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!

Frequently Asked Questions: What is Learning Service?

Since we began promoting responsible volunteer practices and the importance of learning before serving we’ve received a lot of questions on the topics. In this FAQ post we hope to give you a better idea of what the Learning Service movement is all about.


1. What is meant by ‘learning service’ and how is it different from ‘service learning’?


‘Service learning’ (which is what international volunteering is often called in academic settings in North America), emphasizes learning through service. That is, the name reminds us that that service teaches us life lessons that can help us and the world, and through service, we are able to learn. Although we recognize the truth in this, we believe that the concept of ‘service learning’ is outdated. What volunteers can learn from overseas service are not new lessons but are in fact the same lessons being learned over and over again by a growing number of international volunteers.


‘Learning service’ is a concept that literally flips the concept of ‘service learning’ on its head. What we are calling ‘learning service’ is a philosophy where ‘learning’ is not the outcome or bi-product of service, but is a fundamental part of serving the world, and a prerequisite to serving responsibly. Emphasizing learning that comes first and throughout, recognizes that helping others requires the willingness and openness to change our own perspectives. It starts with the individual and the capacity for self-reflection and it entails learning about the people, issues, and context in which we operate. It means researching the organizations we are considering partnering with and not side-stepping an examination into their impact by being willing to ask difficult questions. It includes learning to constantly inform and improve the action we take; learning as a lifelong process that continues to ensure that our actions do good in the world.


Instead of the volunteer traveler motto being: “I’m here to help you”, we’re suggesting to shift it towards: “I’m here to learn from you if and how I can be of help, now and in the future.”


2. When you say “we have to learn before we can help” what should we learn and how?


The kind of learning that we are suggesting is not just academic book-learning, although this can be valuable too. At Learning Service we talk about ‘developing a learning mindset’ – and this starts with cultivating self-awareness. You can do this by analyzing your own background and influences, by understanding how your perspectives have been constructed, by identifying the limitations or biases of the sources of information you have had access to, and by questioning and challenging your own assumptions. In fact, your ‘learning journey’ may have to start with a lot of ‘unlearning’!


We recommend beginning the process of learning long before embarking overseas on a volunteer trip, and continuing that learning during your placement and after it. It entails:

  • Examining your own biases, cultural lens, and needs and  how they might or might not match with those in the areas you plan to visit
  • Learning about the issues you care about and how they relate to your own life locally as well as current and historical issues globally
  • Researching the organizations you are considering working with
  • Learning about the people and contexts in which the organizations you are looking to support operate
  • Finding out about the potential pitfalls of volunteer travel, so you can make sure to avoid adding to any problems which might be happening in the areas in which you work

Specific topics you might want to consider include:


  • History of development
  • Development theory and economics
  • Particular issues you are interested in

About the country you plan to go to

  • History
  • Demographics
  • Politics and current affairs
  • Religion, culture and lifestyle
  • Issues, root causes and responses
  • The context of tourism and volunteering

About yourself

  • Your core values and beliefs
  • Your interests, passions and goals
  • Questions, ‘what you know you don’t know’ and your plans to find out!
  • How to deal with unfamiliar and challenging circumstances, and how to handle emotion, frustration and changing expectations
  • How to challenge your assumptions and change your mind!

Building skills

  • Professional skills and academic qualifications
  • Language
  • Cross-cultural communication and other ‘soft skills’
  • How to mentor or train others
  • How to monitor and evaluate impact


 3. What does Learning Service provide for potential volunteers?


Learning Service is primarily an advocacy organization, with the aim of reframing the conversation around international volunteering and trying to ensure that volunteers themselves are aware and informed to be better able to make responsible choices. Our toolkits, videos, book, and resources are designed to be conversation starters, helping people examine their own biases and spark conversations about responsible travel options. We don’t offer our own volunteer programs and unfortunately do not have the capacity to assess each of the thousands of volunteer service providers out there to be able to give specific recommendations. However, what we CAN give are tips and tools to help volunteers to be able to make responsible choices for themselves.


You can download our guidelines and toolkits, and you can watch the series of short videos that we are releasing (if you watch before mid-February 2014 you can enter our contest and win some awesome prizes).


The videos that have been released so far are:


Finding a Responsible Volunteer Placement

Being a Valuable Volunteer

Returning from your Volunteer Experience


We are also writing a book covering all these issues, which we hope to release later in 2014, so if you are interested in updates you can sign up here.