How to Volunteer Overseas: Our Experience Volunteering in the Philippines

Many friends and acquaintances have asked me for tips to volunteer overseas. It’s true that both Fufu and I had a long-stint in our teens and twenties actively volunteering both in Australia and overseas, giving us ample of first hand experience selecting an organisation to support and participating in activities and programs for various causes close to our hearts.

For international volunteering, I have volunteered both in Bangladesh and the Philippines, whereas Fufu has volunteered overseas in Bangladesh, Philippines, South Africa and India. Apart from just being volunteers ourselves, we’ve also helped to coordinate volunteers as volunteer co-coordinators and team leaders.

So, I suppose we have a lot of volunteer experience between us, and I’d like to share some of my volunteer tips and experiences with you. In this post, I’ll focus my examples and insights from our volunteering in the Philippines. I actually volunteered in the Philippines 4 different times: Once for the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines; another time for UNESCO as a UN volunteer (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization); another experience for Gawad Kalinga Community Development Foundation as a volunteer; and one year where I helped lead and coordinate a group of over 80 Australians to volunteer in the Philippines for Gawad Kalinga.

Why Do You Want to Volunteer?

Before you rush into volunteering abroad, I urge you to really think carefully about why you want to volunteer. Volunteering is not easy. You will have to use your time, energy and even your own money to go on volunteer trips. Often, you may not receive any stipends or rewards or income at all during your volunteering. That was actually the case for Fufu and I when we volunteered in the Philippines.

For the 4 times that I volunteered in the Philippines, I actually used my own funds and was never paid anything. Not that I am complaining. I knew full well what I was getting into, and I was happy and willing to use my resources to contribute. To me, the benefits of volunteering outweighed the out of pocket cost.

Another challenge about volunteering is that the issues that you may be dealing with during your volunteering trip may actually be very hard-hitting, confronting, and emotionally difficult. This is particularly the case if you will be encountering people who have been abused or have faced difficult circumstances such as extreme poverty, which you yourself probably may not have dealt with yourself.

Fufu and I actually stayed with impoverished communities in the Philippines, and I often felt a mixture of sadness and helplessness especially when I saw young, Filipino children living in poor conditions and lacking basic necessities like food, clean water, shelter and quality education.
With all of these challenges, why in the world would you want to volunteer at all?
Because it is good.

It may not be rewarding financially, but it can be very fulfilling emotionally and even spiritually.
For me, I chose to the Philippines as the first overseas country that I wanted to volunteer in because the Philippines is a personally important place for me. Although I grew up in Australia, I was born in the Philippines and I myself am ethnically Filipino. My parents were born and grew up in the Philippines, and my grandparents and other extended family were still in the Philippines.

My parents and I left the Philippines to migrate to Australia when I was 4 years in order to escape from the poverty and political and economic instability of the Philippines. Having grown up in Australia, and reaching my adulthood with a quality education and all the blessings growing up in Australia, I felt such a deep feeling of wanting to give back, and contributing to the country that I was originally born, the Philippines. Also, I felt I had to go back to the Philippines in order to learn more about myself, and in order to be able to help guide me for my future directions in life.

I was really inspired by a quote from a Filipino role model in history, Jose Rizal:

“He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.”

Or in Tagalog, the Filipino language:

“Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.”

When Can You Volunteer?

This is another consideration that you have to think about when you are organising your overseas volunteering. If you are going to be volunteering overseas, you need a decent length of time in order to volunteer and get a worthwhile experience. You also need enough time for you to actually contribute something meaningful to the cause.

Many charities, NGOs and international organizations also require that you volunteer for a minimum amount of time, because they want to make sure that it’s worthwhile for them to take you on, given that they need to have time to orientate you, and you need time to get accustomed to the way the organization operates and learn about the culture of the country.

During the time that Fufu and I were volunteering in the Philippines, we were both actually university students the time at UNSW in Sydney, Australia. Fufu was studying Social Work, while I was studying International Relations. The best time for us to volunteer a meaningful amount of time each year during our university years was during the summer break. Each year, from about late November to about late February there are no university classes, and so that gave us about 3 months to volunteer overseas. For me, I used many of those break periods to volunteer in the Philippines.

When it comes to volunteering overseas, you do need to consider the time you’ll need to spend overseas. However, you can also volunteer your time in the lead up to volunteering overseas. So you can actually still be volunteering and contributing to something meaningful while you are still in your home country. This was particularly relevant for me when I was a Team Leader and coordinator for the 80+ Australian volunteers who would build houses for Filipino families who were affected by typhoons. The Australian volunteers were going to build the houses in January (during the university break), but before that time, I had to help recruit volunteers to sign up, as well as organise their trip so that their volunteer experience in the Philippines would run smoothly.

What Cause Will You Volunteer For?

This is another factor that you need to consider. In order to figure out which cause you will volunteer for, you’ll need to take into account:

• What causes you are passionate about (Environment? Community development? Animal welfare? Refugees? And much more…)

• What are your skills and what value can you offer to the cause

• What organizations and volunteer opportunities are available in your target country

Apart from these considerations, you should be very careful about the organization that you volunteer with. Be aware that there are actually “international volunteering scams” out there. This is really disgusting, but they actually exist, especially in some developing countries where regulations and monitoring of charities and development organizations are not as stringent, then some scrupulous people take advantage of this.

Therefore, I strongly suggest that you volunteer overseas with a reputable, well-known organization. If it is your first time volunteering, I recommend that perhaps you join an organization and volunteer for a cause that already has a history of other international volunteers working with them in the past.

If you can, read up on reviews about those organizations from past volunteers.
In my case, I was introduced to Gawad Kalinga Community Development Foundation (GK) by a university friend. So basically, I got to know about it through word of mouth, and my confidence about the organization grew because I already trusted my friend.

One day, my friend Rommel sat next to me in a university lecture and he recounted his stories about volunteering in the Philippines with GK. He was so enthusiastic and passionate, and you could sense his authenticity in his voice and gestures, that we really believed in it. I admired that he had volunteered and I asked more info about it.

Soon, I would sign up for a volunteer trip with GK to the Philippines, and then a year after my first volunteer experience with GK, I would then lead more than 80 Australian volunteers to volunteer in the Philippines too.

Who Will You Volunteer With?

Will you be volunteering overseas on your own? Will you be joining a group of other volunteers that you will meet when you arrive in the country? Or will you volunteer overseas with a friend?
If it’s your first time volunteering abroad, then you may feel more comfortable if you ask one of your friends to volunteer with you. You both can make an adventure out of it, share great memories while also doing something positive. Otherwise, you could join a volunteer group that will already be going to the Philippines to volunteer, and that might make it easier for you.

You could also volunteer on your own, but I recommend this only if you’re confident enough to do it or you’re already a seasoned international volunteer.

For me, I have done all three scenarios. For my volunteer experiences with the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines and UNESCO Philippines, I actually volunteered with them on my own. I was really determined to do it on my own because at that stage I wanted to be independent and I was on a stage of self-discovery at that time. Also, I wanted to get to know the organizations, their programs and work and just focus on that.

With my first volunteer experience with Gawad Kalinga in the Philippines, I actually joined a group of other young volunteers to do it. There was a lot of momentum and a community spirit building houses with them.

Then, on my second trip for Gawad Kalinga, Fufu actually came along on that trip, and that was also the one in which I was a Team Leader and volunteer coordinator, and the dynamic on that trip was different too, since I was responsible for everyone, and ensuring that the volunteer program was successful.

Volunteer Overseas Can Change Your Life

Looking back on those volunteer experiences in the Philippines and in other countries, I’m really proud of them. I’m happy we were able to contribute to the communities, and make a positive impact even in just small ways.

I feel that I really grew from those volunteer abroad trips. I think it gave me a greater appreciation of my life, the world and my ability to contribute to it in some way. I also was thankful of the new friendships that were formed. Many of the friends I made back then are still friends with me today, both friends who were locals in the country I volunteered in, as well as friends who were other volunteers too.

Volunteering overseas helped shape my future directions and choices. From my initial volunteer experiences in the Philippines, I then went on to work for the United Nations World Food Programme in Bangladesh, and then later got involved in social entrepreneurship initiatives in Australia and Chile. Volunteering internationally made me appreciate and nurture my inner desire and purpose to help others around the world. Volunteering in the Philippines, in particular, acted as a catalyst that propelled me to want to explore other parts of the world, and understand them, and maybe even contribute in some way too.

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