volunteer helping local boy with homework

A bit of preparation can make a huge difference to your experience of volunteering abroad. A responsible volunteering organisation should provide you with pre-departure training and preparation, or at least point you in the direction of information which you can use to brief yourself. To get you started, we have put together some advice about how to prepare yourself for going overseas.

Your expectations

The first thing to prepare is your own expectations about volunteering abroad and what it will be like. One of the main challenges of volunteering in a developing country is the reality of what you can achieve compared to your expectations. Look at the language some organisations use to describe their volunteering projects, telling you what a difference you will make to the lives of poor people or how you will be putting a smile on children's faces.

The reality is that if you are only volunteering for a few weeks or even months, the impact of your placement may be quite low. You may encounter real poverty for the first time, as well as complicated political and social situations, overwhelming levels of bureaucracy and an inability to get things done. Being aware of this from the start will help you to deal with these challenges and not have unrealistic expectations of what you can achieve.

Speak to a previous volunteer

Contact the organisation you are volunteering with and ask them if they can provide you with contact details of past volunteers. Try to speak to a volunteer who has either done the same or a similar project (or at the very least someone who has volunteered in the same country). They can provide you with information about the local situation, what it is like to live there, what you might be doing in the placement and how things work. This will be invaluable information to help you prepare.

Learn the language

One of the best ways you can prepare is to learn the basics of the local language. You don't need to be fluent but being able to introduce yourself, get around and order food and drink will stand you in good stead. If you are planning to do a longer placement, you will pick up the language by living in the country, but it is a good idea to learn the basics before you go.

Find out about the local culture and customs

To prepare yourself for the experience, you should research the place you are going to and find out as much as possible about the culture, local customs, appropriate dress, food and drink. This will really help prepare you for the culture shock of living in a different country and gain a good understanding of the local context before you go.

You can use this research to help you identify any challenges you may face, for example if you are a vegetarian, how easy will be it be to have a relatively healthy diet if you are going somewhere where meat and fish are the staple diet? How will you approach this if you are going to be living with a host family who will be giving you your meals?

Learn about global development issues

What is “global development” or “international development”? To put it simply, this term is widely used to refer to providing better lives for people in poor countries. This can cover things like improving access to healthcare, education, clean water, sanitation and economic opportunity. It also means giving individuals the opportunity to participate and have a choice in what their life looks like, so being entitled to basic human rights and to vote in democratic elections and being empowered to make decisions and take control of their own lives. Poorer countries are usually referred to as developing countries (which is now more politically correct than calling them third world countries).

Many volunteering placements are in developing countries and it is really important to gain an understanding of development issues before you go. This will help you be better informed and understand the situation of the people you will encounter, rather than having a more superficial view of poverty. There are many stereotypes out there and it is important to look beyond these and become aware that western standards and values can’t be applied to different cultures.

This will also help to prepare you for the limitations of what you can achieve by volunteering – change happens very slowly and there are many barriers and challenges. Being aware of these before you go will really help you to manage your expectations.

Some volunteering organisations offer pre-departure training courses which introduce you to development. However, if this isn’t available, there are one day courses you can attend or online courses, for example with the Open University which has some free online courses. You can also learn a lot just by reading a book about development issues or searching online for information.

What skills and resources do you need?

Once you have identified a suitable placement and signed up, you should reassess what skills you need, how you can get them and what resources would be useful to bring with you.

Contact the local organisation who you will be volunteering with and try to find out as much as possible about the role you will be doing, what areas you will be focusing on and any particular areas of need they have that you could support them with. If you are volunteering through a sending-organisation, ask them if they can give you contact details for the local organisation who you will be volunteering with so you can get in touch.

You may find there is something that you don't have much experience in which would be really useful during your placement, for example fundraising skills. You can download resources online to help you learn the basics, or buy a book about fundraising.

You could also look at who you know who might be able to share their knowledge with you and give you a crash-course in a subject. Look beyond your friends and family to your extended network, people you have worked with, friends of friends. You could also ask this person if you could email them if you need any support while you are on the placement.

For short placements or those which don't require particular skills (for example building or conservation), you can prepare by finding out as much as possible about the project and kind of work you will be doing so you have a good understanding before you depart of the activities you will be assisting with. For conservation projects, you could research the environmental issues and species or habitat you will be conserving and read some scientific papers to learn about any relevant research.

What to take with you

Think carefully about what to take with you. There is likely to be a maximum baggage allowance, which varies depending on the airline you travel with. Don't try to take too much and prioritise your personal possessions over things which you think would be useful for your placement or gifts for the local people. For example if you are doing a placement in a school, don't bring lots of pens for the children as they may not have any notebooks (and don't bring these either!). Until you arrive, you won't know what it is needed and it is better that you have your personal possessions, things you can't live without, as this will help you to adapt and have some home-comforts.

Some people choose to bring food that they can't get in the country of their placement. Chocolate is a good item to pack but remember that most food stuffs are perishable and you may be going to a hot country so things won't keep for long.

You may want to bring a laptop or tablet. Make sure it is insured and you have backed up the hard drive before you go in case it gets stolen or lost. However, it is one of the most useful things you can take as you can download lots of useful resources and information which you could use on your placement. A memory stick is an alternative, although you may not have access to a computer. Bringing a spare battery for your laptop is also a good idea, as charging it may be an issue and dependent on the electricity supply where you are volunteering.

A first aid kit, insect repellent and water purifying tablets are also essential. If you have any prescription medicines, ensure you have a good supply which will last longer than the duration of your placement. If you wear contact lenses, bring a pair of glasses and a good supply of solution and spares.

Make sure you consider the appropriate dress code for the place you are going to when packing clothes. You may be expected to wear a professional outfit during your placement, especially if you are going to be working alongside local people who are dressed smartly. You should also bring clothes that cover your arms and legs as in many countries, it isn't culturally appropriate to wear shorts and t-shirts.

Health, safety and insurance

Make sure you have the right kind of insurance which will give you full cover for the duration of your time overseas. If something goes wrong and you don't have adequate insurance, you are putting yourself at considerable risk. If you are volunteering, regular travel insurance may not be enough to cover you so check this carefully before you purchase anything. There are some specialist policies available specifically for volunteering and some organisations will arrange insurance for you.

Taking care of your health while overseas is vital. You should make sure you have all the required vaccinations before you go and take anti-malarial medication if it is required. There is advice online about what is required for different countries and regions, but it is best to go to your Doctor or to a specialist travel health clinic to get up to date advice.

It is also worth checking with the organisation you are volunteering with what would happen if you got sick during your placement and where the nearest medical facilities are located.

If you have any medical conditions or take regular medication, you should ensure you have discussed your plans with your Doctor so they can advise you on whether the location is suitable.

You should also research the safety situation in the place where you are going to volunteer. Check your government's advice on travel to the country/region and question the organisation who you are volunteering with on their policy if something does happen, for example local unrest. Think also about your personal safety and how you can take care of yourself and any precautions you will need to take. This will involve some research on the local situation and it is well worth talking to volunteers who have been to the same area to help you prepare.