What makes a good volunteer – the myths and the reality

What makes a good volunteer – the myths and the reality

Myth 1: To be a good volunteer you need to be a teacher

It depends what you mean by teaching!  All skills-sharing involves an element of teaching – for example in the last few weeks I have taught a friend how to do a new knitting stitch, been taught by another friend how to fertilize my courgette plants so I get fruit rather than just flowers, and been taught by my brother how to top up the pressure on my faulty boiler.  None of these are conventional teaching – all involve teaching a new skill.  So to be a good volunteer you do need to be prepared to share your skills with the others but you definitely do not need to be qualified teacher!  Education-based placements do require educators, but other types of placements require other skills, and each placement is created individually to match a volunteer’s skills and experiences to local needs.  So (taking examples just from the last few months and volunteers currently preparing for placements):

  • Caro (a retired doctor) has shared her medical knowledge with people in Cambodia to help them understand viruses and Covid-safety
  • Linda (a small business owner) will share her accountancy skills with women in The Gambia learning how to set up their own businesses
  • Lois (a nurse specialising in diabetes) will share her knowledge about nutrition for good health with a rural community in Cambodia
  • Andy (an engineer) has shared his technical skills with children in Cambodia, teaching them simple model-making
  • Jane (a retired business owner and administrator) has shared her office skills by creating training materials on how to make a Powerpoint presentation, which have been shared with various projects where we work

Myth 2: To be a good volunteer you must have professional skills to share

No.  Some volunteers do share their professional skills, others make use of hobbies, interests or things they have taken up since retiring.  Each volunteer’s placement outline is created individually for them and is based around something they have experience in or can do:

  • Kai is a published writer and poet.  She will share her skills with girls in Morocco, helping them with creative writing
  • Karen loves gardening and runs a community allotment for local primary schools.  She is sharing her gardening skills by making videos about how to grow vegetables using seeds taken from plants, and about how to look after vegetable gardens
  • Zara creates travel podcasts as part of her job.  She is sharing her skills with several of our local partners, making podcasts with them about the work they do and the culture of their countries
  • Eileen is a firm believer in the power of reading as a social and educational tool.  She hosts several book clubs from her home in USA.  She is sharing her love of reading by running an online book club for facilitators at the project we support in Hazyview, South Africa
  • Sarah volunteers at a charity centre in London helping refugees and asylum seekers to learn English.  She is sharing her experience of teaching English as a second language by working with Fatima, one of the house-mothers in Morocco, to improve her confidence in spoken English.
  • Yvonne has, for many years, gone into her local primary school to help the children with their reading.  She has recorded a number of story videos which we have shared with all the schools we support around the world, and we are currently hoping to set up a live link so she can read online to children in a school in The Gambia and discuss the stories with them

Myth 3: To be a good volunteer you need to be an intrepid independent traveller

Certainly not!  Whether you choose to travel to volunteer or to volunteer from you need never feel on your own – we and our partners support you all the way – it’s our job!

If you don’t want to or are unable to travel at all, you can be an e-volunteer!  We can create a skills-matched placement for you which links you up to someone at one of the projects where your skills are needed, but rather than hopping onto a plane to travel there you can link up with them via your computer or phone, without even leaving your sofa!  Many of our e-volunteers have been amazed at what a good relationship can be built up by working together and getting to know each other online, just meeting up with your overseas partner for an hour once a week.  ‘The highlight for me was bonding with Khadija over a love of sewing and a shared sense of humour.’ (volunteer Hannah)

If you decide to travel to do your volunteer placement, you have quite a lot of control yourself over the experience.  If you want to travel with a friend, that’s fine as long as you both have relevant skills that can be shared with local people.  In most countries where we work you have a choice of accommodation – in my time volunteering my accommodation choices have ranged from mud hut (for a weekend), through basic volunteer hostel, all the way up to an Indian palace!  You may also have choices over transport arrangements – for example in Cambodia they will offer you a bike to get to work, or you can opt for a tuk-tuk to pick you up every day.

An essential guarantee from us at people and places and from our local partners is that we will provide you with support, 24/7 if required.  This is not limited to your work – every time I travel to volunteer I like to make use of my weekends to see something of the country and experience local culture.  Our local partners are undoubtedly the best people to advise on weekend trips – I personally have experienced fantastic trips organised for me by our partners – up-river in The Gambia and into neighbouring Senegal, on a local bus to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, to Marrakech in Morocco, to Kruger Safari Park in South Africa and much more – and on all of them I felt totally secure knowing I could phone our local partner at any time if I required support.  On our e-volunteer placements too we guarantee to provide whatever support is required – for example two of our partners use the video-conferencing platform Jitsi-Meet which is not widely used in the UK (though it is very similar to Zoom).  We organise a one-to-one familiarisation session for all volunteers working with these partners before they begin their placements to make sure they are comfortable with the technology.  And you won’t be asked to do anything you are uncomfortable with.  Volunteer Caro says: ‘I was nervous about e-volunteering as I am retired and my IT skills are basic. I live on my own and the thought of making videos and doing zoom presentations made me feel uncomfortable.  When I said I was happy to do online meetings and to share youtube videos but not to make videos of my own this was fine – they were happy for me to work in whatever way suited me best.  Despite my early apprehension I found the whole experience extremely rewarding. The technology worked surprisingly well.’ 

So why not give volunteering a try? What skills and interests do you have which you could share? Professional skills or hobbies – we can use them all to support the people we work with around the world.  Please do get in touch to share your skills – all our volunteers tell us what a rewarding experience it is!

For details of all our volunteer programmes for travelling volunteers take a look here. Or, if you are interested in e-volunteering follow this link

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