How to find volunteer opportunities while travelling
My personal belief has been – always leave a place much better than when you found it – and that has been my foundational basis for volunteering. It has been my way of showing gratitude to each country that has hosted me. Volunteering has also been therapeutic for when I have been on a downer. I’ve noticed that when I am totally engaged in sharing something of value with others, I get out of the ‘I, me, myself and my problems’ mode.
I started volunteering in India when I was 17. At the time, it was my safe outlet to go out and mingle with people other than university (just to clarify, this is coming from a very conservative background when I was a teenager). As I travelled and found my feet and grew as an individual I had more to contribute and my reasons for volunteering changed, and it keeps changing and shifting. For e.g. I now no longer wait to respond to well written emotional stories on ‘Humans of New York’ social media to take an initiative. I can not only recognise service situations around me easily, but also, I have gotten clear with myself about what I can offer easily and how much time in a week I can easily afford to put in. This helps me respond to opportunities easily even when I am travelling for short periods of time.
At first, let me get clear on what ‘volunteering’ personally means to me. How I define a volunteer opportunity may not always be on a platform, name brand organisation or a long-term project. It simply means ‘an opportunity to serve’ people. Also, it does not mean – “I’m helping you with something you don’t have”. It simply means, “Thank you for receiving from me what I have in my experience an overflow in abundance, and I hope it gets passed on”. Contributing to the community does not always have to be in the form of sweat, blood and tears; lots of money or a slice of your life – unless you start your own project and are heading it. It can be simply sharing ideas, giving units of your time or problem solving.
I’d have to start off with a reality check here – in my experience, if you are a tourist working as a volunteer (paid/unpaid, housing/food provided) it may be considered illegal in some countries. If you are on a tourist visa, governments usually prefer you to do touristy things, as ‘tourist dollars’ are far more beneficial to the economy. You do have to do your own research on that.
In this article, I would like to share my personal thoughts on how to get clear about choosing service opportunities, whilst overseas.
It is extremely important to get clear on why you want to do this. The clue to this one is answering the question, “What reward/recognition from this service would make me feel good?” If your ego is getting a massage, just become very aware of it. We have to keep asking ourselves – “Why am I doing this?”, “Am I prepared to relinquish control of the process, journey or expectations of any sort?”
- What problem in the world do you want to solve?
If we don’t stand for something, we will fall for anything. Know what cause you want to support. Be clear about your intentions as to why you want to do it. We all have a role to fulfil on the planet. I feel that each one is called on to serve the community to solve a problem and make life easier for others. Which one is yours? environment, animals, education, women’s health. For me, it is empowering disadvantaged women with life skills and entrepreneurship.
Get clear on your values. Pick 3-4 values that describe you in serving the community. e.g.: sharing, giving, nurturing, education, growth, service, empowerment. This will be your guiding force in your journey. For me it is ‘self-empowerment’, ‘growth mindset’ and ‘making myself useful’.
It is important to get clear on what you can give for free and with comfort without stress or holding back.
- How much time can you give comfortably in a week/fortnightly or month?
- How much money can you donate comfortably periodically?
- Can you allow your office/home space to be used for x number of hours for a good cause?
- What can you teach?
- What can you give away?
- What problems are you good at solving?
- What results can you bring to the project?
- Which of your skills can make other people’s lives easy?
What’s a ‘no-no’ for me?
Knowing what doesn’t work for you helps you recognise problems as they evolve and you can then redirect communications and stay on track and make your experience a meaningful one. In the volunteering context, self-management is extremely important in the areas or managing resources, problem solving and communication. Some of my own pet peeves are: If my time invested is more in endless paperwork and pointless and long meetings and less in the service itself, then at some point, it would frustrate me. ‘Scope creep’ is another pet peeve where the project gets out of control without clarity or direction and it is important to clarify communications, while remaining flexible to changes that are relevant to the project. Here, the key is to be grounded in managing your expectations as well as that of others and also stay connected to the core values of the service.
In essence, it is important to get clear on your values, intentions, resources you can offer and things that are your pet peeves so that your volunteering experience has value for your time invested and you have a fulfilling experience for yourself, the service and the other volunteers.
In my next article, “How I recognised volunteer opportunities in India and whilst travelling”, I will talk about how I recognised opportunities to serve.