When Volunteering Overseas: Fortune Favors the Bold

Mark Horoszowski

Mark Horoszowski is the co-founder and CEO of MovingWorlds.org.

If you are traveling overseas to create change and be changed in return, take a step beyond your comfort zone.

Be bold photo for blog

If you are going volunteering overseas in search of a life-changing experience that makes you a better person and creates positive impact, then consider being bolder.

Here are our suggestions on how to be bold – and successful – when volunteering overseas:


#1 Go Where Others Don’t

We recently helped a young lady find an Experteering engagement in Nairobi, Kenya, to support an inspiring nonprofit called FACES – Kenya. She traveled from Washington D.C. by herself to be the only non-Kenyan working in the home office and in the field to support essential financing and operational tasks for 2 months.

What did she learn from going on an adventure like this? In her own words:

Professionally, this opportunity in Kenya working on developing new procurement procedures and training staff gave me the confidence to excel in new environments.

It’s easy to find some great “voluntourism” trips that will let you volunteer as part of a group, and there is a time and place for experiences like that, but if you’re hoping to make a sustainable impact, find a place where you can truly engage with the local community, work on vital projects, and help build capacity by transferring knowledge and experience, then you have to go where others don’t.


#2 Own It

There is one person in charge of you having a good experience while volunteering your skills overseas, and that is you. No matter if you go with a turnkey agency like GoVoluntouring, or go on your own with MovingWorlds, you are the only one that can control the quality of your trip.

But if someone is managing your trip, how do you take ownership? 

First: Speak to the receiving organization. If someone else is managing your volunteer engagement, that’s probably not a good sign. It’s almost like having someone else go to an informational interview for you… You won’t get to know your potential employer and they won’t get to know you. To truly understand the project you will be working on, the context you will be volunteering in, and the community you will be supporting, you have to speak directly with the people.

Second: Plan ahead. When people go Experteering through MovingWorlds, they are required to complete an extensive planning guide in partnership with the organization they will be volunteering with before confirming their match and booking travel. This ensures that all necessary information is traded before major commitments are made.

Third: Work in partnership. Owning your experience doesn’t mean doing all of the planning and volunteer work yourself. It means that you should have an active role in, and even lead the planning process. But you can’t plan without the other party, so make sure to spend ample time speaking with your hosting organization overseas before booking your travel



#3 Listen More

As it turns out, if you really want to help, the best thing you can do is to shut up and listen. This video from Ernesto Sirolli explains the importance of listening.

To be fair, listening can be hard. When volunteering overseas there is a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. One of the most frequent urges that we hear from people volunteering is to try and do everything as quickly as possible. But as it turns out, that is not the best approach.

In our training, we preach the idea of Human Centered Design, a concept pioneered by IDEO.org and made more popular by its partnership with Acumen Fund. This concept recommends that when working on any project, the first step is to “Discover” or “Hear”.

HCD Process Summary


 Fore more information on this, check out the Human Centered Design Toolkit.

BeOpen#4 Say Yes

Be open to new opportunities, and say yes often.

The best international experiences are those that are not planned. We consistently hear that the highlights of international volunteering opportunities include things like:

  1. “Sitting on the porch listening to my host family tell me stories of their family history”
  2. “Being invited for tea to a stranger’s house”
  3. “Playing a random pickup game of baseball in the streets”

The list goes on, but the one thing they all share in common is that someone said yes to a new and unexpected opportunity. As it turns out, the trick isn’t just saying yet, but it’s putting oneself in the position to say yes. We find that the best way to do that is to listen to – and embrace – steps #1, #2, and #3 above.

In summary, at MovingWorlds we believe that the best way to have an amazing international volunteer experience is to truly make a sustainable difference. When done correctly, you will deliver lasting value, and will be rewarded with that life-enriching experience you’ve been searching for.

As a parting thought,  I’ll turn to some old wisdom about leadership from Lao Tzu to inform how to be best volunteer your skills overseas:

Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.
-Lao Tzu

This is where our lawyers tell us to advise you to still be cautious. For more tips on that, you can read this collection of resources for volunteer overseas:  http://movingworlds.org/resources/experteers


This blog post was inspired by our latest Google Hangout and Demo of MovingWorlds.org – you can see the full Google Hangout here: