Four questions to ask yourself when volunteering long-term abroad

I know several organisations in Cambodia who have received a constant supply of long-term volunteers. Staying for anywhere between six months and two years, these volunteers help with fundraising, marketing, program management and other tasks. However, there is no consistency. With each new volunteer comes a new strategy. And the local staff are not receiving training to take over these tasks themselves. Many of those roles could be held by local staff if the volunteers saw their roles as capacity building with the intention of eventually having an exit strategy and being made redundant.

When deciding to volunteer long-term, you have a responsibility to research opportunities thoroughly and ensure the community are put first. These are the questions you should be asking yourself and the organisation:

What are your motivations to volunteer? Be honest with yourself. Are you volunteering so you can live abroad for a while, because you think the experience would look good on your resume or you want to play with adorable children? Or do you honestly believe you have a specific set of skills that an organisation genuinely needs in order to develop?

Can a local staff member gain the knowledge they need to fulfil the role in their location? In my eyes, volunteering overseas should always involve passing on skills to local staff. I have had numerous people and companies request to run training for the staff at Human and Hope Association. Why do I say no? Because they can gain that knowledge through the local universities, training providers and governing board members. NGOs are in a position to support the local economy, and if the staff can access that knowledge locally, there is no need for volunteers to run training.

Would I be working directly with the community? Following on from my last point, most volunteering situations should not have you working directly with the local community. For stability and in order for the NGO to form a trustworthy relationship with community members, the local staff should be the faces of the organisation. Your work as a long-term volunteer should focus on working directly with staff to upskill them, fundraise or create policies.

Is there a clear succession planning? I have known many volunteers who have spent time at an NGO and tried to create processes or programs that have stopped as soon as they left. If the local staff are not involved every step of the way, there is no buy-in, meaning the program most likely won’t continue. And, if you truly want to make yourself redundant, as I did, there needs to be clear succession planning in place. Not just for you to pass on your skills, but for the local staff to pass on their skills to other staff, too, so that if they leave, another volunteer won’t need to come in and teach them all over again.

Learn more about volunteering in developing countries through my new book, ‘It’s Not About Me: Discovering Voluntourism is a Problem, not a Solution.’