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Tips for Dealing with Problems when Volunteering Abroad

Koh Yao Noi

We talk a lot about how awesome volunteering abroad is on Go Overseas, but let’s be real for a moment. Not every program works out perfectly, and unfortunately, there can be hitches along the way. So, while looking at reviews (*cough* *cough* on Go Overseas...) or talking to past volunteers before committing to a program really helps increase the chance of choosing the best possible program for you, there’s still the possibility that your program may not go quite as expected.

If this happens, we understand that it’s tempting to reach out to your friends and family back home or social media networks to vent your frustration, but there’s a better way to deal with these issues. How, you might ask? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with this nifty article on tips for dealing with problems while volunteering abroad:

Prevent Problems Before You Go

I mainly want to talk about how to approach your program provider if your expectations aren’t met, but there are a lot of things you can do to prevent them from happening in the first place. Read reviews, talk to past volunteers, and voice any concerns or questions you may have to your program provider.

House

According to Natalie of African Impact, “during the booking process volunteers are encouraged to ask as many questions as they like — there are no dumb questions!” So, no matter who you're volunteering abroad with, ask all and any question that's on your mind. A good provider will be patient and answer them.

For example, are you afraid you won’t be able to find any vegetarian food? Do you want to know lots of details on your project and your role? Or perhaps you’re scared of what “rustic conditions” might actually mean. Instead of being disappointed later, ask questions about these concerns before you leave, so you’ll be armed with knowledge, not assumptions. The point of communicating with your program provider (or even, just a former volunteer!) before departure is to make sure you have a solid understanding of what you’re signing up for, both in terms of project and living conditions.

If Something Goes Wrong, Clearly Identify the Problem

No matter how much you try to prevent any issues from arising, there’s still the chance that you may have a hiccup along the way.

Ask questions about [your] concerns before you leave, so you’ll be armed with knowledge, not assumptions.

If you do, make sure you are able to clearly explain the problem before taking action. Was the problem specific to your assignment/position? Was it a one time problem or is it recurring? Did it threaten your health or safety in any way? The more specific you can be, the better.

Don't Vent To Friends And Family Back Home Before Talking To Staff

If something goes wrong with your program, calling your friends and family back home may be your first instinct — but try to hold off on this. According to Lauren of Rustic Pathways, “internalizing these feelings of dissatisfaction, or communicating them to friends/parents back home can sometimes do more harm than good.”

Granted, a familiar face (or voice) in a tough situation is always comforting, but doing so might cause them to unnecessarily panic and they won’t be able to solve your problem the way a member of the program’s staff can… which brings me to my next point:

Your Trip Leader/in Country Staff Should Be The First Person You Talk To

I asked several program providers how they’d like dissatisfied volunteers to approach a problem with their program, and they all unanimously agreed that volunteers should talk to their trip leader / in-country staff first.

Sometimes participants do not realize that there are quick and easy fixes that won't disrupt the program, and once they are made can make a world of difference

Lauren of Rustic Pathways

From Charmaine of Ecoteer Responsible Travel: “If a volunteer is unhappy with their program, they should inform their volunteer coordinator/project facilitator or a project saff of a similar position about the issues they are facing.”

Lauren of Rustic Pathways makes a similar point: If you are dissatisfied with your program “the most important thing to do is communicate with your trip leader.”

Cross Cultural Solutions Volunteers

No matter how silly the problem is, open a dialogue with in-country staff. Not only are they most familiar with you, your situation, and what the program is really like on the ground, but they are communicating regularly with out of country staff. Often this might be all it takes to find a viable solution to whatever is going wrong and if they can’t fix it personally, they will know better about who to contact next.

“Sometimes participants do not realize that there are quick and easy fixes that won't disrupt the program, and once they are made can make a world of difference,” says Lauren.

For Natalie of African Impact, she explains that when a volunteer approaches staff with a problem, “the volunteer’s feedback is heard and discussed with the volunteer and addressed then and there. Where improvements can be made, they are made immediately, and where they can’t, the reasons for this are explained to the volunteer. Where necessary, plans are made to make future improvements.”

Think About How And When You Want To Approach In-Country Staff

Lauren of Cross-Cultural Solutions explained that “[their] in-country teams hold weekly feedback and reflection sessions with the volunteers. [They] also hold one-on-one sessions with volunteers who would like one [and] these in-country options are the perfect place to share.”

If your program, like Cross-Cultural Solutions, gives you an opportunity to give feedback, don’t be shy — speak up! They obviously value what you have to say and would rather take care of anything bothering you as soon as possible rather than letting it fester.

However, you should use your judgement to decide if these sessions, where you would be surrounded by other volunteers, are the best place to discuss your problem or if you are better off talking to staff one-on-one. In general, if the issue you are having is general and possibly felt by other volunteers, then bring it up in these group reflection sessions. If it’s more personal though, it may be better to take a staff member aside after a session.

The point is, your program may have multiple avenues of giving feedback, so once you decide to approach an in country staff member, you may have to also decide on how you want to talk to them. Group? One-on-one? E-mail? In person? Use your judgement and choose what’s best.

And of course, if it’s a non-urgent problem, please don't wake up staff members in the middle of the night… I can't tell you how many times the medical staff during my Peace Corps service had their weekends/evenings disrupted by a volunteer who had a non-urgent medical problem that could have waited until later. Be respectful, these folks already have crazy busy schedules!

Don't Want to Talk to In-Country Staff? Contact the Main Agency

If for some reason approaching in-country staff doesn’t work, or you don’t feel comfortable talking with them (perhaps, poor communication on their behalf is the problem), then it’s appropriate to reach out to your main/first point of contact with the at home agency.

In the case where anonymity isn’t an issue, you should only contact the agency back home if you have first tried to open a dialogue with in-country staff or trip leaders and it hasn’t resulted in a solution.

I just really can’t emphasize enough that [leaving] should be your absolute last course of action, but at the same time, don't have any shame in quitting early.

When voicing your complaint to staff back home, make sure to include as much detail as possible, including any feedback (helpful or otherwise) that you got from in-country staff. This will help the out of country staff better understand the issue and not repeat any advice that has already been expressed.

Work With Your Provider to Create A Solution!

Cross Cultural Solutions Volunteers Batik

Be active in this process, and don’t let your problems fester. Whether you have approached an in-country or out of country staff member, work with them to find a solution. I know this may seem obvious, but it’s an important point to stress.

Expressing dissatisfaction isn’t enough, and both you and the staff should be active in finding a way to turn around your volunteer experience. Especially if you're having a hard time coping with new conditions, it's going to take a little work on your behalf to overcome the problem.

As we’ve already expressed in earlier points, just because your program didn’t turn out as expected doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. You’ll never know until you try!

No Luck? Know Your Options for Leaving Early

In the very, very unlikely circumstance that you have approached in country staff, out of country staff, worked hard to draft a solution, and still feel like you are dissatisfied with your program, then you may consider canceling the program early. This should be an absolute last resort, when you have tried every other avenue.

If you do feel like this is your only option, make sure you ask about your program provider’s policy on refunds and cancelation policies. Charmaine of Ecoteer Responsible Travel states that “if we are not able to provide any solution and the volunteers choose to leave the program, in general we would provide a refund for the cancelled days. However this would vary from case to case, depending on the situation.”

Not all programs provide refunds, but of course it’s never a bad idea to ask. Also, you'll want to ask about return tickets home, and any support you may get for leaving early.

I just really can’t emphasize enough that this should be your absolute last course of action, but at the same time, don't have any shame in quitting early. Volunteering abroad isn't necessarily for everyone. As they told us in the Peace Corps "it's a tough and respected decision to quit -- ultimately, it's better for everyone involved (community, volunteer, provider) for someone who isn't happy with their service cut their losses and leave, than to let their unhappiness grow."

Once You're Home, Leave Feedback And Complete Surveys

Once it’s all said and done with, leave your feedback and complete surveys from your program provider.

Operation Smile

Most programs give volunteers numerous opportunities to leave feedback on their programs, both during and after they’ve completed the program. If they don’t (and even if they do), Go Overseas also lets volunteers leave reviews about their program for future volunteers to read. Take advantage of these and leave your feedback about your program provider. Include any issues you may have had and how the program provider approached a solution for them (or didn’t).

Also be sure to discuss problems with a level-headed, practical voice. No one trusts a review that simply rants about a program provider without providing any advice useful to future participants.

For example, instead of saying "XX was absolutely terrible! The experience was awful! Don't trust them!" -- say "I had an awful experience volunteering with XX. Our living conditions were pretty poor (no electricity or running water), and even after I approached in country staff, they were not able to find me another place to live." Give details, avoid using profanity, and sound like a reasonable person.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll be leaving a stellar review because those initial feelings of dissatisfaction were transformed and turned around by an amazing staff member. Potential volunteers and program providers want to hear about that!

Take Action

Following these tips on what to do when your volunteer abroad program doesn’t go as expected will not only help you have a better experience, but it’s valuable input for the program providers. Most importantly, you should take action with unmet expectations while you are in the field and continue your dialogue with the program provider until the end of your program. Having issues with your volunteer abroad experience is a bummer, but you may be surprised at what you can do to turn it around so long as you speak up, and speak up to the right person!

Photo Credits: Nora Morgan
Jessie Beck

A Washington DC native, Jessie Beck studied in Dakar and Malta, taught in Costa Rica, and volunteered with the Peace Corps in Madagascar before ending up at Go Overseas as Editor / Content Marketing Director. Find her on her personal blog, Beat Nomad.