Know before you go: The importance of pre-departure training for volunteers

Volunteers boarding the plane to help bolster efforts in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to prevent and contain the spread of Ebola. Photo by: United Nations

Young people are leaving their home countries to volunteer abroad at an unprecedented rate.

Recent data suggests that more than 350,000 individuals ages 16 to 25 engage in some form of international volunteering each year. In tandem with the overall growth in the number of international volunteers per year, the private sector has exploded with organizations that offer opportunities to volunteer abroad.

It’s far from novel to point out that the rising popularity of international volunteering has a number of problematic implications. The trend has received publicity and criticism in reports about “orphanage tourism,” in online discussions about volunteers struggling to complete foreign construction projects for which they are hopelessly unprepared, in the infamous “Gap Yah” spoof and in academic work highlighting volunteer experiences that sentimentalize and depoliticize poverty, inequality and international development.

Despite these myriad examples citing the negative effects of international volunteering, few industry-wide initiatives are working to address this trend.

What’s preparation got to do with it?

Would someone apply to an internship on Wall Street without first doing some research on that company, taking courses in finance or economics, talking with a potential supervisor or future colleagues or asking classmates or professors for advice and insight into that industry? Would they assume that because they are from a privileged background and educated, that they would understand the complexities of the financial industry and that they would be welcomed as an expert with a lot to offer? The answer would definitely be no.

So why do different assumptions prevail in the field of international internships and volunteer opportunities, especially considering the numerous and complex dynamics that exist in the areas volunteers may be traveling to — from historical legacies of colonialism, to current economic forces, to international aid policy?

A few years ago, these factors combined led the team at Omprakash, an organization that facilitates volunteer matching between 145 vetted social impact organizations in more than 40 countries, to ask ourselves: Why does international volunteering espouse different standards in the larger world of professional development? We began to think that international volunteering leaders could hold themselves and their industry to a higher and more educational standard that might help to reverse the unintended consequences of increasing numbers of unprepared young people traveling abroad.

And the answer lies in the training.

As a 10-year-old service provider for international volunteering opportunities, we took note of the prevailing trends and our role in perpetuating the cycle of sending unprepared volunteers to our partner organizations abroad. With our deep knowledge of the industry, and a robust team of academics and practitioners from across the development sector, we created a comprehensive online volunteer training program: Education through Global Engagement, which helps young people consider the ethics, economics and complex power dynamics that underlie cross-cultural volunteering and aid.

Here’s a summary of our advice for those seeking to volunteer abroad in a more ethical way, no matter the length of the stay or the type of volunteering that may take place.

Know before you go

As mentioned previously, the marketplace for international volunteering has exploded in recent decades. As a result, volunteers should carefully vet both the connecting organization and the host organization before committing to a particular program. Key factors to weigh include cost, transparency and authenticity of all organizations involved, and the quotient for educational gain. Prospective volunteers should be skeptical of organizations that oversimplify the international volunteer experience or do not allow communication with the host organization beforehand.

In addition to the industry standard logistical preparation that tends to occur at most placement organizations and is facilitated by well-run host organizations, we strongly believe that a deeper exploration should take place before volunteers leave their country of residence.

As explored in the EdGE curriculum and encouraged by some volunteer service providers, we encourage volunteers to research the political, social, economic, historical and international aid landscape of the country, region and people they are visiting. This can happen by first digging into readings recommended by the host organization or by attending an in-person or online training offered by the volunteer placement company or outside provider, such as Omprakash EdGE, United Planet, VSO International, CUSO International and Serve Smart to name a few offerings. Then, volunteers should take some time to dive deep and reflect on the issues they will likely confront in the specific community they are visiting. We encourage volunteers to think about how the organization they will be working with is addressing their localized issues. They should get familiar with the concepts of social service versus social change: Is the host organization providing a short-term fix to a problem or are they working towards systemic, long-term change in the community?

If a volunteer is going to teach English at an after-school program in India, he or she should engage with the deeper issues at play: Why is that organization offering this service in the first place? What need are they responding to? Why is a nonprofit teaching English and not the government school? By asking questions, before and during their time in-country, volunteers open themselves up to new and deeper learning opportunities.

You’ve arrived! Now what?

Once on-site, a well-organized host organization should provide some sort of orientation to acquaint volunteers with the local community actors, customs, and logistical information to help ease a transition into the local community. Volunteers should be aware that international volunteering combines travel with work. A big part of the reason that people travel is to experience new things for themselves, learn as they go, and be open to change and the unknown. Volunteers should be prepared for the unexpected during their time abroad.

A strong organization will either require language proficiency prior to arrival, offer basic language classes during orientation or have information for volunteers regarding language courses in the area. Prospective volunteers should be wary of programs that do not encourage language proficiency or mastery, as communication with host organizations and service users is hugely important for the efficacy of the project as well as the personal learning goals of the volunteer or intern.

The most important thing for volunteers to keep in mind throughout the duration of the experience is to treat the internship as they would any other learning opportunity. They should ask questions to themselves, their host organization, and their colleagues to better understand the context of the problems and needs in the community. Volunteers should remember that whether or not there is an in-country staff person available, the host organization and local staff will have the deepest understanding of the area, the transportation and food options and the nearest medical facilities.

International volunteering provides a great opportunity for exposure to new people, places and ideas. Volunteers shouldn’t let the learning stop when the internship is over and they return home. They can leverage their recent experience into an independent study back at university, an area of future exploration academically or professionally or look into domestic volunteer opportunities.

We encourage volunteers to record their observations during their time in the field as a conduit for future reflection. Volunteering abroad can be a deeply transformative experience if approached with the same gravity as a professional internship or educational opportunity. Together, our industry can push for a higher and more educational standard for international volunteers and interns. And it all starts before they step onto the plane.

Tips for prospective volunteers:

1. Be picky

Carefully vet your volunteer placement organization to find the opportunity that best meets your learning needs. Seek transparent organizations offering affordable opportunities that do not over-simplify the volunteer experience.

2. Do your homework

Go beyond the typical logistics-focused pre-departure checklist and take a facilitated course that will help to get your critical thinking wheels turning. Read the recommended readings and do research on the community, country and culture where you will be interning.

3. Ask questions and listen

Ask questions before during and after your trip. At the same time, listen. Listen to the community, your host organization and the sights and sounds of the area in which you’re working. You can learn as much from listening as from questioning.

4. Catalyze your learning experience

Don’t let your international experience be something that merely pads your resume or adds to your Instagram feed. Reflect and think critically about your experience and leverage that learning into future endeavors, be they international or domestic.

Tell us your own volunteer story on Facebook or tweet us using #DoingMore, and check out all Doing More content here.

Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global (formerly Austraining International), United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

About the author

  • Kelly Rula

    Kelly grew up in Dallas, Texas and attended Bowdoin College in Maine where she was first introduced to the international development sector. She graduated in 2007 with dual degrees in biochemistry and environmental studies after spending six months in East Africa volunteering with a sustainable development organization. She formally joined the Omprakash team in 2009 to assist with communications and marketing strategy. She now advises on all aspects of the organization, from web design to development strategy.