6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Volunteering Overseas

Mark Horoszowski

Mark is the Co-founder of MovingWorlds.org, a global platform connecting people who want to volunteer their expertise with social impact organizations.

Asking the right questions

“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge”
– Thomas Berger

We hear a lot of questions from people who are interested in applying their skills overseas by virtue of the work we do: helping people find the best place to volunteer their skills around the world – we call it Experteering.

Interestingly, we find that people rarely ask the right questions before embarking on this potentially life-enriching experience.

“There’s nothing more dangerous than the right answer to the wrong question.”
-Peter Drucker

As you consider volunteering overseas, here are 6 questions you should ask yourself to ensure that you have a good experience, and that your host has a good experience, too.

 

Question #1: What skills do I have?

According to the World Economic Forum and research from many other global development organizations, a “lack of access to talent” is one of the leading barriers to global progress. If you are going to volunteer with the intention of making an impact, the best thing you can do is apply your real skills. This begs the question, “What skills do you have?“.

We’re surprised over and over again during our intake interviews with working professionals who readily answer this question by saying “I don’t know”, when in fact they have many skills. To help you take stock of the skills you have and can apply for global good, try these simple things:

  1. Reflect on the work and projects that get you most excited.
  2. Look at your LinkedIn Profile for the skills people have endorsed you for (sample here). If you don’t have enough, here are some tips to get some.
  3. Ask your colleagues, co-workers, and clients a simple question: “I’m thinking about volunteering, what skills do you think I can best contribute to an organization?“.
  4. Talk to your friends and family and ask them which projects do they see you get the most excited about?
  5. Ask yourself, if you could go back to school to better understand 3 topics, what would they be?

The key thing to note is not just what skills you have, but what skills you are passionate about. As an example, if you are an accountant, you probably have skills in Excel, internal controls, project management, research, data analysis, statistics, documentation, and more. However, you might be most passionate about internal controls and process improvement, so first consider volunteering those.

key iconWhen volunteering overseas, don’t just volunteer your skills or muscles, apply the things you are most passionate about and want to keep getting better at.

 

Question #2: Where are my skills most needed?

In a recent survey, we found that when people think about volunteering, they typically start with “self-interested” statements like:

  • “I want to volunteer in India” (or other country)
  • “I want to volunteer with a startup” (or other organization type)
  • “I want to build a website” (or other specific project)

While all these statements make perfect sense, it can easily lead to negative experiences. In an extreme example, the sheer number of people who expressed interest in volunteering with kids led to some unintended and ugly consequences as evidenced in this article ‘Cambodia’s Orphan Business‘.

Contrarily, we have found that the best Experteering experiences occur when people make their international volunteering decisions based primarily on a match of their skills with an organization’s needs.

So where are your skills most needed?

The short answer is that your skills are needed most in organizations that need your skills, not your money. There are a lot of “volunteer abroad” organizations that charge you to volunteer. This begs the question, if the work is valuable, why are they charging you to do it? The unfortunate answer is that the work is not valuable, but your money is. As such, the experience is focused on money, not on skills-based projects.

However, by instead going to organizations and asking them their needs, you can find authentic volunteer opportunities that are needed by the organization. And since the project is needed, the hosting organization is committed to creating a good experience for you so that real work can get done. In fact, we have found that the majority of the organizations on MovingWorlds that are interested in hosting volunteers will provide accommodations or other local benefits in exchange for the right expertise.

Here are some questions you should ask of organizations you are thinking about volunteering for:

  • What are your goals as an organization?
  • What projects are you planning to achieve your goals?
  • What are the biggest challenges to achieving your goals?
  • What type of support do you need the most?

After asking these questions, compare the responses with your answers from #1 to make their needs align with your skills.

key iconWhen volunteering overseas, short-list potential organizations by asking them their goals for growing and making an impact. If their goals match with your skills, you probably found a match.

 

Question #3: How will I measure success?

Volunteering overseas is a major commitment for both you and the hosting organization that can pay dividends to both parties, however it does require an upfront investment of planning time.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” -Peter Drucker

Defining success is a critical part of the planning process that is needed to ensure you as the volunteer, and your hosting organization, have a good experience  (thought it’s quite hard to have one without the other). This is not always an easy process. We have found that when working with professionals who are volunteering overseas, both the professional and organization benefit the most by going through a somewhat rigorous planning process aimed an answering this very question. Since there are a lot of ways to measure success, we focus on the following:

  • Tangible – is there a tangible product being delivered
  • Measurable – is there a way to measure your impact
  • Experiences beyond work – will you be able to do things beyond the day-to-day work that immerse you in the culture
  • Connections – did you forge new bonds and friendships

While it might be easy to reflect on your project afterwards an answer some of these questions, it is a definite best practice to collaborate with your hosting on this goal setting / measuring process before you start your engagement. In fact, at MovingWorlds we mandate a holistic planning process complete with documentation and confirmations before approving matches.

key iconWhen volunteering overseas, make sure that you and your organization can define success, and have the same definition of what it is.

 

Question #4: Why do I want to volunteer overseas?

There is not a right answer to this question. But there is an answer, and it’s important to be truthful about it. The most common reasons we see are:

  1. Give back (aka “save the world”)
  2. Gain international experience to build my CV (aka gain field experience to improve chances of getting a job at a global development organization)
  3. Have a unique and immersive trip (aka Have the trip of a lifetime)
  4. Grow my skills (aka Graduate school is not for me, I want field experience)
  5. Do market research (aka I want to start a social enterprise but need to learn more about the communities I want to support)

While we believe #2 – #5, #1 raises a fair amount of skepticism, and that is OK. Very rarely is “giving back” motivation enough. If that was the driver, there are usually better ways to make an impact, such as volunteering where you live.

The truth is, volunteering overseas isn’t 100% altruism, it’s exploration… of the world, and of yourself. It is an investment in personal growth as well as global progress that can develop you – and others – in a remarkable way. Before going overseas, make sure to write down your own answer(s) and share those with others. Preferably, try and find someone who has had a similar experience before. At MovingWorlds, it’s not unusual to see people planning their trip reach out to others who have gone Experteering before to trade experiences and best prepare for the engagement.

key iconWhen volunteering overseas, be honest with yourself – and others – as to why you are doing it.

 

Question #5: When do I want to return home?

Too often, people focus on start dates, not end dates. Most trips we learn of start when people say “I want to be on a plane next month”. But what if you haven’t found a place yet? What if no organization can host you until the following month?

Imposing an arbitrary start date, while exciting, puts unnecessary pressure on finding the perfect match and can cause you to compromise, settling on an opportunity that meets your timeframe, instead of waiting for an opportunity that best meets your profile, and you its.

key iconWhen volunteering overseas, focus on when you have to return home, not when you want to start.

 

Question #6: What will be the biggest cultural differences?

Time after time, we see really exciting volunteer projects get started really slowly or remain incomplete because of the length of time it can take to understand cultural differences. A few examples include:

We consistently hear back that when people who are going to go Experteering take the time to talk to their host organization about potential cultural differences before touching down, they acculturate faster, get more work done, and have a better experience.

key iconWhen volunteering overseas, speak with your hosting organization in advance about possible communication and cultural differences.

 

As Wade Davis points out in his mesmerizing TED talk about cultural diversity, “we all sing and we all dance, but at different cadences…” But if you ask the right questions before engaging on an international volunteering experience using your skills (aka Go Experteering) then you can better learn about and celebrate these differences to best plan for a high-impact, life-changing experience.

 

If you want to read more about things to consider when volunteering overseas, we strongly recommend the following resources:

  1. MovingWorlds Resources for Experteering professionals
  2. The Do’s and Don’ts of international volunteering
  3. Ethical Volunteering Guide

 

Do you have any suggestions for additional considerations before going volunteering/Experteering overseas?

 

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