How To Make The Greatest Impact As A Short-Term Volunteer Abroad

Elaina Giolando

A former management consultant turned nomad, Elaina writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel on topics including internships abroad and gap years.

Make the Greatest Impact on a Short-Term Volunteer Abroad Experience

You know you want to volunteer abroad. Sometimes you just only have a month. Or two weeks.

You know it's "not enough," but this is the time frame you have to work with for a travel or volunteer experience overseas -- and it really shouldn’t stop you from considering the option to volunteer abroad in the first place.

While I usually spend several months volunteering, I recently had just two weeks in Malawi to work with a local non-profit organization. This experience got me thinking: How can I make the most positive impact in such a limited time frame? And is there a framework that can help other volunteers maximize their impact in organizations overseas, even if they are there for just a couple weeks? Here's what I've learned from my short-term volunteer abroad experience to help you make the most impact on yours.

Tips for Making an Impact Before You Leave to Volunteer Abroad

If you’ve already chosen to take part in a short-term volunteer abroad experience, the best things you can do to make an impact on the organization take place before you even leave.

Intelligently Evaluate the Volunteer Organization

Before even selecting an organization, it’s a good idea to evaluate a potential opportunity along a few guidelines:

  • Is this organization locally run and well-supported?
  • What specific activities does this organization do regularly? Will these be up and running while I’m there?
  • Are my skills and interests an obvious fit for this organization? Are they mutually compatible?
  • Is anyone liable to be harmed in any way by my temporary involvement? (Kids fall into this category -- going to a school for two weeks may result in children getting emotionally attached to you when you're not a permanent member of their community.)
Make the Greatest Impact on a Short-Term Volunteer Abroad Experience: Before You Leave

Related: What Makes an Effective Volunteer? Four Organizations Share Insights

Ideally, you want to choose a strong, sustainable organization that is locally-run and has been in operation for a while. Volunteering in a fragile organization for a short period of time is riskier. While they could benefit from someone very knowledgeable coming in for a short time and getting a few things into shape, more than likely they won’t be organized enough for you to understand where you fit in right away and have concrete goals and activities you can contribute to.

Once you have an organization in mind, you want to get in contact with them and share about yourself and what you think your biggest skills and interests are as they relate to that organization’s work. Would someone like you be helpful to them? Does your timeframe suit them? You want to look for specific responses that show the organization has taken your background into consideration and thinks your suggestions for volunteer activities make sense, or have made suggestions for you to work on other projects instead.

Want to not make an impact while volunteering abroad? Just pick an organization that looks nice online and sign up, hoping for the best, clueless about what activities you’ll really be undertaking or what the needs of that organization are.

Bring Extra Supplies to Help the Organization

Once you’ve decided that there’s a good fit, you can also ask the organization about other needs they have on the ground that could be met with one suitcase full of something coming from the United States. Most airlines let passengers take two bags when traveling overseas, so if your organization is working with a school, ask them what they need. Or if there’s a clinic in the village, does that clinic need certain medical supplies? Which ones?

Wait for their suggestions and see if you can accommodate them. For example, more often than not a school could use notebooks and pens for the children. Clinics almost always need additional disinfectant wipes, clean bandages, and gloves. Bringing these kinds of practical items with you to contribute to the project or community will be hugely appreciated and is one of the biggest, practical ways you can serve a community, in addition to your work and physical presence.

Before I came to Malawi, I went to a dollar store and, with just $100, was able to fill a suitcase with basic first aid items, everything from band-aids to anti-diarrheal medicines, ibuprofen, and lots of disinfectant sprays. I knew from previous trips to Africa that many people suffered serious infections from minor cuts simply due to lack of sanitation or first aid treatment. The organization I was with took these items to a local prison, where 500 prisoners (some as young as 17) had no access to treatment, and some of the other supplies went to a school whose impoverished students couldn’t afford to use the local clinic. Practically speaking, bringing these items was one of the biggest impacts I could make.

Tips for Making an Impact While You’re Volunteering Abroad

Make the Greatest Impact on a Short-Term Volunteer Abroad Experience: Tips

On the ground, the key to making the best use of your time is good communication with your hosts. Spend time and ask good questions to understand exactly what they do and how they do it. Then, make a proposal of your suggestions for things you’d like to work on during the X number of days or weeks that you have (which you should have already had before arriving), and verify those ideas with them.

Make sure you’re presenting things like a question. For example: “I was thinking I could research all the International grants that you qualify for and create a template that can be used and reused for future applications. Would that be helpful? Or do you already have a plan for grants? Is this an area of priority or do you think my time is better spent on the website?”

Checking in with your hosts about their priorities and presenting them with concrete suggestions for your time will be more helpful than asking, “Okay, I’m here. What do you need me to do?”

Keep Your Timeframe in Mind in Offering to Help

Try to focus on tasks that you can complete start to finish in your time frame. Can you create or update their website? Help establish partnerships with other organizations in-country or in your home country? Plan and execute a small community outreach program to raise awareness about an issue you have some expertise in? Or better yet -- teach a workshop to locals about your area of knowledge so they can create their own outreach programs after you’ve left.

While you’re there, always make sure you’re doing work with sustainability in mind. Make sure the work you do now will be helpful to others after you leave. With the grants example, for instance, creating a template is more helpful than just applying to one grant for them. Then, anyone can come in and quickly apply to grants using the document you created.

In Malawi, the Executive Director and I had come up with several ideas for new programs for the organization, but I didn’t have the time to start any of them. Instead, I took some basic first steps for each one (established some helpful points of contact, researched the local microfinance organizations, etc) and wrote a detailed project plan for each one so a future volunteer would know where to pick up where I left off and how to execute on these ideas. I then created a volunteer manual -- which the organization didn’t have --, to help future volunteers get working more quickly and efficiently, and included these project plans as suggested projects.

Teaching and training, where appropriate, is almost always helpful. In the spirit of all the examples above, I consulted with this Malawian organization before I arrived about their needs, and building their website was one of those big needs. It was 1) a priority to them, 2) well within my skill set, 3) something I could complete from start to finish, and 4) I did it with sustainability in mind by training the director on how to update the new website so he could manage it in the future. I applied all the principles and in just a few days delivered something that was deeply appreciated by and useful to the organization.

"Time is just a number?"

Impact on a Short-Term Volunteer Abroad Experience: "Time is just a number?"
Photo by Megan S., USAC Ghana

While we often say that “age is just a number," time is really just a number, as well -- a number that reflects the average amount of experience and learning that the average person can have in that period.

However, travel definitely extends and deepens our experience of time, and I would agree that travelers are experiencing life far beyond the realm of “average,” so perhaps time isn’t the ultimate benchmark for a worthwhile travel experience.

A better benchmark might be: What benefit will this experience bring to me and others? What kind of longer-term impact will it have? When two weeks can provide meaning for two or even ten years, it definitely makes sense to pursue that opportunity.