I’ve shared before that volunteering abroad in Mexico gave me a renewed perspective. In April, I interviewed a group that organizes volunteer trips in Latin America.
Today, I’m talking to Richard A. Webb, founder of ProWorld. It’s a 12-year-old social enterprise that offers volunteer abroad opportunities for individuals and groups in developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. You can see Webb in the photo to the right in the middle (in blue) in Peru with volunteers and the recipient of a new stove.
Have you wondered how to decide where to volunteer or been curious about what skills you may need? Webb kindly answered the questions below about the ins and outs of volunteer travel. I couldn’t agree more with his answer about the benefits of doing volunteer work!
Maiden Voyage: Why should individuals consider volunteering abroad? What are the benefits?
Richard A. Webb: I could write a book just on that answer! Here is what I see as the main benefits of the three key components of any volunteer travel experience:
1. Experience a country beyond the tourist sites: there is no better way to connect and understand another culture than to see the day-to-day challenges people in those countries face. There is no better way to get off the beaten track and see the heart of a country than to volunteer. You can always visit the touristy spots, but by spending time off the tourist route, you will have the opportunity to see and interact with people and places that show the real beauty of the country.
2. Acts of kindness: the act of helping others, the act of connecting to others, and the act of sharing the successes of projects that benefit others are all fulfilling and enriching activities. Choosing to put others first through your travel experience is one of the most rewarding and balancing events most people will ever experience.
3. Individual fulfillment: one of the biggest benefits of volunteering abroad is for your own self-gratification. You will develop new friendships, feel satisfaction by helping others, and gain greater self-knowledge.
MV: What criteria should someone use to decide which country/city to volunteer in if they don’t initially have a preference?
RW: I recommend people think about two things when selecting a country to volunteer in: (1) What cultures are you attracted to? (2) What places or experiences will push you a bit out of your comfort zone?
If you do not have preference, research the various projects that volunteer organizations offer in different countries to see what intrigues you. I also think you should push yourself out of your comfort zone, while not leaping into an experience that may be too strenuous for yourself. For example, an individual should not sign up for a volunteer opportunity that requires them to trek in Nepal if they are not good with altitude or have never hiked before. Lastly, do not let language be a deterrent, but do make sure that the organization you are going with has translators and sufficient on-site infrastructure to help you cope with the language barrier, should there be one.
MV: What types of volunteer opportunities are available?
RW: Individuals can find just about any volunteer opportunity they might be interested available somewhere. However, rather than looking and what you want, you should consider what the community needs most. Some of the most common areas of need in most developing countries include: health, education, environment, infrastructure (building schools, bathrooms, etc.), and wildlife conservation.
MV: Do people need to have certain skills/experience to be able to volunteer abroad?
RW: You don’t need to be an expert or have any prior experience in the areas that you want to volunteer. I see volunteer abroad opportunities as an educational and culturally immersive program for individuals to gain a wonderful learning experience. That said, individuals looking to volunteer abroad should be aware that volunteer labor is only part of how volunteer organizations support the local projects. We feel very strongly that there must be financial support going into the local projects in addition to the volunteer labor. Many programs, like ProWorld, donate a portion of the program fees to the local communities to ensure that the volunteer participation is creating the maximum positive impact possible. This way we are able to bring volunteers who help both in project donations and with their labor.
MV: Why did you create ProWorld, and what makes it different from other volunteer abroad companies?
RW: I created ProWorld because I wanted to provide a travel experience where local communities can generate real value from tourism. Also, I wanted to develop an organization of inspired travelers that could support meaningful health, conservation and education projects all over the world. ProWorld is different than many volunteer organizations in that is develops long-term partnerships with local communities and has ProWorld staff living and working in those communities year round.
MV: Any other tips on choosing a volunteer opportunity or having a successful volunteer trip?
RW: When looking to volunteer abroad, find out exactly what type of volunteer project you will be working on, determine who exactly will be running the volunteer project, and how many staff members from the program organization will be present for on-site support. I also recommend that you research the long-term vision of the project that you will be involved in and measure what the overall impact of the project will be once completed. And finally, at the end of the day, remember that volunteering is not about you, it’s about the people and communities you are helping.
Thanks for your time, Richard! Learn more about ProWorld here and explore volunteer abroad opportunities.