Volunteering for Relief Programs


Volunteering for Relief Programs

By Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter

Courtesy of African Conservation Experience
Village kids in Guinea, shot by a Peace Corps volunteer. Courtesy of African Conservation Experience

While rewarding, engaging, and intense, volunteering for a relief program — whether a two-year stint in the Peace Corps or a two-week journey to bring supplies to a disaster site — should not be undertaken lightly.


As a volunteer, you can play an integral role in bringing vital skills and assistance to areas that need it, but only if you prepare for the experience and know exactly what you are getting into — not only for your own sake but especially for the sake of those you are supposed to be helping. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Why do you want to volunteer in relief assistance?

This is a vital question and should be the first. Are you responding to a crisis because you can’t help but feel the desire to help? Or are you motivated by some other need. Be honest in assessing your desire to help. Conditions in relief work are often grueling and heartbreaking: if you aren’t convinced of your commitment to help (and ability to withstand the conditions), you might end up leaving before your work is finished.

What are you interested in doing?

Do you want to teach English in a village in Tanzania or farming techniques in rural Ecuador? More to the point, do you have skills you can bring to these pursuits, or can you find a program that will train you to do so? Your first line of research to find a project should be searching yourself for what stokes your passion. You don’t want to get stuck doing something that doesn’t interest you, especially because conditions are likely to be difficult.

  • Where do you want to go? There is no one “right” place for everyone, so think hard about where will suit you. In your decision process, be sure to consider your skills. While working with wildlife in Uganda may sound exotic, if you speak fluent Spanish and have no background with animals, maybe your abilities could be better utilized in El Salvador. Also, beware of being drawn somewhere by emotion alone. Heartbreaking pictures from the recent Indian earthquake may prompt your desire to hop a flight to New Delhi, for example, but nearly all relief organizations say that in the early days of a natural disaster, untrained and unsolicited volunteers are almost always more trouble than they are worth. In these cases, your desire to help may be better served by opening your checkbook to help those organizations already on the ground.
  • How long do you want to stay? The depth of your involvement in relief work — regardless of whether you’re working in an urban hospital or an earthquake-torn village — will depend in large part on how long you want to and are able to stay. Many organizations, like the Peace Corps or Doctors Without Borders, have a set time that you must be willing to stay in order to be considered for the program. Make sure you have a clear idea of how long you can devote to the work before you begin your search.
  • Can you fund yourself? The idea of paying to volunteer sounds like an anathema to some people, but the plain fact is that volunteers cost money to support. Many relief organizations simply do not have the money to pay for volunteers’ housing, food, and training — or feel that any money that they would pay for those purposes would be taking away from the people they are trying to help.That is not to say that all relief work is self-funded, but steel yourself for the possibility that you may have to raise some or all of the money yourself in order to participate. Doing so can be easier than you think. Civic organizations, local governments, and even corporations sometimes fund individual relief work. If you can sell yourself and your project, you should be able to find the money.
  • Will you go alone? If you’re planning to travel solo, you can be more flexible about the conditions and situations you’re willing to accept. If you’re bringing a family — especially children — you will want to consider how the placement will affect them and what provisions must be made to accommodate their needs.

Once you’ve asked and answered these questions for yourself, you can begin to look for a program to serve your needs. When trying to find an organization with which to do your relief work, you should ask a new set of questions:

  • What kind of training does the organization provide? Unless you are already highly skilled or experienced in a certain type of relief work, you will probably need training to be truly useful. You should find out what training is provided, if the training happens after your arrival or before departure, and whether any fee you pay includes the cost of training. If the organization does not provide training, you may want to consider finding one that does. There are few things more unnerving than finding yourself, for example, in front of a classroom in an Indonesian school with 40 expectant faces looking at you and no idea what to do.
  • What does the cost include? In addition to finding out whether training is included in the price of your program, you should ask what exactly your fee covers. Are all meals included? How about overland travel? Health insurance? Get a complete list of included costs and, when planning for your final amounts, don’t forget to budget for anything that does not “come with” the price, like souvenirs, host family gifts, personal travel, etc. And find out if your costs are tax deductible.
  • What kind of in-country support does the organization offer? Again, unless you are a highly experienced relief volunteer, you will probably need to have some in-country support, either directly accessible where you are staying or close by. Find out who will be there to help you when and if you have a problem.
  • What kind of preparation should volunteers do? Find out early if you need to get any vaccinations, visas, or language training. Leaving matters like this until the last minute can mean the difference between going and not going — especially where bureaucracy is concerned. Determine also if your organization can help you with any of these issues.

As an informed and prepared volunteer, you can make a real difference — and change your life in the process.


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