What makes a good volunteer?


If you’re reading this, odds are you want to travel, to experience something exotic – and “do some good” for the world. Welcome to international volunteerism. Now suspend any expectations you may have going into it.

Fact is, the formula for being an effective international volunteer is different from the formula of being an effective worker, or even student, in the industrial world. Many of the qualities that help you succeed in, say, the U.S. – defining your objectives and focusing on attaining them -- aren’t nearly as applicable in much of the developing world.Let’s start with the basics. Call it, Volunteering Success 101: what it takes to make a difference.

  • Affinity: Establish a Rapport

In the developing world, people often rely on an extensive network of personal relationships – as opposed to on government or existing infrastructure – to get even the simplest things done. In a word, personal relationships there are crucial. Become at least a small part of that personal network, and your work as a volunteer or intern is likely to be much more important and effective. So whether you’re in Africa, India or Latin America, begin your placement by forging relationships. Take the time to really get to know your host family, your colleagues and supervisors. Ask about their families, their background, their interests and tell them about yourself. By building friendships you will gain your coworkers’ trust, likely be offered unique opportunities, and come away with a much more compelling – and rewarding – experience.

  • Flexibility: Roll With the Punches

Don’t have your heart set on doing one particular job, and that one job only. That’s one of the most common mistakes made by volunteers, and it can lead to frustration for you, and the people you work for. For example, one woman went to an African wildlife refuge to work on a giraffe-tracking project and was not pleased to be also asked to clear brush or perform data entry. An orphanage volunteer was upset when she was assigned to work not with orphans, but with needy children from the near-by community which also relied on the center.

As a volunteer, you’ll have to accept that day-to-day activities in these small non-profits often vary greatly based on factors that are beyond organizers’ control. Your organization’s employees may have multiple jobs and sometimes won’t be there when you expect them. Transportation and infrastructure are likely problematic. Rolling brown outs mean you can’t always have dependable electricity. Punctuality remains a western concept only somewhat adhered to in many parts of the world. As a volunteer, you’ll probably have to deal with it all.

So when the Jeep required for giraffe-tracking breaks down – once again – you as a volunteer may be shifted to something else. Or you may find yourself working with school children other than the orphans you imagined lovingly looking after – because during the day, those orphans are in fact in school. Remember, a volunteer is a helper, not someone who picks and chooses tasks.

  • Creativity: Volunteer Your Imagination

You know more than you think you know, and sometimes the biggest contribution you can make is the one you least expect. Here are a few examples: a micro finance volunteer assigned to interviewing past and current clients saw her organization had unmet marketing and fundraising needs. She wondered how they might be addressed – and ended up creating a website linked to PayPal. Another orphanage volunteer who taught English also asked to teach math. To this day they talk about the fun way he taught arithmetic to grade-schoolers. Another volunteer English teacher surprised (and delighted) the school when she formed and coached an after-school boys’ soccer team. Physically disabled children at an orphanage in India made tremendous progress when one volunteer introduced very basic physical therapy into their care. She had no background in therapy, but noticed the kids thrived and rapidly improved their coordination and muscular skills through basic games such as rolling a ball back and forth. A medical volunteer who also liked to tinker with things fixed a couple essential but broken dentistry tools. These volunteers made a real difference by imaginatively going beyond the scope of their initial assignments. Are you good with computers? Can you teach someone to knit or sew? Do you sing? Can you draw? Teach a child a new game or sport? Sharing your skills or hobbies is a tremendous way to enhance your experience and enrich the people you’re working with.

  • Proactivity: Don’t Wait For Opportunities

We get it, volunteering can be a bit of a balancing act: you want to help and to participate, but you don’t want to impose. Still, organizers agree that the diplomatic but proactive volunteer is one who can often make the biggest impact. This is particularly true in medical placements where the medical staff is stretched thin and overworked and cannot devote a lot of time to mentoring volunteers or interns. So as you begin your volunteering stint, consider what you’d like to be doing, what you’d like to be learning, and what needs you yourself can address. It can truly enhance your experience. For example, a medical volunteer in Uganda became a bit of a patient advocate when she decided to follow-up on the care of patients she first met during rounds. She scheduled them for surgery, oversaw their post-op recovery and generally made sure they didn’t slip through the cracks. No one asked her to do this, she reacted to a need she observed, and stepped in. Talk about making a difference. Another medical volunteer in an African hospital maximized his opportunities by often working evening and nights. The late shifts weren’t as popular with other volunteers and med students, and that meant greater opportunities for him to observe, to participate, and to learn from the staff doctors and nurses. So be polite, but be proactive. Otherwise you risk being treated like a guest, not like the coworker, student or mentor you flew across the world to be.

  • Humility: You’re Not the Boss

Change isn’t easy, and for volunteers, sometimes it’s best to shoot for baby steps. Keep in mind that your placement is temporary, and your understanding of the organization, its reality and context, is at best limited. What may seem obviously necessary to you may not be feasible or even understood by your colleagues. As an example, one volunteer tells us of his frustration when the changes he wanted to implement at a small organization weren’t fully embraced by its staff. He felt an overhaul was in order; the staff was only comfortable with small changes in accounting. The stand-off left both parties felt uncomfortable and somewhat frustrated. To avoid a similar experience, remember, you’re a helper, not the new supervisor. You can suggest changes, create new processes or new business plans if that’s what you feel is necessary. But understand that it’s up to the permanent staff to take it from there.

Malissa Spero, a long-term volunteer coordinator and advisor suggests participants create an informal time-table. “Spend the first week familiarizing yourself with your placement and getting to know the other workers,” Spero advises. She recommends using your second week to think about ways you can have a positive impact, to jot down project ideas, to consider needs you can address. By the third week, Spero suggests you meet with your supervisors to discuss your role, opportunities and challenges. Making the most of those important few weeks will ensure the rest of your volunteer period is fulfilling and effective. And that’s what international volunteerism is all about.

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