As soon as we waved goodbye to our first volunteer project at a rescue centre in Costa Rica we became addicted to volunteering across the globe. Less than five months after leaving we have now completed a total of five projects across two continents and we don’t plan to stop.
Each program provides their own merits and challenges which in turn has taught us a lot about volunteering abroad as well as things we wish we knew before embarking on this fulfilling style of travel.
We have compiled this list to share with you all what we have learnt and things you need to know before your first volunteer project…
1. Decide on what type of program you want to do
There are a wide range of programs that you can undertake including educational, wildlife, humanitarian, medical and more. We personally love animals, so being able to get up close with cute, exotic and even dangerous creatures outside of a zoo environment speaks directly to us. Some may want to make a difference in orphanages, this choice is subjective and personal and should be left up to you.
2. Go Through An Organisation
Yes, feel free to take this section with a grain of salt as we have been thankful enough to team up with several volunteering organisations, however as always we share our honest opinions.
There are so many moving parts in volunteering abroad that it’s reassuring to have an organisation looking after your best interests if things go wrong. You generally travel to remote parts of countries (on public buses) to projects run by locals. Yes more of your money will go to the program if organised directly, but what if it’s not for you when you arrive – what then?
On top of planning everything (including your airport transfers) they are there to assist with your questions and concerns. Use them to your full advantage, don’t like a project when you arrive? Follow this up and see if there is one nearby that you can be transferred to.
3. Research the organisation, research the project, then research some more
You need to know exactly what you are getting into before booking your once in a life time trip. We have read a volunteer brief that promised aspects that were non-existent during our experience. This shouldn’t happen, but can be managed if questions are asked before leaving or especially before booking.
4. Research beyond the organisation
We cannot stress this point enough, read beyond the organisations website. Go find travel blogs, YouTube videos, ask for contacts of past volunteers and also ask questions at the bottom of this post.
The unfortunate aspect of volunteering abroad is that you are sold the highlights, the wow factors – that’s marketing and you can easily be disappointed if you do not manage your expectations by failing to do research. Your are exposed to over 5,000 ads and brands a day, you can’t blame organisations these days, you need to take this on yourself.
5. Manage your expectations
If you do tip 3 and tip 4 correctly then you can skip this part. At every single project we went to there was at least one international solo traveller who was sold the burger and didn’t know about the pickles. They thought every day would be cuddling and playing with animals followed by 3 meals a day and that’s it.
We can tell you now that this is NEVER the case, you go to volunteer to work, fulfilling work, but work none the less.
6. Volunteer work is hard work
If you don’t manage your expectations and expect to come here for a vacation you may be disappointed.
At all of our projects we experienced there was always early wake up calls, followed by tasks, a lunch break and more tasks. The majority included hard labour from digging a watering hole for wild animals, to cleaning an elephant enclosures and you can trust us when we say elephants sure can poo a lot!
7. Put towards university/college credits
We have both completed our university studies so we couldn’t look into wether volunteering abroad would benefit us. However, we did find other travellers gaining university credit whilst at the projects. Ask your lecturer to see if you can volunteer abroad and have it count towards your degree credits, as we highly recommend study tours during university.
8. Learn the local dialect
Especially in countries where English is not a first language, it is both beneficial to the project leaders and yourself to learn the basics of the local dialect. In Costa Rica we had to prepare food for sloths with a chef who only spoke Spanish and we did not.
We cannot recommend the app Duoligno enough – you can learn a language (for free) and they make it fun and easy.
9. Find out about local health issues
We were lucky enough to do all of our volunteer projects in areas that did not require medicine (such as Malaria tablets) before arriving. However, this doesn’t mean your project will be the same. If booked through an organisation ask them or do some research online about the area.
This post is too long for just one part, read part 2 here.
If you have any questions about volunteering, leave them below.