In my experience the most common amount of time for a long-term volunteer program experience is three months. This makes perfect sense to me: it’s about as long as a college semester or summer vacation, it’s a manageable amount of time to go without getting paid, and it’s 25% of a year which is a nice round number. Sounds perfect! So it stands to reason that many organizations offer volunteer placements for an average of three months. During the planning phase of any adventure, three months can seem like an eternity. But how long is it really? As we’re seeing in the tabloids, some marriages don’t even last that long! So if you’re considering a three month volunteer trip in the near future, I’d ask you to consider planning an even longer trip – what about 6 months? Or even a year? It might seem like a huge commitment of both your time and money, but I’ve compiled a list of reasons that 3 months might not be enough:
- You’ll want to stay longer: I’ve worked with many, many volunteers over the years and the majority of those that I supervised were committed to no more than three months when they started. And as soon as the first two months had come and gone, they were scrambling around, trying to think of ways to stay for longer. For some that meant just another three months, and for others more than a year (one volunteer I know spent 5 years in Chile after going for an intended two months, but he’s something of an anomaly). Volunteering can be so rewarding and fun that it’s hard to walk away from it after just a short time. Planning for a longer stay up front helps you to manage your expectations, as well as your finances.
- If you work with kids, longer is always better: I’ll admit upfront that this one is kind of controversial, and a little bit guilt-trippy. But studies do show that when working with kids as a mentor or caretaker, the longer the relationship lasts the more benefits the child will receive in the long run. Since so many volunteer placements involve working with street kids and orphans, it’s an important thing to keep in mind.
- It is more cost-effective: As I recently posted in the Adelante Abroad post, the cost for a volunteer abroad program actually decreases (if you calculate cost per month) the longer you stay. That’s because most of the costs of a volunteer program are upfront fixed costs: language training, orientation, airport pick-up, administration. Each subsequent month you should see a drop in your costs not only from the perspective of the program fee, but from your personal spending. Think about it: after a few months you’ll know where the best deals are on things you buy everyday, and you’ll be less likely to overspend (a common problem for new volunteers). In no time you’ll be an expert on living the frugal lifestyle abroad!
- You will be a more effective volunteer: They say (and I have no idea who "they" actually is) that it takes a professional at least one year to actually know how to do their job. We’re talking accountants and nurses and businessmen and sales people. When you start something brand new, there is a going to be a learning curve. As an international volunteer, this is compounded by the fact that you are also learning language and customs – and probably a brand new transportation system! It is so fun and exciting to learn all of these things (and a lot of the time, the fun is in making the mistake!)
- Your host organization wants you to stay: If there is one piece of feedback that I have heard from volunteer host organizations again and again, it is that consistency and continuity is essential to the success of any program. Many organizations address this by having volunteers come in with a class system – as one volunteer leaves, another comes in an takes his/her place so that there is no gap in the work. This is a great system, and works quite well to accommodate volunteers who can only work in the short term. But an even better way to offer host organizations a consistent work force is to have volunteers come in for longer periods of time. Just like a longer period being more cost-effective, it’s also more impactful. If you stay for a year or more, you are more likely to truly embed yourself in the culture of your host country and organization, you’ll be given more independence and autonomy, and you will more likely come up with some ideas about how to improve upon the work that you’re doing. And you’ll probably be fluent in a second language by then! A year’s worth of volunteer can be truly invaluable to a host organization.
I’d really like to draw the distinction here between volunteering and "voluntourism." There is obviously an incredible amount of value in project-based volunteering in developing (and even developed) countries, and I think that it’s a fantastic movement around the world that has developed to combine travel, adventure travel and service work. There are so many organizations that I review here on the blog that I desperately want take trips with – so much great, exciting stuff is happening. And much of it is designed to be incredibly short-term – like completing a construction project or rescuing a certain number of sea turtles!!
Finally, it should go without saying that I am passionate about volunteering across the board, and I encourage everyone to take the plunge and go abroad for service work at some point in their lives. Its great fun, fulfilling and meaningful – not to mention fodder for some excellent stories when you get back! If you are as passionate about it as I am, it’s worth considering a long-term volunteer placement! You really never know what might be feasible for you until you start doing the research. Check out some resources for free and low cost volunteer programs to get you started, as well as some fee-based placement programs that have long-term projects. If a month or two is more your speed, that’s great, too! No matter how long you volunteer, I can guarantee it will be an unforgettable experience.