In writing the book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad we interviewed hundreds of volunteers and their hosts in countries all over the world. For many of those volunteers, their placement abroad was their first time away from their family and friends for an extended period of time. We understand that the few weeks or few months you spend volunteering may be a really important life experience for you. You might have been preparing for months or even years for this trip, saving money, researching, and planning. Stepping into a new country and a new role might be the culmination of an immense amount of work, and it might almost feel appropriate for there to be horns and cheers to celebrate that you finally have arrived.
You might arrive in country to find that to be not far from the reality, to an extreme. In villages in India and Nepal, for example, we have seen volunteers welcomed with garlands of flowers and red powder. Some volunteer travel providers will even go to great lengths to make sure the volunteers are celebrated and thanked like visiting dignitaries. If you go on a volunteer trip and feel people are paying too much attention to you, reassure your hosts you don’t need all the accolades and they can focus on their other important work.
On the other hand, you might find the organization you work with abroad not as prepared to revel in your arrival as much as you are. The team might have a lot of other priorities on their plate other than helping you settle in. Your hosts may assume things that are obvious to them, such as how to ride the local buses or where to find drinking water in the office, will be obvious to you too. Try to put things in perspective: should the organization’s main purpose this week be to continue to work towards their mission and implement their programs? Or should it be taking care of a new visitor? Certainly, volunteers deserve to be valued and have support in their roles. Keep in mind, however, what support is realistic for others to give, and do what you can to work out new things by yourself first.
Volunteers who are not honest with themselves about the importance of their work, the impact they have, or their motivations can fall into a development worker trap we jokingly call “N.G.egO.” – when your ego gets in the way of your N.G.O. work. You may have encountered some people suffering from this condition before. Those who believe themselves to be out “saving the world” and suffering untold woe because of it. The person who is constantly proclaiming their “selflessness” because they volunteered once. The person who can’t take feedback because they assume they deserve nothing but praise. When volunteering you may come across others who fit this personality type during your time overseas.
“Recognize the privilege you have to be taking this time out to learn about the world, when most people around the world will never have a chance to participate in such an exchange”
The day to day work of volunteering overseas can be difficult, but be sure to keep your N.G.egO in check. When you are doing very difficult or emotionally draining work, when you are sitting in the heat sweating through a meeting, or when you are frustrated and think about the well-paid job you turned down to do this, it can be easy to fall into martyr syndrome. Keep being honest with yourself. Remember why you chose to do this work. Become aware of how much you are gaining from this opportunity. Recognize the privilege you have to be taking this time out to learn about the world, when most people around the world will never have a chance to participate in such an exchange. So, perhaps putting it in perspective, that long, hot, meeting wasn’t “the biggest waste of time ever” after all?
Letting go of your ego is also about being honest with yourself if you feel you have picked the wrong placement. If the organization ends up being less trustworthy than you had hoped, or if your skills are not fit for the role and you are worried you might cause more harm than good by staying in the position, have the courage to admit that. If things are going great, before you take all the credit, don’t forget you came into an organization or project with roots that started long before you arrived and will continue long after you leave, so be honest with yourself about how much credit you can take.
We created “learning service” as an approach to volunteering that encourages “learning” over “giving” or “helping”, and to ensure service is undertaken humbly and mindfully. Becoming aware of how our egos shape our perceptions and doing what we can to check and control them can be a great way to keep us open-minded, remind us to have fun, and help us to be effective in our volunteer roles.
‘Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad’ is written by Claire Bennett, Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher and Daniela Papi-Thornton and is available to buy on Amazon. You can also find out more about Learning Service from their website: www.learningservice.info or follow them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.