seven months in Peru! and questions to ask before becoming a long-term volunteer

For some reason, hitting the seven month mark has made me feel that my time in Peru is winding down. I can already see how things will be for the rest of the month, and then it seems that the next four months will fly by!  I’ve identified the main projects that I need to focus on in the next few months so that I leave things in great shape for the person who will take over for me, so the end is in sight.

It is interesting to think that a year ago I had been offered this role and was struggling with the decision to make such a big commitment.  I was doing as much research as possible and trying to decide if this was the right move for me.  At the same time, I was interviewing and being offered another great job in Boston, one which I absolutely miss, though at the time I didn’t know it would have continued past June.  I remember how much this kind of commitment scared me – volunteering without pay for one whole year??  What kind of crazy person decides to do that?

Apparently someone like me!

Posing with Alex!
Posing with Alex, my private tutoring student!

I had a great conversation today with one of the new volunteers who just arrived here with a similar year commitment about how difficult that commitment is.  I won’t lie – when things are challenging, it’s hard for me to remain positive.  I’m not a person naturally inclined towards positivity, and I also don’t believe that optimism alone solves the problems nonprofits face.  But in order to make it through a year of volunteering, we have to think about the big picture, break things down into manageable pieces, and ask questions when things seem unclear.  I struggle sometimes because the changes I’m bringing about are less immediate, and I may not get (okay, probably won’t get) that satisfaction of an immediate result, since I’m changing the framework we operate our English programs under.  I get so much joy from the relationships I’ve developed with my students, and usually that’s enough.  But sometimes I find myself wanting a bit more, and I just don’t think it’s possible.  I have to come to terms with that.

But I always believe that if there’s something I can learn from a situation, then it was worth it.  I’d like to share some of the things I either did or wish I had done to get information while deciding on this volunteer opportunity.

Here are some of my questions you should ask yourself, the nonprofit you’re working with, and others you trust while you’re considering a long-term volunteer opportunity.

  • Can I make this kind of commitment?  Is it worth taking several months to a year out of your life to volunteer? How will this affect you financially? Are the skills you will gain from the experience really valuable to you either professionally or personally?  Chances are you will gain wonderful skills through volunteering, but everything in life is a trade-off!
  • What do other people who have volunteered with this organization say about their experience?  Personally, I read everything I could find on the internet about volunteering with my organization.  I read the organization’s website, volunteering review sites, blogs, and  I emailed another former year-long volunteer with many detailed questions about my biggest worries, but there were definitely things I hadn’t thought of that I wish I’d known in advance.
  • What is the organization’s relationship with the local community it serves?  Are the people who run the organization mostly based outside the country, or is there collaboration with local partners?  Are locals in leadership positions with the organization?  What is the community’s support of the work?  I asked this question, but my data was outdated.  The best nonprofits commit to working with local partners, training people from the community when necessary, and invest in the partnership with long-term support.
  • What kind of values does the organization demonstrate?  Most of the volunteers with my organization love the fact that empowerment and education of women and children are the main goals behind what we do.  However, how is this demonstrated “in the field”?  As a former grad student, I always worry about and consider the impact of cultural imperialism.  Be sure that the organization’s actual values are in line with your own.
  • What are the long-term goals of the organization?  This is one of the questions I didn’t think to ask before I arrived, but I wish I had.  One year is one year of my life, a year I could have spent doing many other interesting things.  I want to know that the work I’ve put in and the changes I’ve made will have the necessary support to continue beyond my stay.  Of course, there are never any guarantees in the nonprofit world, but how is the organization planning on “making good” on your own commitment? Have they committed to using your time donation wisely?  Will the organization be around in a few years?  Ask the hard questions.
  • Am I volunteering for the right reasons?  In an ideal world, volunteering is about the end results for the people you serve.  But most of us also volunteer with our own personal goals in mind – gaining additional skills, experiencing something different, getting out of a routine.  But it’s important to consider whether you are more concerned with your own experience rather than the work you would come here to do and the impact you can have.  For me, this question continues to circle around my mind from time to time.  Volunteering isn’t always fun. It shouldn’t be, but it is great when it is. We’re here to work!
  • Am I genuinely interested in learning about the community and the local culture I will be living and/or working with?  It takes time, language skills, and significant effort to get to know people whose lives are very different from ours.  You have to do the background research before you arrive to ask interesting, sensitive questions.  Respect your host culture!
  • How will my basic needs be met?  I mentioned in a previous post that I would suggest staying in a homestay over a volunteer house.  Where will you sleep? Who will you socialize with? What will you be able to do for fun?  How will you exercise?  How will you get your meals? How much freedom do you have in your diet? How much will it cost for additional food needs and desires?  How comfortable will you be where you are living, and how does that matter to you?  A lot of the time, frustrations and conflicts come back to your physical needs and comfort.
  • How will I stay in touch with people from back home? Internet is pretty much essential.  It is hard to not have news from home when you’re living in a new community, a community that is not really yours.  Will you email?  Skype? Use Google Voice? Keep in touch over a blog?  Share updates on Facebook or Twitter? Post pictures online?  I know that very few people actually read my blog or check my Flickr stream, but it helps to know that I’m sending out my message to the world, beyond the people I email and Skype with! 🙂
  • If I’m making a financial donation, how is that money being spent?  Financial transparency is essential to well-run nonprofit organizations. I recently saw a volunteer page for a Peru-based nonprofit which very clearly outlined where each dollar was going. I was very impressed.

There are so many more important questions to ask, but these are the ones I most needed the answers to before making the commitment, that I wish I’d asked, and that I wish other people had asked themselves before coming here. 🙂

I recently read this Conde Nast Traveler article, “Does Voluntourism Do More Harm Than Good?”, which explores the questions you need to act before volunteering. It talks specifically about short-term volunteer opportunities, but I think it raises a lot of good questions about international nonprofits and volunteering in general.

More photos to come soon! 🙂

Update in March 2016:

Since I wrote this, I have come across two excellent guides on volunteering and considering volunteer opportunities:

Uncornered Market provides a detailed list of questions to ask before committing to a volunteer opportunity.

Flora the Explorer provides a thoughtful list of reflection questions that ask you to consider yourself, your skills, and the organizations available before volunteering in South America.


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