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How Do Communities Abroad Benefit from International Volunteers?

International volunteers abroad

There are tons of articles and brochures extolling the benefits of volunteering abroad -- for the volunteer, that is. Everyone is more than happy to tell you about how your view of the world will change, you’ll forge lifelong friendships, feel great about yourself, acquire plenty of good karma, make yourself more attractive to colleges or potential hiring managers and come up with a solution to fix climate change (okay, maybe not that last one).

Yet the flashy, well-designed websites of volunteer program providers often say very little, if anything at all, about what the specific benefits of your volunteer stint will be for the community that you’re supposed to be helping.

There are so many positive things that a committed, serious volunteer can contribute to a host community

Whether this is just because that’s not a particularly effective marketing strategy or because the organization doesn’t actually have any idea if there’s a positive impact (let’s hope it’s the former), there just isn’t a lot being said from the point of view of the community itself.

But volunteering is, or should be, a two-way street. It’s not only about what you get out of it. More important are the benefits for your host organization and the local community agreeing to take you on for however long you’ll be there. Which is why we decided to investigate: what are the benefits of international volunteers for local communities anyway?

Why Would Communities Want to Host Volunteers?

How will volunteers impact local communities

So why exactly would an organization or community choose to accept an international volunteer versus a paid employee or a local volunteer?

Obviously, the answer depends quite a lot on the community, its needs, current capacity, and the skills and expertise you, the volunteer, bring to the table. Volunteer placements and volunteers vary wildly, and you may be far better suited for, say, helping rescue turtle eggs on a beach in Thailand than supervising a room full of boisterous five-year-olds in Costa Rica. It depends.

Do you have a skill to contribute? Is it needed?

First of all, your effectiveness and value to your host community will depend greatly on how well your skills and enthusiasm fit the needs of the job description and responsibilities, which is why it’s so important to be thoughtful about choosing a location, provider, or local NGO that's a good fit. A volunteer placement isn’t necessarily right for you or the community if it just happens to be in a country you want to visit, or because it involves cute animals or small humans.

When selecting your volunteer gig, try to get as much information as you can about the responsibilities and requirements of the work, and then be really honest with yourself about if it’s something you’re actually willing and able to do. If you can’t commit to the obligations, you’re probably better off not going, because from the point of view of your hosts, no volunteer is likely better than a volunteer who can’t or won’t do what’s being asked.

How long will you be there? Will you invest any time in understanding your host culture?

Another major factor determining the kind of impact you may have is the length of time you’ll be spending there. Sure, maybe you can supervise the construction of a women’s health clinic or hand out 500 water filters over the course of five days, but that probably means you’re a superhero.

A major advantage that volunteers can bring to the table is a set of skills that may not be otherwise present in the community.

Generally speaking, the more time you have to devote to your volunteer project and understanding the needs of your host community (through their eyes), the more of a positive impact you’ll be able to have.

Are you committed?

Granted, if a volunteer is just lazy or unmotivated, it doesn’t really matter if he or she is there for a week or a year, but a committed, energetic individual can certainly accomplish much more over the course of six months than they could during a spring break week. It’s also much easier to develop and implement strategies to ensure your project is sustainable if you have more time to make sure that process goes smoothly.

That being said, there are so many positive things that a committed, serious volunteer can contribute to a host community, while still getting all of those personal benefits the organizations love to wave around.

Some of these outcomes are immediately apparent, while others may not be so visible -- but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Many volunteers abroad struggle with the feeling that they’re not making a difference, but it’s important to keep in mind that not all change happens overnight, or on the surface.

Are you actually needed?

Sadly, as we've seen an increase in interest in volunteering abroad, we've also seen an increase in voluntourism scams. Again, here's where your research, reviews, and talking to past volunteers will help you avoid spending your time working with an organization that's legit and helping an actual problem.

The point is, if you're volunteering to help a problem your host community doesn't actually have -- you're not needed and you're wasting your time.

What are the Tangible Benefits of International Volunteers?

Volunteers helping communities abroad

1. You’re an extra pair of hands

If you’re volunteering to help with a construction project or on an agricultural placement through an organization like WWOOF, you are, in a sense, just another body -- and that’s a good thing since that’s exactly what the project needs. After all, you don’t need a particular major to volunteer on a potato farm. The willingness to get up early in the morning and work is much more valuable than any research paper you’ve written.

Especially for smaller communities or family-run organizations, the simple addition of an extra person can make a huge difference in how long it takes to get a house painted or harvest their seasonal quota of grapes.

Don’t fall into the trap of seeing this work as brainless, though, because you still absolutely need to pay attention and know what you’re doing. You can have all the best intentions in the world, but if you can’t tell the difference between ripe and unripe grapes and just pick them and throw them all in the same basket, you’re making more work for your hosts, rather than helping them out.

2. You bring a set of specific skills

A major advantage that volunteers can bring to the table is a set of skills that may not be otherwise present in the community. This is somewhat less common if you’re doing manual labor (unless you have some truly ingenious way to lay bricks that nobody has ever seen before) but is a main reason why volunteers are asked to take on roles that include administrative work, teaching, translation, or even social media marketing.

Arriving with a specialized skill set also ensures that you’re not taking away work from a community member that might really need it and be more qualified -- rather, you’re helping fill a space that otherwise wouldn’t be occupied at all.

Whether it’s helping design a website, teaching English to business students or coming up with a fundraising strategy, your unique skills and knowledge provide an immediate benefit to your community, which otherwise would have to make do without this know-how. Bonus points if you're also working to transfer that skill to a community member so they can sustain the project after you go home.

3. You can help restore balance to the (work) force

You’ve arrived and started teaching English in your host community. Even though it’s just for 3 hours a day, the other teacher at your small school suddenly has 15 free hours per week, allowing him more time to plan lessons and coordinate with you.

Or maybe you taking over social media and blog postings on your host organization’s website means one of the four staff members can now devote her full attention to holding community trainings on microloans.

A hallmark of a well-designed, successful development program is its focus on community empowerment and its orientation toward creating sustainable, long-term practices.

Wherever you are, your responsibility for certain work means it no longer falls to someone else to do it. This redistribution of time, energy and tasks can make an enormous difference, especially at chronically understaffed organizations, and can do wonders for both the efficiency of the staff as well as balance the schedules of your new co-workers.

Think of yourself as a substitute midway through a soccer game -- a pair of fresh legs and lots of energy coming in to support and encourage your teammates right when they may need it most.

4. You may be the embodiment of extra money

In addition to the actual productive work you’re doing, your presence can also represent a net financial gain for the community. As you’re offering your time and energy for free – or in exchange for food and housing – you are saving your hosts the money they might otherwise have to spend to hire or contract someone to do that work.

This may mean that your host organization can direct its finances toward buying the new printer it desperately needs, or that your host family is able to harvest and transport 20 percent more apples than they would without you, resulting in additional income for them.

5. You can contribute to community empowerment and sustainability

A hallmark of a well-designed, successful development program is its focus on community empowerment and its orientation toward creating sustainable, long-term practices. This means that the physical work itself that you do may be much less important than trainings or capacity-building exercises like workshops that you help lead.

It’s like that saying about teaching someone to fish -- if you install a water filter yourself, great, it’s done, but if you help train a dozen people to do it, and teach them how to instruct others, you’ve ensured that your community will have autonomous access to clean water for years to come, led by the very people who best know how to do it and most benefit from its results.

What are the Intangible Benefits of International Volunteers?

Volunteering abroad intangible benefits

Though the most apparent and immediate benefits are typically the ones mentioned above, there’s more to the “pros” column of volunteering abroad than just the instant results. Just as your volunteer experience will undoubtedly lead you through some personal evolution, so too will you have a lasting effect on the community with which you spend your time.

Again, this will depend very much on how you choose to approach your volunteer experience. If you take the time to spend free moments with community members and learn more about their lives, you may be able to create positive effects far beyond the scope of your volunteer responsibilities. A few ways in which you can be an asset to your host community, even if you don’t see them:

1. Yes, cultural exchange

Volunteer programs do a great job of presenting the experience as an opportunity for volunteers to partake in cultural exchange, but again, it works both ways. Depending on your program, your community may already be accustomed to odd-looking foreigners arriving every few months; alternately, you may be the first person some residents have met from another continent, another country or even a town other than their own.

You have an opportunity to present an insider perspective on a country and culture that many people in your host community may know only from movies – or not at all. During your time volunteering, you will have the chance to learn plenty about your host country and community’s culture, life and traditions, but don’t forget that you can also do the same for them with where you’re from.

2. Cultivation of relationships

As most volunteer organizations can tell you, volunteering abroad is about much more than just doing the work. When asked to talk about the highlights of their experience abroad, few returned volunteers will extol the joys of lesson planning or shoveling cow manure for hours.

Instead, volunteers will often recall the people they met, friends they made, stories they heard and bonds they forged, both with other volunteers and members of the community. Your immediate contributions are an important piece of your volunteer time, but they are not the whole picture.

It’s up to you and how you choose to use your volunteer time to make sure you affect your host community positively.

Two years after you’re gone, people probably won’t remember how many oranges you picked, but they will remember the time you helped babysit during a community meeting, taught teenagers how to do the Electric Slide, sang “Happy Birthday” to the mayor or learned how to cook your favorite local dish.

There’s also a wonderful opportunity to be a role model for children, teenagers or even young adults close to your age, showing them an alternate example of the possibilities and options that could exist in their future.

3. Sense of connection and solidarity

Have you ever had the experience of speaking and suddenly realized that nobody is actually listening to you? Now imagine if that happened to you constantly, daily. This is the reality for many marginalized communities across the world – the sense that nobody is paying attention or cares about what happens to them.

Your presence in your host community, as an individual and representative of another country, counters that impression and can help give community members a sense that they are being heard and that people in other parts of the world do care about them. Contributing to a sense of solidarity helps encourage hope and a feeling of support within the community, and your time there will leave a lasting impression that will remain long after you leave.

4. Access to resources

Just as you, in some ways, represent not just yourself, but your country or even the whole international community to your hosts, you also represent a bridge to a greater global community. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you probably have a decent size network of friends, family, classmates, colleagues and other members of your own community that have expertise or resources that could be of use to your host community.

Even if you personally can’t eradicate illiteracy, the fact that you know someone who works in linguistics is itself an added benefit to your community, which now has access to a much broader, international network simply by you being there and being engaged.

Make Sure You're Actually Helping

There seems to be this common phrase tossed around the conversation of volunteering abroad: "simply being there helps." This isn't always true. As we discussed, there are countless benefits for communities abroad to host international volunteers, but you have to do more than show up. You have to be committed, bring a skill or willingness to work to the table, or contribute resources.

As long as you make sure you're volunteering abroad with a reputable organization, invested in your project, and not volunteering abroad simply because "it's cool", the local community will benefit from and appreciate your work. Whether you saw it directly or not, you’ve had an effect on your host community -- it’s up to you and how you choose to use your volunteer time to make sure you affect your host community positively.

Read ratings and reviews of volunteer abroad programs on Go Overseas.

Photo Credits: Sari Stein, Jessie Beck, and Sarah Perlmutter.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.