Identifying the right experience depends greatly on knowing yourself and your own expectations. One volunteer told me she selected an organization precisely because it didn’t seem structured — for others that would be a reason to run away.
Here are a few questions to consider before volunteering in another country:
What are my top expectations?
Do you expect to change the world, or change yourself? Do you need to see a job get completed during your stay, or is it enough to know that your efforts are a drop in the bucket? Will you be crushed if you don’t hear a thank you from the beneficiary of your efforts, or will it be enough to hear it from the organization hosting you? All of the organizations listed in my book Volunteer Vacations in Latin America are doing something worthwhile, but the best project for you will depend on your goals.
How much time do I have, and how much of it do I want to spend working?
Even if you only have one week and really want to spend some of it lazing on the beach or studying Spanish, there are volunteer opportunities available — some for as little as one day.
How far out of my comfort zone do I want to go?
Do you want to stay in a comfortable hotel and just visit the project during the day? Will you be at ease visiting a marginalized neighborhood? Do you want to find a placement where English is the primary language of communication, or can you cope with language barriers? Do you need to be somewhere with Internet access and cell phone coverage, or can you live without them?
What else do I want from this trip?
Do you want Spanish or salsa lessons, or just nature walks and time to read a book? Do you want to meet and socialize with other volunteers, or would you prefer to be the only international around? If you want to maximize your interactions with the local community, programs that offer homestays are a good choice. Those hoping to enjoy some of Latin America’s famous sunshine need to be sure to check the season of their would-be destination.
How much structure do I prefer?
This applies to your volunteer work as well as your free time. Generally speaking, the larger agencies with programs in multiple countries offer greater structure (and consequently have higher fees). This may include language lessons, cultural outings, field trips, and other benefits that are well worth the fees, but you may prefer to organize such things on your own. Likewise, smaller organizations may have more flexibility in the type of volunteering they offer, tailoring it to the skills and interests of the individual volunteer, but they may also require significant initiative and resourcefulness on the part of the volunteer in order to maximize the experience.
What expectations do I have of the community where I will be working?
Will you be comfortable if you work with a community that has different gender roles and hygienic standards than what you are used to? Will local community members work side by side with your at your project, and if not, will that be okay with you?
What expectations do I have of myself?
What do you expect to have contributed to the local community through your volunteer efforts? Do you want to improve your Spanish (or Portuguese, or Quechua) language skills, and if so, will the volunteer opportunities and accommodation options you are considering lend themselves to that? How will you share your experience with others in order to maximize your impact?
Excerpted from Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America by Amy E. Robertson. Copyright © 2013. Available from Avalon Travel, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc