Have you ever considered volunteering? Whether it’s for a church, school, or another place, many organizations benefit from (and in some cases, completely depend on) volunteers to help. Volunteers also benefit from donating their time and effort to a cause they support: they gain a better understanding of the situation and culture surrounding the cause –– especially if it’s a volunteer program abroad. If you volunteer in a country where another language is spoken, you’ll also probably start to pick it up and actually learn it!
Beyond these core benefits of volunteerism however, there are also some specific upsides to doing your volunteer work through an NGO, as opposed to independently. Below, we'll get into some of those benefits and explain why, more often than not, you're best off going through an established organization.
The clearest benefit of volunteering through an NGO, rather than as an individual, is that you'll have more opportunities to work where you're needed. To give some sense of what we mean, among the most notable nongovernmental organizations you can work for are Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, and the international Red Cross. These are sprawling organizations with global reach that can help you to find the kind of work you're looking for and make the impact you want to make –– and they're only a few examples! Others associated specifically with IVPA include Globe Aware, Global Brigades, Good Hope Volunteers, International Service Learning, Projects Abroad, and American Youth Understanding Diabetes Abroad.
In contrast to working with established organizations like these, when you set out as an individual volunteer, finding specific opportunities is up to you, and it's not as easy as it may seem. Particularly if you're looking to go abroad, you may not always be able to contact a given church, school, or community. And even if you can get in touch, there may not be much of a chance to get involved. Which brings us to our next point:
We just touched on the idea that there may not always be a chance to get involved with an entity you reach out to as an individual. And the truth of the matter is that this is a more complex issue than some might assume. Most of the time, Individual churches, schools, and so on, simply aren't prepared to accommodate and host volunteers by themselves. They may not have space or supplies for you to operate with and there may be issues with language and translation. They often won't have liability insurance, whereas when you work with an IVPA member you're covered by medical and liability insurance. In some cases, they may not even be able to provide meals or accommodations for unprepared travelers. On top of all of these issues, there's also a high likelihood that by volunteering without the support of an organization, you'll be pulling someone away from their own tasks; someone will have to assist or train you, such that you are inadvertently reducing the resource of the school, church, or community that you are trying to help.
The beauty of NGOs, among other things, is that they take all of this into account and have thoroughly established processes in place to make work as comfortable and effective as possible. Indeed, when you volunteer through organizations that have been vetted by quality affirming entities such as IVPA, you're not only supported, but even spared your own costs, in a sense. The cost to participate is tax deductible against your income (as is any related airfare).
When you travel on your own to volunteer –– even if you mean well and take proper precautions –– there is always the chance that you violate cultural or societal norms you're unaware of. For example, if you're volunteering in Cuba, you may not realize that Cuban culture all but forbids people from accepting charity. However, a "gift of friendship" is acceptable. This is the kind of local detail an NGO will be aware of, and will prepare you for. Generally speaking, these organizations will help you to understand in advance what you're walking into, such that you don't offend, embarrass, or even inadvertently endanger the very people you're trying to help.
Meanwhile, to briefly touch on a more personal perk, there's also something to be said for the opportunity to go abroad! For the most part, NGOs offer the possibility of traveling across borders in order to participate in volunteer projects. While many volunteers had to return home during the pandemic, some NGOs are starting to send volunteers out once more. If you enjoy traveling, volunteering for an NGO can be one of the most rewarding ways to appease your travel bug –– whereas when you volunteer as an individual, it's not quite as easy (or sometimes even as doable) to find a reasonable opportunity to do good work abroad.
Humans are social creatures, and we enjoy the company of others. Volunteering for an NGO gives us the opportunity to socialize more than we normally would, which is great news for those of us who have found ourselves rather isolated over the last few years. Volunteering for an NGO whose advocacies you support also means that you’ll be in more contact with like-minded people with similar ideas and beliefs. This not only makes for more effective work on the ground, more often than not, but also opens the door to establishing relationships that can result in more service opportunities in the future.
Have you thought about learning a new language? Studies show that the most effective way to learn a language is to be immersed in it. If you’re keen on learning Spanish, for example, you can look for NGOs that have a presence in a Spanish-speaking country. Chances are, you’ll pick up some of the language passively. Besides, you’ll be in the perfect place to take some courses and learn from native speakers.
Having a well-known NGO on your resume can do wonders for your job search. Volunteering often helps you develop certain skills, such as effective communication and critical thinking - which is something recruiters keep an eye out for.
On top of this, remember that NGOs don’t depend solely on volunteers - they also have employees on payroll. An NGO may be more inclined to hire a former or current volunteer from “inside” first before hiring externally, which means that you could possibly work for the NGO if you meet the qualifications for the job.
Volunteering is an extremely rewarding experience that offers an incredible array of benefits. While it may not be for everyone, it’s worth taking a look to see what opportunities are out there and if they (and their benefits) are a good fit for you.
Authored by Rosalie Janelle
Article exclusively submitted to volunteerinternational.org