Last week we posted a blog entitled 5 Things an Effective International Volunteer Does. A few people got back to us and pointed out that “being effective” is not just about choosing the actions and behavior to increase our impact, but also about avoiding actions and behavior that can have a negative effect on the cause we are volunteering for. In fact, the damage caused by just one disrespectful or thoughtless volunteer can sour the positive impacts brought by many skillful and aware volunteers.

In our interactions with host organizations, the same harmful behaviors are identified time and again. If you care about being effective as a volunteer overseas, we recommend you completely avoid doing any of the following.


1) Does things that are offensive or illegal

Different cultures define what behavior is appropriate differently. If you are being welcomed as a guest into a community and context different from your own, you may need to uphold a different moral code. This is not to impose external judgment on activities you enjoy and that may be perfectly acceptable in some contexts at home, nor does it mean you need to change your own internally-held values, but it does mean that you need to respect the values of the people whose homes and communities you are in.

As a starting point, find out what is illegal in the country you will travel to, but also research what activities might be frowned upon, viewed as harmful, or just be outright offensive. Remember that this may differ from community to community. In some areas, drinking is associated with domestic violence, wastefulness or abuse. Drugs may be readily available, or sexual promiscuity may be accepted or actively encouraged in some circles, but think very carefully about what message your behavior will give to your local friends and colleagues. A consequence of your role as outsider is that anything you do is much more likely to be noticed and talked about. You will stand out, and are more likely to get both praise and criticism. Guaranteed, if you drunkenly get into a fight in a bar one night it will be the one thing local people remember about you. Being conscious of the local stereotypes will help you avoid embarrassing yourself or bringing shame on those associated with you.

Although in many communities, there are cultural norms and practices which may occasionally make these activities acceptable, unless you are living there for a long time and can work out the nuances, self-imposed abstinence is often the easiest path. For example, maybe you have to limit drinking alcohol to the times when you are away from the community you work in. You may not be able to invite members of the opposite sex to stay with you. You may have to observe certain eating practices, especially if the institution or community you are in is strongly religious. Your volunteer placement might ban smoking on the premises, require a certain dress code, or enforce other behavioral standards that are likely not meant as restrictions or punishments, but rather guidelines of how to avoid unknowingly causing offense.


2) Thinks they are the center of the universe

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hardwired into our boards at birth.’

–     David Foster-Wallace, ‘This is Water’

Although your stint volunteering might be a very significant experience for you, and although the months or weeks you are there might seem like a long time, your job is to support something much bigger than yourself. When things don’t go your way, you might want to consider in whose way they did go. The people you are working with most likely have more important things to do than look after you, so make sure you are doing your best to take care of your own needs or seeking out additional outside friends and support if your questions and needs are a drain on the organization.

Remember that volunteers often can be more of a burden than a help – needing training, translation and management. Consider what resources you are taking away from the organization and ensure that what you are giving back is at least as valuable as what you are taking. If it seems like your volunteer experience is being arranged in a way to cater to giving you exciting work or a sense of accomplishment, ask if you can take a more supporting role in projects that are already a priority, rather than having activities created for your benefit.


3) Abuses their position of privilege

Local projects often accord a foreign volunteer a lot of power, often based less on skills and experience than passport and skin color. Colleagues may defer to you as they would to a manager. Community members may see your well-stocked first aid kit and ask for medical advice. You may be asked to provide trainings on topics which you don’t know anything about, or be asked to join high-level meetings and offer your opinion to government officials. We have even found instances of medically unqualified people being asked to perform surgical procedures.

Although it can be very flattering to be in this position, and of course you want to help as much as possible, be realistic about your capacity to perform a role. You could team up with a local counterpart and suggest doing it together, or you could help locate a trained local consultant to help. Remember that although not being able to perform a role might be disappointing for you or your host organization, the consequences of you performing a role outside of your skill set can be extremely damaging.


4) Dresses inappropriately

Although you may see the way you dress as an expression of individuality, or a response to climatic conditions, or of no consequence at all to you, in some societies the clothes you choose can offer very different messages and it is important to be aware of what they are. To avoid offending people, pay attention to and comply with local customs, which will likely be more conservative than what you are used to. Some volunteers we have spoken to complain that restrictive dress codes makes them not “feel like themselves”, but you might want to ask yourself: Is it more important that I get to feel like myself when I am in someone else’s community, or is it more important that that the people whose home area I am entering get to feel at home in their own backyards? In your hometown, it might be inappropriate for a woman to walk around topless, in fact, they might even be arrested for doing so. Consider that showing your shoulders, knees, or midriff in certain cultures might be equally as shocking.

Just by being a foreigner and looking different you will already stand out among the people in your local area. In many communities, if you wear culturally inappropriate outfits, people will form a negative impression of you and you could be starting off on the wrong foot before you even begin your work. Your choice of clothes may be taken as a lack of respect for the local religion or culture. You may inadvertently feed stereotypes that all Westerners are insensitive or sexually available, as that is what your clothing might symbolizes in that culture. Find out what clothing is culturally appropriate before you pack, so you can make sure to bring clothes that help you fit in, or you can buy some local style clothing once you arrive. This also can have the effect of making a positive statement about how much you want to integrate into and learn from the culture.

You will find that in very touristy areas, many travelers or even locals wear clothing that is deemed “inappropriate” by local culture guidebooks, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it must be okay because “everybody is doing it.” Each area will have different cultural norms, with some regions or contexts being more relaxed and others having stricter standards. Think about the difference in what you might wear at home, in a nightclub, to a job interview, on a walk in the park, or to visit your grandmother. In another culture there are similar norms around when certain clothes are appropriate or not, which are often subtle and unspoken. As it can take a very long time to understand these norms, the easiest path is to always wear things that will not cause offense in any context.


5) Complains all the time

Consider how you make your local co-workers feel if you are complaining about their home country all the time – either about things that are a normal (or valued!) part of life, like a rice-heavy diet or squat toilets, or about things that are daily challenges for people who live in that society, such as the lack of water or electricity. How would you feel if people came to work with you in your country and spent all day complaining, either about things you appreciate such as everyone being punctual, or things you don’t like but accept, such as the lack of eye contact and conversation on public transport? Complaining about things that are not likely to change any time soon won’t do you or the people around you any favors.

You will for sure face many different challenges when living in an unfamiliar community, but those same challenges can also be viewed as opportunities. In the same placement, one volunteer might spend their whole time abroad complaining about the things that are different from home, while another might have a very similar experience and consider themselves lucky to learn about and try all these new things. If you catch yourself complaining about the local culture, food, weather, people, or working conditions, consider what you are also learning from the experience. It may be something that you would never otherwise have the opportunity to learn.


Overall, if you do your best to engage in volunteering with humility, mindfulness and self-awareness, you are well on the way to being effective. And if you would like more tips on exactly what that looks like, check out our book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad.