Understandably, not everyone has the flexibility and financial security to spend more than a few weeks volunteering abroad. We have responsibilities to return to and cannot commit for as long as would be ideal -- hence, the growing popularity and availability of short term volunteer programs. However, there's also a fairly sizable number of us -- recent college grads facing a tough job market, students taking a gap year, professionals in between jobs or with flexible schedules -- who are in a position to go abroad for longer.
If you are one of the lucky ones able to commit to several months (rather than several weeks) volunteering abroad, grab your bag and do it! The benefits for both volunteers and host organizations expand significantly as we extend our time volunteering. Still not convinced? Well we've got a whole bunch of reasons why you should volunteer for longer:
1. To Better Understand Your Host Culture & Improve Work Quality
The longer you spend immersed in a new culture, the more you will learn about it and the more you will integrate into the local community. Locals won't always warm up to you immediately, and as a short-term volunteer you won't have the time to wait around for this to happen. Communities that see a high turnover rate of volunteers might also feel jaded and apprehensive about befriending someone they know will only leave in a week or two.
You will get a better understanding of the language and cultural nuances, which will help the success of your project.
Sticking around for several months to a year will give people the chance to know you, and know you are serious about helping them. You'll live like a local and it will build trust and people will feel better about working with you. Furthermore, you will get a better understanding of the language and cultural nuances, which will help the success of your project.
The more you know, the more you can apply to your project, and the longer you stay, the more you will learn. Unlike shorter projects, long-term volunteers actually have the chance to engage in a learn-apply-learn-try-again cycle with their work.
2. To Make Sure the Volunteer and The Community Are Benefiting Equally
According to Kathrine Tubb of 2WayDevelopment "Highly skilled volunteers can have a positive impact on communities in about three months, but six months is seen as a good average placement length, where volunteers can actually add value to the work of an NGO. Any less and I would argue that the benefits are more on the side of the volunteer." (Source: Volunteer Placements in Development: 10 ways to make them count)
That's not to say that short-term volunteers in a well structured placement with clear objectives can't also have a positive impact on the communities they are assisting, but the longer volunteers can commit for, the deeper the exchange between volunteer and community. Staying for longer is a good way to make sure it's not just the volunteer, but also the community, benefiting from the experience.
3. To Expand Your Impact
Long-term volunteers are valuable to community development because they are able to execute projects and gain local knowledge that short-term volunteers are unable to do. With more time at your disposal, you have the ability to expand your outreach to more community members, see projects through from start to finish, all while constantly learning from your mistakes and improving on the job you are doing. (Learn-apply-learn-try again, right?)
Even the seemingly small things, like befriending a family, teaching a new friend some English, or showing a group of children a fantastic picture book or new game, can impact a community in positive ways.
You also have more opportunities to impact your community in ways outside of your immediate work responsibilities. Even the seemingly small things, like befriending a family, teaching a new friend some English, or showing a group of children a fantastic picture book or new game, can impact a community in positive ways. You are always engaged in an exchange of cultures, and hopefully your presence will educate locals on your differences and even eventually inspire others to volunteer and do good for their community as well!
4. Your Program Provider/NGO Can Focus on What's Really Important
Like with any company, it's always best to have a low turnover rate of employees -- or in this case, volunteers. When a program provider / NGO sees more long term volunteers, they're likely to hire less frequently, and an already stretched staff (especially in the case of a small, locally-based NGO that depends on volunteers to execute projects) can spend more time focusing on what's really important: improving the conditions of the community they work with.
It's also just more efficient to train less frequently and invest in developing one volunteer's skills and knowledge so that real, quality projects get done!
5. To Stretch Your Money Further
Just as traveling abroad for longer allows you to save money, so will volunteering abroad for longer. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, since yes, more time abroad means you'll need more savings, but hear me out. If you go with a program provider, the overall cost goes up the longer you sign up for, but if you weigh it against cost per day, it drops.
For example, a 1-week volunteer program in Guatemala with Maximo Nivel costs $585, so roughly $83 per day, whereas an 8-week program costs a total of $1,730, or just over $30 per day. With Kaya, volunteers who sign up for a 13-week or longer volunteer programs get a 10% discount on the overall program fees. Big difference, right?
Even if you don't choose to volunteer with a program provider, you may still have money-saving opportunities. Opportunities to work directly with companies or NGOs who offer small stipends to volunteers usually only exists as an option for volunteers who can commit for 6 months - 1+ years. You'll also spend less on basic cost of living than back at home (depending on where you go), so from that perspective, you could make a strong argument against the "I can't afford it" excuse.
6. It Will Stand Out on Your Resume
"I don't understand why more recent college grads who are having trouble finding a job don't volunteer abroad," says Lisa, a mother of three. "If anything else, it's an experience to put on your resume."
Even if you weren't getting paid for it, it counts as experience, and shows employers that you were taking the initiative to expand your skill sets while (technically) unemployed.
Of course, volunteering isn't all about putting something on your resume but it is a great way to fill in the gaps when you've taken a career break or are struggling to find a job. If potential employers ask you "what were you doing between January 2014 and May 2014?" you can come back at them saying that you spent time assisting with environmental conservation and learning Spanish in Ecuador rather than "job hunting with no success".
Even if you weren't getting paid for it, it counts as experience, and shows employers that you were taking the initiative to expand your skill sets while (technically) unemployed. Volunteering abroad for longer stands out even more, and could help you fulfill that "1-2 years previous experience" requirement that a lot of entry level jobs demand -- especially if you plan on entering NGO and development work.
7. For a Broader Variety of Projects to Choose From
Simply put, not all development projects can work with short-term volunteers. Some of them are only feasible if volunteers can make a longer commitment while others show better results. For example, teaching programs are best executed if volunteers can see a whole curriculum through -- whether it's three months or one year -- so as to give students continuity.
Short term volunteers are also less likely to work on highly skilled projects, so if putting your expertise to use is a goal of yours, agreeing to a longer assignment will better your chances of getting involved in a project you are passionate about, and can make effective impacts with.
Not sure where to start your search? I've scoured GoOverseas for a few stand-out volunteer projects and program providers that offer longer volunteer placements ranging from 1 month to 1 year:
SUGGESTED PROGRAMS FOR LONG-TERM VOLUNTEERING
- United Planet (6 - 12 months)
- WorldTeach (~1 year)
- Projects Abroad Romania (3-6 months)
- Volunteers for Peace Haiti (3-6 months)
- UBELONG (up to 6 months)
- VESL Teach in SE Asia (1 - 12 months)
- Adelante, Mexico (1 - 12 months)
- Love Volunteers, Ghana (1 - 12 months)
While I admire the bravery and commitment of all volunteers who have dedicated their time and knowledge to help with development abroad, those who make the leap to volunteer for anywhere from several months to a year deserve a special applause. It can be scary to make such a long commitment but definitely worth it in the end to take that longer volunteer position or extend a short one. You won't regret it!Photo Credits: Thailand Project, UBELONG.