Friday, April 11, 2014

How to be the Best Volunteer

This is part two of my Volunteer Posts for this National Volunteer Week. 
You can read Part One here

We have had a fairly steady stream of volunteers ever since opening the orphanage and we love it! So do the children. Volunteers, as most organizations will tell you, are amazing! They come in full of energy and tackle big projects and add extra life blood to a work.

Though we've had mostly good experiences, I'd like to share with you some pointers on how to be a good volunteer:

Respect the daily workers. You are there as a volunteer for a very short time. Those working at the organization day in and day out will be there long after you have blown through for a month or two or three. Respect their time and decisions.

Be honest. One of the most frustrating things as a coordinator is having a volunteer say they are willing to do 'anything' but then watch them flounder and drag. It's great to challenge yourself and try new things, but please be realistic. It may be better for you to do something else that you really enjoy rather than only doing the other thing halfway.
  The best time to share your ideas and talents is before coming out so programs can be lined up. However, if you get to your project and it is making you miserable, speak up. Chances are those around you can tell you're unhappy. Just be honest and see how best to move forward.
  Additionally, if you are planning on using part of your in-country time for sightseeing and vacationing, please be upfront about that before arriving. Many times organizations will take advantage of volunteer help to allow paid staff their required time off. They might have planned programs that last a certain length of time. If volunteers cut their time short it can create a scheduling problem.

Remember you are representing the organization to the public. Even if you pursue your own projects, it is because of the 'parent' organization that you can do that. Be sure to help build the positive image of the work already started.
Of course it goes without saying that you should not do anything to reflect badly on the organization. Don't do anything that will offend or cause confusion in the local culture.
In the same vein but from a different angle: please work with your host organization in how to best share what you have with the community. What to you might outwardly look to be simple sharing of food, clothing or toys with a small child can cause attitudes of entitlement and turn into months of begging to other volunteers and/or organization staff.

Be a good steward of your own and the project's resources. Organizations working in developing nations often struggle to get the most basic of supplies. Water, electricity, internet and gas are not easily obtained and so should be given the proper respect. 
Take shorter showers than you would normally take. 
Keep your items put away and tidy. Just a few items left around can cause a clutter issue when many volunteers are working together, and also can create a temptation for local staff members. 
Save those cute cat videos for when you get home. Skype with your family, but keep it short to save bandwidth
In the same vein, it can be difficult to provide meals for volunteers when there is limited access to grocery stores and ingredients. Show gratefulness for what is provided and don't make thoughtless comments about the quality of the food. If you have allergies or food difficulties, do all you can to make life easier for your host organization by bringing your own additives or extras.

Treat the volunteer job like any other job. Find out clearly what hours you are expected to work and stick to a schedule. Be honest with your coordinator about what their expectations are. If you have suggestions feel free to bring them up, but try to stick to a good work schedule so that projects can be completed.

Respect the wisdom of those who have been there longest. They may not be perfect, in fact there's a great chance they're quite imperfect, but they have stood the test of time, and are getting the job done. Keep an open mind and figure out what you're there to learn even if you don't agree with everything. 
Remember, there is no such thing as a dumb question. Ask away! You may have read books about third world development, you may have even participated in projects in other developing nations, but each situation is vastly different. Ask questions about everything and you'll be amazed at what you can learn.

Make an effort to get along with the other volunteers. It's not always easy to live and work closely with a bunch of relative strangers while also battling culture shock and homesickness, but it is imperative for the success of the project that you try. Take part in any team building exercises and recreation that is organized. Reach out and create bonds. You might form relationships that will last a lifetime.

If you have suggestions for how the organization can operate better or improvements that can be made feel free to bring them up, but remember that while you are helping out for a time, others are there full time and will need to work with changes all the time. An organization filled with volunteers over the summer looks very different the other nine months of the year and therefore certain things may be in place with those months in mind.

We really do appreciate the many, many volunteers that set out to help change the world. They find that they are the ones who are mostly changed, and that is an excellent thing. 

Please feel free to share this article with anyone you know who is ready to volunteer. 

All photos courtesy of Thomas Morrow. Just a few peeks into the world around us here in Kazembe. Come out and see! Click over to Kazembe Orphangage to find out how.


  1. Heather EslingerApril 13, 2014

    Great post! There's a lot of things you mentioned that I never would have thought of .

  2. Both of your recent articles on volunteering are excellent- well done!

  3. AmysAdventuresApril 14, 2014

    Thank you so much. They were both close to my heart.


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