January 24th, 2017

Choosing the right country for your volunteer assignment

By Recruitment Consultant Ian McDonald

Flexibility is one of the key attributes that we look for in all volunteers and it also applies when choosing the right country to volunteer in.  Unsurprisingly, being open to a wide range of countries increases the likelihood of being offered a volunteer assignment. 

Not many people are truly open to going anywhere, and some factors should  be weighed up when considering the suitability of an assignment location.  What are those factors? Here are five key things to consider.

1. Demographics 

I would argue that it is not so much the country of assignment that is critical; it is the general demographics of the assignment location.  That is, do you feel most comfortable in urban, regional, rural and isolated, remote or small island settings?  The lifestyle afforded by these locational types, in terms of social opportunities, recreational activities, access to communication, and modes of transport is likely to be more important than whether we are comparing Solomon Islands with Tanzania, for example.  Consequently, I will often ask prospective volunteers whether they feel more comfortable, for example, in Melbourne, Ballarat, Tallangatta or King Island?

Solomon Islands_Choosing a country

2. Language

You need to realistically gauge the importance of language acquisition on both professional and personal fronts.  Placements in some countries, like Indonesia, require volunteers to have a reasonable grasp on the local language in order to do the job at hand.  However, I feel it is vital for volunteers to learn the language of their new country as a way of showing respect, developing strong working relationships and having opportunities to socialise with new local friends.  How good are your language skills?  Will you really make the effort?

3. Environment 

Diet, climate, religion, politics and recreational opportunities can all play a key part in our lives here and will do so when you live overseas.  If you have to go for that 10km run every morning then do some serious research about air quality, availability of a suitable running surface and if it is safe to run alone. Volunteers are nothing if not innovative and I know of some who have made their own gym equipment or constructed hydroponic vegetable nurseries in order to meet their specific needs.

Myanmar_choosing a country

4. Draw on what you know (but not too much!)

It may also be useful to draw on past experiences.  Have you ever been pleasantly surprised or greatly disappointed by what a new country you travelled to had to offer?  Why? What was it that led to this element of surprise?  Was it you and your expectations or was it one of those strange twists of fate? Alternatively, part of the allure of international volunteering is how it unfolds – the unexpected challenges, embracing new cultural norms or ways of living. If you knew everything about your assignment location before you went it wouldn’t be anywhere near the same experience, so be prepared to go with some known unknowns (in the lexicon of Donald Rumsfeld).  

5. Inviting change

Finally, are you prepared to invite change in and allow the experience or country to influence you and the way you see the world or certain issues?  One of the great joys of spending a prolonged period immersed in another culture is in how certain cultural mores – perhaps attitudes to time, possessions, and familial relations – can rub off on a volunteer and be absorbed by them as a new way of doing things. These attitudinal shifts can take place anywhere that a volunteer with an open mind is prepared to go.

Inviting change_choosing a country