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!

The third “Know Before You Go” video is live: Returning From Your Volunteer Experience

Video 3 – Returning From Your Volunteer Experience


The third video in our series is aimed at people who have recently finished a volunteering experience, and are wondering how they can transfer the knowledge they’ve gained to their lives back home. It offers useful tips on how you can share your experience with others and continue supporting the causes you believe in.