Volunteering for an NGO abroad: your top questions answered
Take your volunteer experience abroad to the next level and give your time and energy to an NGO! Take it from me, you'll be talking about your experience to whoever will listen for a long time to come.
What is an NGO?
If you're interested in volunteering abroad, and have done a bit of research, you've probably come across the term NGO, which is short for non-governmental organization.
An NGO can loosely be defined as "a nonprofit organization that operates independently of any government, typically one whose purpose is to address a social or political issue."
You may be more familiar with the romantic portrayal of an NGO in movies like Beyond Borders starring Angelina Jolie, or The Last Face featuring Charlize Theron. While we can't all dedicate our lives to working abroad for an NGO like Angelina and Charlize in those films, we can still make a positive impact by supporting the work of NGOs worldwide!
Why volunteer for an NGO?
NGOs usually fill a gap in services that aren't provided by the state/province or federal government.
You'll find there are many in places of extreme poverty, but you may also find NGOs working in places you would not expect, in seemingly wealthy neighborhoods. You may also find communities depending on NGOs, having no other services to rely on.
The best NGOs empower local people to come up with sustainable solutions to societal problems.
For example, the well-known international NGO Habitat for Humanity utilizes local volunteers from the communities they are working in, so they are then trained in construction techniques and feel ownership over the project.
Other NGOs include community members in the project's management so it can be continued without NGO presence. Ideally, the population the project is serving should be involved in identifying solutions, preparing for the project, and implementation. This is something to keep in mind when picking an NGO to donate to or volunteer with.
Your time and energy go a long way with an NGO. While there are usually a few full-time staff, and local volunteers as mentioned above, short-term and long-term volunteers are usually welcome, as budgets are small and donations/grants needed to cover project costs, not additional employees.
Volunteers are also needed to spread the word. Many NGOs are small with limited resources. The average international volunteer has the tools at their disposal to raise awareness of the issue at hand i.e. poverty, gender inequality, homelessness, lack of clean water.
My experience volunteering abroad with an NGO
My first experience volunteering with an NGO was on a volunteer trip to Rajasthan, India.
I had done a bit of research but was really relying on the organization that organized my trip to ensure the project was a good fit for my skillset (teaching and working with youth). I made sure to follow a minimalist packing list and keep an open mind, the latter being the most important!
We arrived at a teacher's college run by the NGO which was also a primary school and I was introduced to the full-time teachers and administration. I also met some fellow volunteers who had been there about a month, working both at the school and the local clinic.
NGO volunteer work can be diverse, the NGO serving multiple purposes in a community, especially a rural one. In this case the teacher's college served as a way to educate future teachers, who would teach at the primary school before going into the more rural villages where teachers are scarce and have limited supplies.
We visited one such school, and it was humbling to see how willing the students were to learn, but how few resources they had to do so. Many couldn't afford to go to school every day, seeing as their parents needed them to work at home.
In this case, the NGO employed local staffers, and had some local volunteers, but they also worked with organizations like the one I came with for international interns and volunteers. We worked with the kids in the primary school, visited the teachers, went to rural schools to check in, and those who had an interest/skills in medicine volunteered at the clinic.
We were a part of the community, and I made fast friends with my fellow volunteers, but also the local volunteers, neighbors, and others in the community. We were even invited to an Indian wedding which was pretty incredible! I still keep in touch with the friends I made during my experience.
The lesson here, at least for me, was that it is one thing to volunteer for a few days and be a passive participant.
It's another thing entirely to get to know the community, immerse in the culture, learn about the problems the community is facing (in this case a shortage of trained teachers and access to education), be a part of the solution to said problems, and find out ways you can help beyond the end of your program. This specific NGO benefited from partnerships, fundraising, and awareness raising, all of which could be done from abroad.
My first experience volunteering for an NGO inspired me to look into NGOs operating in Darwin, Australia, where I was studying abroad for a semester in college. I never would have thought to look for an NGO in the small Northern Territory city of Darwin, but there were actually quite a few.
One of these worked with asylum seekers, who were detained at a nearby facility waiting for their paperwork to be processed. This sometimes took years (!) at the time I was volunteering.
So, on Saturdays, this NGO would take them to do activities, one of which was soccer. It's funny now to look back and see how a small thing, like a game of soccer each Saturday, could make a difference in someone's life, but it did.
Ranging in age from 10-21, many of the refugees were from the Middle East, and soccer was something familiar and welcome. I learned a lot about the difficulties these youth faced, about where they came from, about the root causes of these problems. Most of all, I learned how small efforts to make a difference go a long way.
Finding the right NGO volunteer opportunity
You want to go abroad and make a positive difference. It all starts with finding the right opportunity so you get the most out of your travel experience!
Whatever your preference, there is an NGO opportunity for you on sites like Worldpackers. You'll also want to keep your budget in mind when browsing NGO volunteer opportunities. While food and lodging are usually covered, flights are not, and you'll want some extra cash for free time!
Speaking of free time, if that is important to you, make sure you find out if you'll have it. Usually you have a break on the weekend to see some local sites or further explore your new community.
Whichever opportunity you choose, it's sure to be a life-changing experience. You may even find parallels to issues faced in your own community. Often, experiences a world away can open your eyes to your own backyard.
Be in the know before you go!
Here are a few more practical tips and tricks to keep in mind before you volunteer abroad with an NGO:
1. Ask for a packing list
Will you need work boots? Gloves? Is it culturally appropriate to wear shorts or should you bring pants only? What about a rain jacket?
Always bring a flashlight, as in much of the world electricity is not reliable (and sometimes not available). You want to make sure to keep in mind more than just the weather when considering a pre-travel checklist and packing for your NGO volunteer work.
2. Check the calendar
Take it from someone who went to Morocco during Ramadan — you want to know any religious holidays, cultural celebrations, or periods of weather (i.e. wet vs dry season) to expect so you can prepare appropriately.
3. Learn the language
An NGO may expect a bit more of you than a typical volunteer abroad organization. They are established and connected with the local community, and most likely every full-time employee or volunteer knows or is willing to learn the local language.
Try to at least learn a few common phrases before you go! It will be helpful and respectful.
4. Brush up on your etiquette
Should you take off your shoes when entering a house? Eat everything on your plate or leave a bite to show respect to the chef? What about appropriate hand gestures?
Being culturally appropriate goes a long way and shows you really want to be there and be a part of the community.
5. Travel like a pro
You will most likely be responsible for your visa, so make sure you start the paperwork early and note if you'll need to carry a letter from the NGO with you. It's also a good idea to purchase travel insurance if you don't already have it — you may be traveling through some small airports in a country where signs are not in English.
In case your travel does go awry, make sure you have the name and local phone number for your NGO contact.
6. Visit the doctor
You may be in areas that require you to get a vaccination or take pills i.e. for malaria. Safety first!
Also, if you're a picky eater, make sure to bring plenty of snacks.
7. Bring some gifts from home
By the end of your volunteer experience you'll have made many new lifelong friends and connections.
It's always nice to have some small tokens of appreciation to give to your host family, friends, and neighbors.
A bit of inspiration to send you on your way...
NGO volunteer opportunities like those on Worldpackers are inspiring.
For example, there is an NGO volunteer opportunity to support sustainable gardening practices in Uganda, where you'll help set up demonstration sites used for training in small-scale irrigation, organic farming, agro-forestry and permaculture.
In Nepal, there's also the opportunity to work in a local kindergarten started by a family who also run an orphanage.
These are just a few of the incredible NGOs operating around the world that need people like you to volunteer!
You'll be surprised at where NGO volunteer work will take you.