“I really believe that an open debate about how we can best volunteer is the only productive way of finding out what does and doesn’t work in the voluntary sector.”

As you can probably tell our Learning Service team is dedicated to providing insightful resources to help you make informed decisions when you travel and volunteer. We recently began releasing a series of videos full of tips for how to make the most of your time abroad and enlisted some like-minded individuals to help us spread the word.


Our Learning Service Ambassador team spans the globe and represents four different continents! Eleanor, today’s featured ambassador, currently lives and works in Cambodia and lucky for us, took some time to share about her own volunteer experiences and why she believes in the Learning Service movement.


Learning Service: Tell me about any past volunteering experience.


Eleanor: I have volunteered at home and overseas.  As a student at Durham I volunteered for Amnesty International and at University College London I was a member of the Student Human Rights Project. I have also done voluntary social media work for a UK based charity called the Social Breakfast. In Cambodia I volunteered as a teacher for Conversations with Foreigners and as a monitor on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal with the Asian International Justice Initiative.


LS: What made you interested in volunteering?


E: I was interested in volunteering because it enabled me to support causes that I am passionate about.  I was also keen to do something useful with the skills that I have.


LS: How did your past volunteering experience influence your decision to support the Learning Service movement?


E: As a volunteer you want to know that the work you do is of actual benefit to a certain cause. I was keen to support the Learning Service movement because by informing people of the different issues around volunteer travel we can help them choose programmes where they can achieve this.


LS: How do you hope Learning Service will influence the volunteer community?


E: I hope that Learning Service will influence the volunteer community by not only helping people identify how they can volunteer responsibly but also open up the conversation about international volunteering as a whole. I really believe that an open debate about how we can best volunteer is the only productive way of finding out what does and doesn’t work in the voluntary sector.


LS: Do you have any fun volunteer stories you’d like to share?


E: I’ve enjoyed all the volunteering that I’ve done but singing songs with my Khmer students in Phnom Penh about tops the list!


LS: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go (and why)?


E: I would love to visit Bhutan. It’d be interesting to learn about Bhutanese society given the importance they place on gross national happiness rather than GDP. The mountainous landscape looks wonderful too!


LS: Any lessons you learned from your past volunteer experiences?


E: I think the most important lesson I’ve learnt when volunteering is to persevere, it will be worth it in the end! This is particularly relevant to volunteering overseas where the challenge of both adapting to a new culture and missing your family and friends back home can make it difficult sometimes.


Frequently Asked Questions: Volunteering to Gain Experience

We get a lot of questions about how to find the right volunteer position if you don’t have any previous experience or if it’s ok to use volunteering abroad as a means to gain work experience. Today’s FAQ post hopes to answer some of these questions and help you find the right volunteer placement to fit your skill level.


1. I want to volunteer so I can build skills in an area I have no experience in – can you give me some advice?


Many people use volunteering as a way of gaining skills in a new area, or getting the chance to do work that they aren’t qualified to do at home. If you are considering this, please think very carefully about the types of work you take on. If you have no background in teaching, building, or conservation, imagine the challenges of suddenly being put in the role of teacher, builder, or conservationist, especially in a completely new environment. One question to ask yourself would be, would I be allowed to do this at home? If at home you’d like be an assistant, apprentice, or intern, consider seeking out similar learning roles abroad which don’t put you in a position of authority, but allow you to learn and contribute under the watchful eye of someone with more experience.


We have spoken to young volunteers who have been thrown into a role of health care provider, when they weren’t qualified to do so. In one area, the young foreign volunteer was called “doctor” by everyone in the town…. But he had just graduated from university with an English degree!! Don’t put yourself in a position like that: make sure you are explicit about your role – if YOU are seeking to gain skills, make sure you will be mentored and managed, not managing and mentoring.


Some volunteer placements can be designed in such a way that they are both able to meet your learning goals and offer support to the project or organization you are working on. If your role is explicitly that of an assistant or intern, working alongside and bolstering the position of a local person, there will be plenty of opportunities to learn and you will not feel the burden of responsibility of being expected to complete a task for which you are not qualified.


The other option is to volunteer in a field in which you do feel you have skills to contribute. If you are an accountant, instead of painting a fence or teaching English, maybe you could have more of an impact through working with an organization that offers financial literacy trainings or work as an intern supporting an NGOs accounting team looking for in-service training and help build the capacity of social organizations in another country.


2. I don’t feel I have any skills to offer – can I still volunteer?


It takes honesty and humility to recognize that you may not have learned enough skills or gained enough life experience to make a significant contribution overseas – yet! Attitudes are just as important as skills and honesty and humility are both important qualities to cultivate to ensure that you are effective when you do volunteer.


If you feel like you don’t have enough skills or you don’t know enough about the place you want to volunteer in, then we suggest first taking some time to learn. Remember that everyone has to learn before they can help. Perhaps you want to go on a learning trip to explore the issues facing a country and how they are being tackled, and what skills you might consider building in the future.


Alternatively, there are some volunteer opportunities that are set up to support volunteers that have little experience in an area and are aimed at helping volunteers learn. Seek out positions that put you in the role of intern, or assistant, rather than leader. Remember to be explicit about what your needs are at the beginning of the placement and consider offering a donation or paying a fee to cover the time it takes to manage and train you. Note that, in general, very short-term placements of a few days or weeks are harder to do effectively without you bringing a unique and needed skill-set, or the luck of timing of a project needing your skills happening just when you are there. If you only have a few days, take time to learn more about the issues you care about, and then you can take time to figure out how to effect positive change on that issue in a more significant way.


3. Is volunteering a good way to get into paid development work?


It can be. First, we advise that you consider your motivations for wanting to get into the development sector and be sure that this is the best way to meet your goals.  Working towards social change in your own country may be a way to have an even larger impact on the issues you care about. Or getting qualified in a profession you are passionate about and using those skills to change the world. The development sector is a very large and bureaucratic one, balancing the interests of governments and multilateral agencies, and for some it can be a frustrating field to work in. The other end of the spectrum, supporting local grassroots movements, can also feel frustrating for some as it is often under-resourced or very small scale.


But if you know that development is a field you want to work in, taking an internship or learning-based volunteer role is a good way for you to get exposure to the sector. Be sure that the organization you volunteer with is in a position to support you, and will not be over-reliant on you to provide things you are not in a position to offer, and also remember that a lot of the ‘interesting’ work – direct work with beneficiaries – is more efficient and sustainable if delivered by local staff. Be prepared that whatever kind of development work you get involved in, both now and in the future, that most of your work will be office-based and may include a lot of fundraising, editing documents or data-analysis. But if the organization is doing great work on the ground this can be vital support for achieving their development goals!

We’re giving away KEEN Shoes!

Each week we’re giving away a pair of KEEN Shoes!

At the end of the contest we’re giving out 8 Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes. Also, those who’ve correctly answered all 6 questions will be entered in a drawing for a 3-day stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia!

Congratulations to our winners so far:

Week 1  Week 2

Week 3


Visit learningservice.info/videocontest to enter. Who knows, you could be our next winner!




Tips & Tools for Volunteer Travel via Volunteer South America

If you are reading this blog, the chances are that you are interested in volunteering in another country. Overseas volunteering is something with a broad appeal, from students taking a gap year, to professionals looking for a career change, to retirees looking to offer their skills. In fact it is an activity that many people have on their bucket list of ‘things to do before they die’. There are a few reasons for this. Maybe it seems to offer a more authentic travel experience, off the well-worn tourist trails; an opportunity to connect and exchange with local people. Or it can be a way to give back to the communities that have provided us with such fond memories. It also offers a way to help and make a difference in the places we travel to, especially ones with seemingly such stark needs.


However, ensuring that we offer our time to the right place in the right way is not as easy as it sounds. As the numbers of travelers looking to volunteer has grown, so too has the number of service providers offering volunteer experiences. Sometimes motivated by a profit or status-building incentive, there are examples of volunteer placements that end up being surface level experiences created purely for travelers to feel good about themselves. Or even worse, the good intentions of tourists and volunteers can be taken advantage of by corrupt organizations or unscrupulous individuals who may even harm or exploit those the project purports to help. These may not be the first thoughts on your mind as you are searching through websites looking for your way to contribute to the world!


Continue reading on the Volunteer South America blog!

The fourth “Know Before You Go” video is live: Orphanage Tourism

Video 4 – Orphanage Tourism


Orphanages are increasingly becoming tourist destinations as more and more people choose to visit or volunteer in children’s homes during their travels abroad. This video – the fourth in our series – offers some ‘must know’ facts about orphanage tourism, and encourages you to think twice before contributing to this growing trend.

“I learned more from the people of Peru than they could ever learn from me.”

“A little girl grabbed my had, sat on my lap and started reading the story of “Tinkerbell” to me. Even though I spoke absolutely no Spanish she sat on my lap reading the entire story, complete with different voices for each character.” Meaghan, one of our Learning Service Ambassadors told us about her experience volunteering in Canto Grande, Peru. “Her enthusiasm and courage showed me that if you can’t communicate with someone due to language barriers, a smile can go a long way!”


Joining the ambassador team from Massachusetts, Meaghan has been volunteering in her local community since she was 12 years old. During an “Alternative Spring Break” trip to Peru Meaghan began to think critically about what it means to be a responsible volunteer.


“I realized it was important to be aware of the possibility you might not be helping as much as you think you are. It is important to know what you can actually do to help before you go on a volunteering trip. Also, make sure the organizations and trip organizers are legitimately helping communities in the ways they say they are.”


As a Learning Service Ambassador Meaghan hopes to help people learn the importance of conducting careful research before traveling or taking on a volunteer placement.


“There are organizations that can help you be a “voluntourist” ‘in a responsible way,” Meaghan said. “I also would like people to do research before they travel on volunteer trips, so they can learn more about the culture and people they will be working with.”


For all of you preparing for a trip abroad, Meaghan advises to go with an open mind.


“I realized I learned so much more from the people of Peru than they could possibly have learned from me.”