Deciding to Volunteer Internationally – by Lindsay Seegmiller, Students Offering Support

There is a lot of speculation about the merits and benefits of international volunteering, and rightly so. This process of going abroad to help the less fortunate earns the volunteers no end of praise, well wishes and financial support from onlookers at home. However, an increasing amount of literature is arising that questions the inherent goodness of these experiences. Questions surface like, “What do you accomplish?”, “Who really benefits?”, and “What message is sent to the host community?” The volunteers themselves often go through a bit of an inner debate about these questions, in relationship to the practical experience and life lessons you gain through these internships.

I am all too familiar with this inner debate as I am, in many ways, the product of a series of international internships. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for the world but, at the end of the day, did these experiences benefit more than my outlook on the world (and resume)?

While deciphering this world and corresponding benefits is a novel in its own, I have come up with a few key tips and suggestion to find the most meaningful placements – to yourself, and the host community – all without breaking the bank.

A few basics need to be accepted in order to create a constructive process:

  1. 1. Short-term volunteering will greatly benefit the volunteer. Volunteers learn immense amounts about the world, themselves and their peers through these placements. These lessons often prompt the development of global citizens.
  2. 2. A partially (or fully) completed university education does not qualify you to “do development”. Volunteers act as supports and assistants to the host organizations more than they are leaders. Volunteers will quickly learn that the capacity and motivation for change is already there, but that these things face structural limitations. 
  3. 3. A volunteer’s greatest contribution will likely be their volunteer fees. Hosting international volunteers is an incredible source of funding for small NGOs in a world of competitive grant making. The business of international volunteering establishes an income source outside of the traditional donor model that allows NGOs to operate as social ventures rather than businesses.

These basics can easily allow for the formation of ‘volun-tourist’ placements. These placements are stereo-typed by holding babies with a gaggle of other international volunteers, leaving the placement on weekends for tourist activities and of course, a lot of weeknight drinking. Voluntourists leave with great pictures, interesting stories, a refined outlook on the world a few resume highlights. They have benefitted, but the question remains of what happened in the community.

In my opinion, there are some key questions to both ask and personally reflect on as you select an international volunteering placement to ensure that you make the most positive impact as possible.

  1. Why do you want to go abroad? Is it to see the world? Bulk up your resume? Make a difference? Meet new people? Something else?
  2. What are the negatives of international volunteering? Learn about what people are saying about this new trend. Check out this video about voluntourism in Ghana called Mind the Gap or read up on Samantha Nutt’s perspectives about the industry.
  3. Do you need to go abroad to achieve these goals? Oftentimes, NGOs working in your hometown or a major city will be able to satisfy these motivations (especially the resume-builder motivation). From personal experience, my international volunteers and interns make wonderful contributions to our organization, but they would never exist without the devotion of our in-Canada interns working in Public Relations, IT, Finance, Monitoring and Evaluation, Project Development, Research etc.

If you still want to go abroad, seek out organizations who:

  1. Prioritize locally-driven initiatives,
  2. Work off existing projects, rather than creating projects to meet volunteer demand,
  3. Offer thorough pre-departure training and build a post-trip network,
  4. Encourage and facilitate project reflection,
  5. Show thorough monitoring and evaluation of the projects that volunteers contribute towards during their placement,
  6. Encourage you to listen and learn, rather than do,
  7. Offer lean pricing options, with the majority of the pricing being directed to supporting your living costs in community (rather than Western-organizational overhead). Hint: look to volunteer through non-profits rather than for-profits!

If you find an organization that you feel satisfies your expectations and makes a meaningful contribution towards the host-community, I would encourage you to take that leap! These early experiences will change and shape how you understand the world, and your role within it. Go with an open mind and act like a sponge.

And of course, if you are interested in pursuing an internship at SOS that I feel meets these criteria, please e-mail me at lseegmilller@studentsofferingsupport.ca. I would be more than happy to discuss what we do, why we do it, and what your role might be. Or even just to give a bit of advice.

Lindsay Seegmiller, Director of International Outreach, Students Offering Support


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About the Author: Katie Idle

About our business, Study and Go Abroad is the 'go to' site for Canadians looking to study abroad, travel, intern or volunteer. We organize fairs twice a year in various cities in Canada, and I'd recommend getting down to one of them to check out all the exciting options. As for me, I'm a business woman and a travel junkie! I have always had a passion for travel and for experiencing new cultures. Brought up in England, I traveled Europe in my teens and early 20s. I have lived and worked on 3 continents; Europe, Africa and North America. I have traveled extensively worldwide both for work and for fun - and still can't believe how much of the world there is still to see!

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