Struggling to find the right volunteer opportunity for you? This might help!

A book review of “Learning Services – The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad” By Claire Bennett, Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher and Daniela Papi-Thornton

As the team of Responsible Volunteering, we get asked a lot which volunteer provider we would recommend. A question which for most young people seems straightforward. We often disappoint them when not giving them their desired answer, a simple name. It is indeed not that straightforward, just as there is not only one right way in international volunteering. While reading through the very first pages of this book, you dive through praises from many meaningful people and quite a few of them mention that they wish they had this guide before beginning their own personal volunteer experience back in the day. So before reading, I wondered to myself – would this guide assist potential volunteers with their decision-making?

Change of angle

Many times, volunteers approach the whole experience with the mindset of helping others in need while travelling to cool places. It sounds like the perfect combination and due to providers advertisement, they are made to believe that their volunteer trip will help communities in need. Right at the beginning, this guide flips this approach upside down and talks about the “learning service” approach, where learning before, during and after the experience is set as a priority.

Moving away from presumptions and set opinions, reflecting on yourself and your environment. Always ask yourself “why”, which links to the next section of the guide asking very direct and honest questions on the motivation of the reader. The guide handles the complexity of the motivations well and addresses all of the different angles for potentially wanting to volunteer. It clearly talks about some red flags pertaining to motives but also gives advice on how to go about it.

In the second out of six sections of the book, the guide focuses on the negative and positive effects of international volunteering. It starts the chapter off by adding a historical background and explaining to the reader the complexity of the word “development”, which even amongst opinion leaders in the industry has been widely discussed. Importantly, it points out the difference between a band-aid approach and addressing the root causes, which for volunteers is very essential to understand if they aim to have a meaningful trip. The third and last section of the first half before jumping into “On Action”, covers, as many volunteers would think, the most important part of the book. What opportunity is right for you? What are the different options? Is volunteering the right choice? What type of provider should I be looking for? What question should I ask myself and the potential provider? These kinds of questions are being answered in a very structured and yet very thorough manner. It additionally directs the reader to other alternatives other than volunteering abroad.

For the second half, the book leads you into the preparation process for the volunteer experience. The authors manage to touch on many aspects of that process such as mental preparedness. They even go into a detailed list on what items to bring and what to leave at home. Some items even surprised me but make a lot of sense. In this half the reader can find many useful tips for the entire experience. The book moves along into some struggles which volunteers may encounter during their placement and how they can handle and react to them. Self-reflection is at the center of the guide. The final section addresses the time after their placement and returning home. It talks about how to integrate what you have learned into your daily routine and how to engage towards a more sustainable lifestyle.

Personal approach

At first sight this book might seem very long for someone that “only” wants to work a few weeks abroad. However, anyone who has a serious interest of making the most out of their experience abroad, even if it is just for a few weeks, will glide quickly through this guide. Not only does it give a holistic overview of the complexity of developmental issues and explain to the reader technical terms used in the industry that are important for volunteers to understand, but it also integrates endless personal experiences from former volunteers and industry experts. This makes it very easy to understand the complexity of volunteering, also for people outside of this industry. It is a very honest book, that includes even mistakes made by the authors at the beginning stages of their careers and how they learned from them. It reminds me of the phrase “you have to make mistakes in order to learn”. This guide enables you to not make some of those certain mistakes and learn from others that did. And even if you made a mistake before, during or after your trip, this guide teaches you how to deal with them in an appropriate way. The authors and former volunteers speak very frankly about their experiences, and it gives the whole book a very personal touch.

It shows the negative side of volunteering that we, as the Responsible Volunteering team, address frequently. But it also highlights the positive effects and how a volunteer can really try and leave a sustainable footprint behind, even if it is just by speaking to future volunteers about why their placement might have been the wrong choice.

Bottom line

My expectations for this book were certainly met. I was not disappointed, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking about volunteering or has in the past. It gives anyone who has been engaged in the international volunteering world and who has struggled with things the feeling of “you are not alone” and gives an uplifting hope for this industry to bring further positive change to the world. The extremely knowledgeable and experienced authors have put together a guide that covers the complexity of international volunteering in a very complete way! It is a must read for all who are and whom want to be part of the world of international volunteering!