By Lynsey Waite, ‘04
In October 2009, I left for a two month volunteer trip to Cambodia. I had never been to a developing country, and I wanted to see a different part of the world before starting medical school. Ideally, I wanted to work on a project related to healthcare, but I was flexible. What I didn’t want was to pay a volunteer fee on top of my airfare. A lot of international nonprofits use middleman services that screen volunteers and place them with an appropriate project. The fee for this service costs the volunteer up to $2,000. If you can pay the fee and want that peace of mind, go for it. If you don’t have the money (or prefer to spend it on graduate school tuition), here’s my advice for volunteering on your own.
1. Have a concrete skill.
This was the most important lesson I learned on my trip to Cambodia. You’re much more likely to find work with NGOs if you can offer something useful. Most people have the vague idea that they can teach English, which is true, but if you want to dig in for a long-term project, you need a professional skill. I spent four years after Middlebury working as a writer. In Cambodia, I volunteered with Handicap International to document the lives of people living with disabilities in rural villages.
Writers are valuable, so I found it easy to set up appointments to talk with nonprofits. My boyfriend is a professional photographer, ditto for that. If you’re still in college, think about what you could really contribute to a non-profit. Do you have EMT training? Do you have true education/teaching experience? Are you the editor of the newspaper? Have you worked construction every summer since high school? Or maybe you’re a great soccer player and you want to start and coach a team at a local school. Come up with something specific, and know why you’re valuable, before you start contacting people.
2. Find the right nonprofits.
There are NGOs that work directly with volunteers, especially skilled volunteers. It takes some Internet research, but you can find them. If an NGO website sends you to something like Interweave (volunteering middleman), just let it go. Some NGOs don’t have the time or resources to screen volunteers and a fee is non-negotiable. When you do find nonprofits that work directly with volunteers, send an initial email saying that you find their work interesting and you would like to volunteer with them. This is where things can get a little frustrating. In my experience, you’ll get a lot of emails back saying they’re interested too. Then you send your resume and a project proposal. The emails fly back and forth, you get excited and then… silence. About 80 percent of the time, it just doesn’t work out. A lot of these nonprofits are tiny, run by one or two people doing the work of twenty. So keep emailing – eventually something will stick.
3. Go with the flow and bring good books.
Things move slowly in the developing world. Before I left for Cambodia, I had emailed dozens of people, received a few responses and planned to follow up when I got there. Basically, I didn’t really have a plan. This was hard for me. I’m a typical type-A American girl applying to medical school, and I didn’t like the feeling of being at loose ends in a strange country. The first month was spent doing small projects, calling a lot of people and avoiding the heat. I read a lot of books. But it all worked out even better than I had hoped. So my advice is to email, email, email. Idealist.com is a good resource for nonprofits and contact info. And have it in the back of your mind that you might end up going without knowing exactly what you’ll be doing. Or what you thought you were going to do doesn’t exist when you get there. If you plan a trip to a place with a strong tradition of volunteer work (like Cambodia) then you will find opportunities when you arrive. Just keep calling.
4. Stay long enough to do good work.
I spent two months in Cambodia. I was wedged in on either side by an important wedding and Christmas with my family. Any shorter time period wouldn’t have been sufficient. I would say three months is probably a better plan, even longer if you can swing it. A longer trip also lets nonprofits know that you’re serious and not just a tourist wanting to do good. It wasn’t until my second month in Cambodia that I started working with Handicap International. That project was the most important work I did in Cambodia, but it took a while to lay the groundwork. I started emailing Handicap International in August. I sent them a proposal in October and the project started in November. That left me one full month to work with them, and every day counted.
5. Say yes to pretty much anything.
The way to meet people and find more work is to say yes. No gets you absolutely nowhere. Unless it seems dangerous, go along with what an NGO asks you to do. I had zero interest in tagging along on an Earth-day-type road race in 90 degree heat, but my boyfriend and I went anyway. We met really interesting people and he got a photo credit on a great website. Handicap International wanted something very different from my original proposal and I went along with what they needed (three others writers refused to be flexible and argued for what they had proposed. They didn’t get the job).
That’s my advice. Very subjective and personal. It was harder than I expected to volunteer without paying a fee, but I did work on projects that made my trip completely worthwhile. Be persistent, be patient and definitely have fun!
If you’re interested in volunteering in Cambodia, check out www.concertcambodia.org. They put volunteers in touch with responsible, sustainable nonprofits in the Siem Reap area (for free).
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