So You Want to be a Volunteer?
As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time around the mud-brick hand-moulded blocks of the volunteer world, there are not enough words to encapsulate how highly I’d endorse it. Not only does volunteering give you opportunity to create positive change, immerse yourself meaningfully in another culture and to travel like a local, it’s one of the cheapest and most authentic possible ways to stay overseas long term. Plus, the wicked amounts of good karma you’ll accumulate will pretty much guarantee you eternal green lights, forgiveness for all questionable life choices and general good universe vibes for a good while after you get home.
There are so many companies and projects and causes and bleeding hearts out there that you’re guaranteed to find something that caters to your particular passion (and importantly, budget), but that also means it takes a bit of sorting through the other all the other shit. So, to help you navigate the minefield, here’s a basic run down on what’s out there.
There are a heap of government-sponsored volunteering programs, but one thing I discovered on my travels is that Australia in general gets really fucking ripped off in this respect. I met people from tonnes of other countries who were volunteering on the tabs of their governments with no qualifications beyond their own good intentions, but Australia seems to be under the impression that volunteers require degrees, experience and the ability to navigate application processes longer than a Lord of the Rings triple screening. So unless you’re more generally qualified for life than I am, if you want to volunteer overseas, you’re gonna have to pay for the privilege.
At one end of the eclectic spectrum of the philanthropic world there are the voluntourists. The school trips, the church groups; the high-pitched teenagers and khaki-clad retirees. Recognisable from a safe distance by their wooden bracelet collections, rookie sunburns and tendency to assail innocent passers-by with Jack London quotes and their newfound Confucian wisdom, their main objective while away is to Instragram as many photos of themselves holding babies as possible, so everyone back home will know that they’re altruistic as fuck.
Don’t get me wrong: I respect anyone who volunteers with genuine intentions, and I think any contribution is a good contribution. But from my own experiences and from sharing deep, drunken heart-to-hearts with many other volunteers, you can go for a year and still not be sure if you’ve made an impact; a school holiday just isn’t enough time.
Then there are the shorter-term placements offered by a range of companies where you can expect to be living with a whole heap of other volunteers and working on a certain project, usually in a city in a developing country, for a month or so. While this can be a really good option for those who are as poor on time as on actual funds but still want to have the experience (and the major plus of creating a wicked niche social circle for you to get crunk with on off days), it also has the disadvantage of stopping you from getting immersed in the local community to the same degree. While you usually get a high level of support and structure, that usually equals more money relative to the time you’re there.
On the other end of the continuum – identifiable by their impressive facial growths and a general air of condescending cynicism – are the long-haulers, ranging from the green-as gappies and Peace Corps potheads to the midlife-crisis missionaries and the generally been-there-too-longs. Even these long-term projects are mostly done through an organisation, which means having a network of other volunteers to fall back on, but the major plus about most of them is that you’re usually living more or less independently, and therefore have much more freedom. You’re responsible for your own project, you have the opportunity to be a real, valuable part of a community, and in the long run it’s usually cheaper – just make sure you know what you will and won’t be paying for.
Everyone wants different things out of their volunteering experience, so I deliberately don’t want to recommend any particular organisations or ways of doing it, but if I could have reigned in my rampant naivety with a few tips before I left, these would be them:
1. Research the shit out of everything ever. Like seriously, I’m talking shut yourself in a dark room all Social Network-style and accept that the internet and cold mi goreng are your only friends for a day or two. Trust me though, when you’re in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa and some company is responsible for your next six months’ happiness, it will be worth it. Make sure your money goes towards the local community or your own expenses rather than extortionate administration costs.
2. Basing your expectations on World Vision ads is a recipe for disaster. Most of the world’s most influential volunteers work in offices; sometimes you also need to be willing to go the hard slog behind the scenes to really do good.
3. Look into the sustainability of your project before you make a decision. For example, while the clichéd building project – usually constructing or re-doing a school, hospital clinic or some other kind of social service can be an awesome aid to a community – these things can also take much-needed work from local contractors. Try looking into programs that focus on incorporating and training communities for long-term results.
4. Don’t expect to build Rome(/Nairobi/Siem Riep) in a day. Soz in advance for the massive buzzkill, but if you go anywhere expecting to change the world, you will be disappointed. Often as a volunteer, results don’t come instantly and it can be hard to reconcile yourself with the realisation of your own impotence. Fear not though, hard work and good intentions make just enough of that little difference to make it worth every bit.
5. Above all make sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons. I’m not saying you won’t get anything out of it personally, and I’m certainly not saying you won’t have a wicked time; volunteering is one of the most personally gratifying experiences in the world, and the potent combination of weird social estrangement and cheap spirits in developing countries means that volunteers can party like no one else. But don’t do it for a tick on the resume or a new Facebook profile picture; that doesn’t help anyone.
Real volunteering is not always easy. 90% of the time it’s rewarding and exciting and eye-opening and at times more fucking wild than you could imagine, but it can also be lonely, frustrating and just plain tough. If you want to go hug something and get all warm and fuzzy and sentimental, I would suggest adopting a guinea pig instead. But if you go in with the intention of postponing your inherent human egocentrism for a while to do things that genuinely make positive changes for other human beings, the result is truly a beautiful thing.