For any kind of volunteer placement, whether it is 2 weeks or 2 years, preparation and research are essential. This could be something that is easily overlooked by volunteers when they can purchase a placement from a volunteering organisation with one phone call.
Researching a placement thoroughly before signing up is the first step. There is some great advice out there about questions to ask an organisation to assess if a placement is suitable – I really like this from Irish development organisation Comhlámh.
But once a volunteer has signed up, they may think they have done the necessary and can relax until they get on the plane and begin their experience. However, the more time they spend preparing, the better their experience of volunteering will be and it could lead to more positive outcomes for the host organisation.
The first thing a volunteer should do is read all the information provided about the project they will be doing. If the organisation hasn’t provided detailed information, a volunteer should request this and if they have questions, obtain the contact details for the host organisation so they can go direct to find out what is expected of them and how they can prepare.
The next thing is to research the country and area where they will be living. Even for a short placement, it is important to understand the local culture, customs, appropriate dress code and what kind of food will be available. It is also advisable to learn a bit of local language, key phrases for introducing themselves and getting around, eating and drinking.
The final area of preparation that is essential if a volunteer is going to a developing country is to spend time learning about international development issues and become familiar with the current debates and the historical perspective for the country they are going to be volunteering in. This will help them to manage their expectations and gain a deeper understanding of where they are going and the local people they will meet. Some organisations offer their own pre-departure training which introduces volunteers to development but there are also one-day courses available with organisations like Bond or even a free online course with the Open University. Volunteers can also prepare by reading – there are lots of books which offer an introduction to development. The Guardian online also has a Development section which helps to stay abreast of current issues.
A bit of preparation can go a long way towards making a rewarding volunteering experience!