Beginning a volunteer placement is almost always an emotionally difficult time. The excitement of moving to another country, starting a new job and beginning what is in so many cases a completely life-changing experience is combined with the difficulties of moving away from friends and family, leaving your comfort zone and often giving up many of the small luxuries that you used to take for granted. Many volunteers will be visiting a country for the first time and no amount of reading and preparation can give someone a proper idea of what to expect.
Almost all volunteers arrive feeling excited, nervous, disoriented and exhausted. For some volunteers, this ends after a couple of days, for others it can take several weeks to get properly comfortable with their new life. This often isn’t helped by the very different working culture in the majority of local NGOs in developing countries. Everyone will react to this differently, but most volunteers would benefit from thinking about the following points.
The most important thing is to mentally prepare yourself for your new placement. By far the largest frustrations for new volunteers (along with those that have been out for a while) is the slow pace of work and the lack of organisation that characterises the majority of NGOs in developing countries. Volunteers normally start a placement expecting that a certain amount of forward planning would have been undertaken on the part of the organisation before their arrival. Unfortunately though, in the majority of cases this just won’t have happened, not because volunteers aren’t appreciated, just because that’s not the way that things work.
Begin your placement with the expectation that the first couple of weeks will be slow, that a lot of time will be spent on either reading, waiting to speak with people, general administrative tasks or hanging around feeling a little bit useless. In almost all cases, work will begin picking up soon.
Don’t expect to be able to get involved in all aspects of your role from the very beginning. Though this happens with some volunteers, for most it takes time, both on the part of the volunteer to develop a proper understanding of the work that the NGO does, and on the part of the organisation to begin feeling that you can be trusted and are a reliable pair of hands in which to place important tasks. For many volunteers, the first couple of weeks are spent editing English language reports. This is obviously not what the vast majority of volunteers want to be involved in. However, in many ways it’s an excellent introductory task, giving volunteers a better understanding of the organisation’s projects whilst providing very useful support, particularly for those organisations lacking staff with strong written English skills.
Be flexible about your role. Though your role outline offers a general outline of the work that you will be involved in, needs of organisations are always changing and it is completely normal for there to be some variations in your role. Normally, these changes will still generally cover the same topics and type of work as your original planned role and you are likely to learn just as much from this new project. If you are unhappy with this change though, it is perfectly fine to discuss this with your supervisor. It is also important to be proactive and often volunteers need to push to get involved in everything they want to be involved in. Don’t just expect new responsibilities to be handed to you. Again, this isn’t because your work isn’t appreciated, it’s just that it hasn’t occurred to anyone to ask you to be involved in this. Don’t be afraid of regularly bringing up new projects with your supervisor.
Expect at some point to think ‘why am I doing this, how will I manage for xx months?’ This is completely normal and again will usually disappear quickly. When this happens, take some time to remind yourself of why you’re there. Maybe spend some time exploring the local area and building on your life outside of work. Remember that an excellent support network is available to you, both in the form of 2Way Development staff and other volunteers. If placements aren’t meeting expectations then we can help to get them back on track.
Finally, remember that this experience has the potential to be one of the greatest and most memorable of your life. Make the most of it, push yourself to do things that you’ve never done before and have fun!