas only to falter because they anticipate North American business practices—an expectation that can put a strain on both the volunteer and the partner organization.

"You have to be conscious enough to know that you're from a completely different culture and country," Auden says. This means that just because something is considered an effective and efficient means of completing a task in North America, doesn't necessarily mean that it's the "right" way of doing something.

"We need to be mindful that our way of doing things isn't always the best way to do them somewhere else," says Barnhart. "If we can approach that opportunity as one of partnership—as one of both student and teacher—we are even more prepared to help facilitate effective change and to become a lifelong partner to that organization and that community."

5. Engage with your community once you return home.

For many overseas organizations, being an exceptional volunteer doesn't end once you've left the country—star volunteers are the ones who continue to contribute to an organization's mission even after they've returned home.

For many NGOs who are desperate for support, volunteers and funds, international volunteers have a vital role to play in ensuring their ongoing success. "Essentially, international volunteers who have that personal connection with an organization can become a branch of it," says Barnhart. "They become an additional advocate in another corner of the world who can help to drum up interest and potential support—whether it be financial or in-person volunteer support."

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