While you are overseas

Oly Shipp volunteering in Cambodia

When you first arrive

Volunteering in a new country, which is likely to be very different from your own, can be quite a culture shock. When you first arrive, you will experience many emotions and be constantly absorbing new information. Think about the challenges of travelling to a new country for a holiday, learning about how everything works, how to use public transport, order food in restaurants and ask basic questions in a foreign language. Sometimes this feels overwhelming, confusing and all a bit much, especially in a country that is completely different to your home. Multiply this by a hundred for the experience of being a volunteer, especially if you are going to be spending more than a few weeks volunteering in one place. Here's a few tips to get you started:

  • Give yourself time to get to know the area where you are going to be living and don't expect to automatically fit in or know what to do.
  • At first concentrate on learning the basics - getting around, using the local currency, where to buy the things you need, where to eat and drink.
  • Try to use the local language and if you don't know the words, ask someone how to say what you want to say and keep a notebook with you so you can write key phrases down.
  • Ask lots of questions - especially to local people so you can learn about how things work and understand the culture.
  • Listen, absorb and learn.
  • Abide by the local culture and customs and behave appropriately. You don't want to be seen as the foreigner who acts like they are in a holiday resort.
  • Try local food and drinks.
  • Attend local events. If you are invited to something, accept even if it isn't normally your sort of thing - it will be the opportunity to learn more about where you are living and talk to local people.
  • Make friends with other volunteers in the area - they will be your support circle during your placement and probably become firm friends.
  • Write a diary or blog about your experience as this will help you reflect on things and be a useful record of your experience.
  • Don't expect to hit the ground running when it comes to your placement. It may take time to get to know the local people you will be working alongside and understand the organisation and how everything works. It is important not to arrive and immediately suggest changing things.
  • Set yourself realistic objectives for the first two weeks, one month, three months etc. These can be personal and work-related objectives.

Homesickness

Don't be afraid to admit if you feel overwhelmed or homesick. Homesickness is normal and most people will experience it during the first few weeks or months of a volunteering placement. Having a few home comforts with you can help, for example music you love or a favourite book, or an object from home that is special to you. Contacting friends or family can also help, even if it is just sending an email telling them what you have been doing (or letter if you have no internet access). Socialising with other people will also help, as will keeping busy with your placement.

What if it is all going wrong?

The honest truth is that not all volunteering placements work out. Even well-planned projects with clear objectives can go wrong and usually this is for reasons outside your control. Funding could be withdrawn at short notice, there could be personnel changes, for example someone leaves who is key to your placement and isn't replaced. There can be communication breakdowns which could mean that you aren't expected when you arrive or the local organisation haven't prepared anything for you to do. Unfortunately this is the reality of going to a developing country to volunteer. Usually you will be going to volunteer somewhere where there are not a lot of resources or people to manage projects.

There are also volunteering organisations that may not manage their own projects very well or monitor changes on the ground so they may not realise that the project you have signed up to has changed by the time you get there and the role you were prepared for no longer exists.

So what do you do if this happens to you? The first thing is to be adaptable and open-minded. Yes, it may not be exactly as you expected or as was described in your placement information. But is there still something you can do that would be useful? You will need to be fairly self-motivated and tenacious and look for things to do, speak to people locally and other volunteers in the area.

Contact the organisation that you are volunteering with. If it is a sending-organisation, they should have an in-country coordinator who you can contact and speak to on the phone or a local representative that you could meet with. If it is a locally run organisation, speak to the person who you set up your placement with. Try to be positive and ask about other opportunities to volunteer.

It is important that you raise concerns about an organisation that isn't practising responsible volunteering. If you do sign up to volunteer with a sending-organisation and pay them a fee, and you feel they have mis-sold the volunteering project to you, you can contact a regulatory body to complain in the same way you would if you had an issue relating to a holiday booked with a tour operator.