Volunteering overseas – a (mostly) helpful guide


A little known fact about myself (until now I guess) is that for the past four years I have worked in 
a volunteer capacity for an NGO in South East Asia as Communications Co-ordinator and Volunteer Manager, with the last two years also serving on the board. The organisation’s name and that I have chosen to do this are not important for now, this article isn’t about me…

It’s about the volunteer of the future

They see the happy but under-nourished faces and squalid surrounds on Facebook, read about corrupt governments and hopelessly under-resourced services in the news. They want to help.

So what’s the answer? The answer is: do lots of research, then donate money direct.

But what if our volunteer of the future still wants to go over there and ‘do some good’, fulfilling an inner desire to transcend the guilt they feel living their comparatively cosy lives?

The answer is still: do the research by identifying an organisation with a particular need that resonates – one with moderate administration and overheads – and donate money direct.

But what if our volunteer of the future is the stubborn type who insists on jumping on a plane and going over there? Sending money is too quick, easy and disconnected. There’s no lingering feeling of satisfaction – or Instagramable moments. They want to get their hands dirty; dig, lift and carry, really see the fruits of their labour making a difference.

Without meaning to sound like a broken record, the answer is still – donate direct. That organisation they’ve identified? Out in the back blocks, installing solar panels or fresh water systems? They’re just seeing the carefully crafted message that’s being beamed out – a busy organisation using funds wisely for the benefit of disadvantaged people on the ground in country X. It’s a necessary communication tool, but I can tell you now that the reality is nowhere near as glamorous – 95% of the time working as part of an NGO is spent worrying about money. Fundraising, juggling resources, and looking for solutions to logistical challenges like staffing, ethics, and compliance with the ‘requirements’ of local officials. Our volunteer of the future will only see rock stars and celebrities breaking ground on a new well or delivering medicine. Not that I’m complaining, after all, actor Robert Pattinson of Twilight and Harry Potter fame was largely responsible for the establishment of one of our most important programs.

Let’s assume our volunteer of the future is still not dissuaded. They’re going! OK. So let’s continue carefully with some insider tips for anyone thinking of adding the experience of volunteering overseas to their CV (and karmic credits!)

It’s not all doom and gloom – if you do your research and communicate with organisations in advance

Thousands of Australians volunteer overseas every year. Almost all embark on their personal journey with the best intentions, and many will undertake tasks or complete projects where their efforts and the outcomes are of great benefit to the local organisation and country. Once you have found a few organisations that may be suitable based on your skills, you should reach out to them, find out their real needs, as well as look for red flags.

Choose an organisation wisely

These will generally either
 be government based – with a longer, more thorough and
 official process – or secular or non-secular non-government organisations (NGOs). With the latter, your experience may
 be generally anything from highly organised, to a self-guided process, sometimes through uncharted waters. Remember if you choose non-secular (founded by a religious organisation), there is a possibility some, or much of your money will go towards the administration of a large (wealthy) church network. Research really is the key. If research and preparation isn’t your strength, then volunteering overseas may not be for you. Generally the larger the organisation the more likely they will be able to utilise non-professionals or the unskilled, but smaller NGOs will waste their time and valuable resources trying to keep you occupied and yes, in many cases just trying to keep you happy.

Read between the lines scribbled out by the media

The evils of third world charities, orphanages in particular, are well documented – mostly by up and coming media personalities rejected by Foreign Correspondent but still trying to make a name for themselves, or Australian-based desk jockeys juniors who’ve been assigned a ‘hot topic’ by editorial. While it’s true that the moral compass of some charitable organisations are skewed, many legitimate and worthwhile organisations have suffered from a tightening in donations from wealthy countries like Australia, due to potentially being tarred with the same broad media ‘brush of fear’.

Don’t be attracted by the appeal of orphanages

The best way to determine whether an orphanage is ‘legit’ or not is to find out if they allow visitors. An orphanage that meets world child-safe standards will rarely open their doors to the public, and certainly not without each visitor being vetted via a police check and/or working with children certificate. I know, sounds like a bit of a dead end if you are focused on helping kids, but it doesn’t mean you can’t donate educational supplies, buy school clothes, or even better, sponsor academic pathways through high school and university.

Don’t pay ‘voluntourism’ middlemen or placement agencies

Apart from the fact that there is no guarantee you will be helping an official, regulated charity, your money – in some cases several thousand dollars for a one to three week volunteering placement – might not reach the organisation you have chosen.

Leave personal agendas at home

I’ve dealt with scores of volunteers who have informed me (upfront, from afar) the particular way they intend to help, but then go cold once they realise they won’t be digging wells or dancing with children. Almost all NGOs already have well planned systems, processes and programs in place. Foreign assistance, even though it’s coming from a first world country with a quality education and privileged existence, doesn’t immediately qualify as helpful. In many cases the organisation will spend more time finding you things to do, than you will being truly useful. Remember this analogy while weighing up the options – the Salvos, St Vinnies, The Brotherhood and similar organisations waste millions of dollars each year in Australia disposing of junk dumped in charity bins and outside ‘op shops’, most of it left by people who thought that leaving something for charity was better than leaving nothing. Wrong – they would have much preferred financial donations.

Offer useful skills

As part of the process, ask yourself: am I an engineer? Am I an architect or building contractor? A teacher with TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) experience? Do I have fundraising experience? Experience in renewables? Am I a financial controller or accountant? If you answered no to all of these, then your volunteering effort may not be helpful, especially to a smaller organisation with limited resources.

Don’t take a local’s job

Some organisations are keen to raise their exposure and hope for ‘follow on’ donations and assistance as an outcome from each volunteer they accept. Volunteers returning home are messengers to family, friends and a potential broader support base for some NGOs. This may cause them to accept more foreign volunteers than they really need, pushing locals out of roles that ideally they should be doing in-house, learning and developing skills that will benefit the country long term for years after you have left.

Pay your own way

Relatively speaking you are coming to country X having travelled from a wealthy, secure upbringing and stable lifestyle – you do not need a charity to house and feed you! Those resources are far better off staying in the organisation and benefitting local programs. Accommodation and food in many developing countries is cheap, and you will be pouring your money directly into the local economy.

Don’t set up systems that won’t (or can’t) be maintained after you’ve left

If you have some fantastic admin, IT or promotional ideas that can benefit an NGO greatly, then setting them up on the ground may benefit the organisation and their team. Still, once the excitement of your brainwave subsides, you need to make sure that you know how (and who) will run the systems in the future. Think sustainably – staff in a foreign NGO may be unprepared or unsure, and every initiative you implement must be able to be utilised and grown by the locals after you have left. A training plan and rollout schedule should be the first bullet point you write.

Dedicate some real time

Less than 2-3 months is generally unhelpful. If you are thinking of a three week holiday with a bit of volunteering squeezed in the middle somewhere, that’s what’s known as ‘voluntourism’ – you’d be better off donating your airfare and going to Ko Samui like everyone else. If you still think you can help, once again, do your research and find an organisation with needs that match your skills, and commit to three months minimum, preferably six months or more. In my organisation it takes at least a month to get a feel for the place, remember staff names, and understand who is who or does what.

Don’t arrive empty handed

Ask the organisation if they need anything before you travel. Apart from fundraising among friends and family, there are so many other activities you can undertake in advance to gather sponsors and donations. For example, if the NGO you’re helping are education focused, how about organising a book or laptop drive via local schools or community organisations?

The final word?

Just donate direct…