15 Things to Know Before Volunteering Internationally

We have one week left in our volunteer program in Cambodia - the 12 weeks has come and gone in no time. It has been an eye-opening way to begin our year-long journey. It has helped us look deeper beneath the surface of issues and people, as well as understand how life operates in another country, one much different from the U.S.

We went pretty blind into volunteering as part of our trip. Neither of us had done an extended volunteer program before or had lived in a foreign country. Our overall excitement really overshadowed any doubts or concerns, but it also may have taken away from some of the experiences we could have had if we had known more of what to ask, consider and expect before and during our placement.

As we looked back at our past three months, we thought of a few pieces of advice we'd give to others looking to do an international volunteer program. None of them should scare you away from any opportunity you may have, but hopefully help prepare you well for what may be ahead.

When Considering a Volunteer Program

1. The Experience. When we applied to our program, we figured flexibility was the key to being accepted and ultimately placed in a volunteer role. We were open to an urban or rural location and working with just about any type of NGO. While we've really liked our placements and the people we've met, next time we'll be more vocal about what type of experience we really want whether it's office-based or field-based, teaching English, living in a certain type of setting or working with a specific population of people. We found out after our placement that we could have directed things a bit more than we originally thought.

2. Your Budget. As you consider a program and a country, take into account the cost of living and understand your budget. While we knew living in Cambodia would be cheaper than the U.S., we were surprised at how much some things do cost living in Phnom Penh. Other volunteers who are in rural areas have a much lower cost of living.

3. The Language Barrier. If you can only volunteer for a short time, you may want to consider a country where you know some of the language already and/or ask up front if there is someone in the organization who speaks your language and can help translate. Volunteering in an organization of all native speakers can be challenging when you have a limited amount of time to learn the language or really make an impact. Meetings can really be a challenge even with a translator.

4. The Country's Past. Read the latest news and recent history of the country where you may be placed in order to truly understand the issues you may be working with to provide context before you touch down. We were fortunate to have a little time to read about Cambodia before coming here, but we've still had quite the intense education over the last three months.

5. Your Time. If you can commit to a longer program, it will be worth it in the long run for you and the organization. Our placement of three months allowed us to work on a few projects that will hopefully be beneficial to our organizations, but we won't be able to see them through. It wasn't until about six weeks in that we felt we really hit our stride with the people and the work we were doing. A four- to six-month assignment may be ideal for a medium-length program.

6. In-Country Support. Ask up front about the in-country support you will have from your placement and your volunteer organization. Will there be someone locally who can help you find a place to live or help with any difficult situations? If there won't be someone local from your placement organization, ask about how they may help from afar. We have an in-country representative and he's been a great resource and friend to us (thank you Sophiep!).

Preparing to Volunteer

7. Network with Others. Ask to talk to a volunteer who has been at your organization in the past or has volunteered in the same country/city. Their advice, resources and knowledge can be invaluable as you prepare to go. If they were at the same organization, it may help that you know them when the local staff refers back to the work the other volunteer completed. There are also online expat forums in many cities that you can start to read to get a better feel for where you will be living.

8. Pack Your Bags. Do your homework on local culture and customs when packing. Do women need to cover their legs and arms? Does your organization dress casually or more formally? I was surprised how formally the staff at my NGO dresses each day and am glad I packed a few nicer items for work. Pack a few things that will help you get adjusted, but know that you can always buy things when you arrive. You don't need a 50 pound suitcase full of shampoo, soap and snacks. Find out if you can buy things cheaper when you arrive like cell phones, SIM cards, etc. We found it easy to unlock a phone in Cambodia and get very cheap phone and 3G service the minute we stepped off the plane.

9. Decide on Equipment. Don't assume that the organization will have extra office equipment for you to use. Ask about the tasks you'll be working on and bring your own laptop, phone, camera and any adapters/converters.

During your Volunteer Placement

10. Find an Ally. Find a local staff member in the organization who can be your ally during your experience - someone you feel comfortable asking questions of and who feels comfortable answering them. If there are other volunteers, find your ally amongst them as well to give yourself someone to share in the ups and downs.

11. Ask About Funding. After you learn about the organization, ask questions or do research on how their work is funded. Do they have long-standing agency donors or do they rely on individual donors? What is their current funding status and do they have the funds to run all their projects? You don't need to be nosy, but it will help you understand the current priorities of the organization.

12. Learn the Language. If you're in a country where you don't speak the language, ask around for a tutor to teach you some basic phrases. The standards - hello, how are you, thank you, please - are great starters, but go deeper with work related words such as introducing yourself and your responsibilities in the local language.

13. Find a Good Balance. You may show up and have 10 ideas of how you can help, but strike a balance of listening to what the organization needs with offering suggestions and taking action. Don't be shy in offering ways you can help, but be prepared to follow through on what you've offered. Also find balance in your personal life by not feeling guilty for any comforts of home you may need during your time away.

14. Have Patience. It will take time for you to adjust to being somewhere new. It will take time for the local staff to trust you and utilize you to the best of your ability. There will be days when you have too much to do and those where no one is around and you're bored. Embrace the peaks and valleys of your experience even when it may be hard to.

15. Say yes. When you're asked to visit a rural village, when you're asked to attend a donor meeting, when you're invited to a wedding or even to just go to lunch. While you may feel uncomfortable saying yes to some things, the experiences will expand your understanding of your organization, the staff and the people they serve by engaging in their real day-to-day activities.

Most of all, if you have thought about volunteering abroad, you should do it. There will be good (and great) days along with more challenging ones. As we expected going into this experience, we've probably gained much more than the organizations we have worked with. Our perspectives have changed, our knowledge has grown and we have learned a lot about ourselves and another country. It's been an invaluable three months.