What Is It Like To Be A Volunteer? – Part Three

Now that you have found the organization that you want to volunteer for, the next thing is to find out what you need to know and prepare beforehand.

It all depends on where you go and what kind of work you will do. In general:


I got in touch with an NGO in Germany around seven years ago.  They required their volunteers to be able to speak Deutsch.  Knowing a little bit of Deutsch, like me, wouldn’t help and back then I only had one month so in the end, they asked me if I wanted to work in the kitchen for the entire month instead – mainly to prepare meals for over 100 sick children.

In that situation, because you will be in contact with sick children (even if you will be working in the kitchen), the NGO will ask you to receive certain injections and to provide them with the proof before you go.  

I visited a lay missionary in Kenya with a group of people in 2011. Even though it was a brief visit (around two weeks), before we went there, I received injections. I was also told to stick that proof in my passport. We were advised to take some pills with us too. Imagine, if you are going to a place where medical facilities are not that advanced, you need to take some precautions. That’s common sense.   

Like what I said in my previous blog, make sure you are healthy too. You don’t want to be a burden to the local people. Otherwise, they don’t know if they should take care of you or their own people.

Learn x Travel

In conclusion, check if you need to receive any injections or take any pills and make sure you are healthy.  

Prior Visit

Visit the place before you go, if possible

Before I decided to volunteer in Cambodia in May 2019, I did a ‘site visit’ in January 2019 to find out their needs and to understand the organization’s expectations.

I went to Thailand a few years ago with another group of people to visit another lay missionary. She told us when she first got there, she was told, ‘nobody asked you to come.’  I didn’t want anyone to say that to me so I played it safe.  My reason was quite ‘unique’.  But even if it’s not because of this reason, I’d also recommend you to visit the place before you go, if possible. At least, you can understand a bit of your future working environment and the surrounding areas and set your own expectation. Don’t set it too high though.  By the way, you can always say ‘no’ after your site visit but you usually won’t because it is too tempting, well, at least, for me. 😀

Anyway, I made a trip beforehand. Back then, the high school students kept asking me (I hate to use this word but it did look like they were ‘begging’ me) to teach them English.  That’s one of the reasons why I decided to go. What I didn’t expect was, the same group of students ditched me in the end. Check out the entire story here.


It’s good to know some basic local language to start with. If possible, learn the language before you go, like the Deutsch case I mentioned above. 

I learnt a few Khmer words like ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ during my site visit in January 2019. I didn’t look for any online materials… in fact, I didn’t intend to learn the language. My task there was to teach English so it’s better for me not to be able to speak Khmer. This would force the students to speak English to me. (But as you can see, I secretly learnt some Khmer. ;P) Actually, in the end, they could all converse with me in English though not fluently.  It only took them around 3 months. Even for the primary school kids, when they wanted me to repeat something, they would ask me instinctively, ‘one more time, please.’ When I first got there, they couldn’t even speak or comprehend any English.

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Even though the high school students ditched me in the end and I was forced to leave the first village early, when I look back now, I am happy that they have improved, not just a little, but a lot!  Unfortunately, they chose to pay and learn from their Khmer teachers in the village who can’t even speak and write proper English so now, their English may have retrogressed. I don’t know.

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Although my experience in the first village didn’t have a happy ending, I did learn quite a lot. I actually taught the two groups, high school and primary school students, differently.  Their learning behaviors and the way they acquire a language can definitely help me understand more about language acquisition. This will benefit me and my current and future students.

Preparation, Mentally

Mentally, what do you need to prepare?

In fact, this is the most difficult one to handle. Even if you are mentally prepared before you go, when you are there, you probably still find yourself unprepared.

So, let’s start from a related question ‘what does it take to be a volunteer?’  

Usually, NGOs look for people with the following traits:

  • positive
  • flexible
  • energetic
  • humourous
  • reliable
  • committed
  • selfless
  • passionate (passion about what you do and then share it)
  • humble
  • someone who is a team player, can blend in, enjoys playing with kids (if the task involves kids) or interacting with local people, is able to deal with uncertainties, goes with the flow, accepts and learns the local culture.

If you have some of these traits, you should be, to a certain extent, prepared.

You need to know that you are a foreigner so stay courteous. If you need to let out, write a journal or think up other ways to help you let the negative emotions out. Talking to other people (other volunteers may have other own problems too), do something that you enjoy or indulge in your own autistic mood may help.

Don’t try to change the way the local people do things, yet.  Changes happen in a subtle way so don’t push anyone to change immediately.  They won’t.  Instead, you need to change and adapt to the way they do things.

Learn x Travel

Speaking of this, I read a book written by a lay missionary who worked in MC (Missionaries of Charities founded by Mother Teresa).  I have mentioned it in my previous blog.  When the lay missionary first arrived there, she was asked to pick the lice in the hair of the disabled girls.  She suggested to the Sisters in MC that they could just shave the hair of those girls. That sounded like a quick, easy and good solution that will solve the core problem. However, the Sisters said, ‘no because long hair for girls represents dignity.’ If you cut their hair short or even shave their hair, it’s equivalent to ‘shaving away’ their dignity.

Hence, respecting the local culture, no matter how minute it seems, is very important.

Other Skills

How about riding a motorbike or driving a car?  Some organisations require you to have such licence so make sure you ask beforehand. In Cambodia, volunteers learn how to ride a motorbike after they arrive because you don’t need a licence to ride one. I still don’t know how to ride one though. 😛  

For this item, the organisations usually state that in their requirements. If you are unsure, feel free to ask. It’s ok to ask. It’s not ok to keep your questions to yourself and then realise the problems afterwards because who is going to solve your problems for you?

Post Volunteering

Consider your ‘after-life’. 😀 By that, I mean, what are you going to do after you finish volunteering?  I am talking about those who volunteer for at least a month. I taught English online before I went to Cambodia, when I was there and after I left.

Things can go wrong too. I have heard a story about a family moving to an African country to work as volunteers.  Before they went, they sold their houses in their home country. They were prepared to stay in Africa for a long time. However, after they stayed there for a few months, they found that it wasn’t really what they expected, so the whole family, including the kids of course, left and moved back to their home country.  That’s exactly not what you want.

Plan ahead so that you have something to fall back on if your ‘mission’ isn’t smooth.

Learn x Travel

A few French volunteers that I know in Cambodia started looking for a job a month or two before they left Cambodia. When they went back to France, they could start working almost immediately.  I call this, the ‘usual’ plan. 🙂


So now you know, volunteering is not romantic at all.  When I say ‘romantic’, I don’t mean the boy- and girlfriend relationship. Rather, I mean ‘not practical’. Some people tend to romanticize the entire volunteering experience (just like I used to romanticize being a travel writer). I can tell when they speak to me even though they said, ‘no, I am not romanticizing it.’  You need to be as rational and practical as usual.  It’s exactly like taking a paid job.  When you work as a volunteer, you still need to interact with other people so interpersonal skill is an unsaid prerequisite. The only thing that is different is, probably you will encounter less office politics or you can choose not to be involved in it at all. Oh, one more thing that’s different is, you don’t get paid as a volunteer. You may get a stipend but it’s not enough for you to say, repay your mortgage.

Next week, I will answer the question, ‘what is it really like to be a volunteer?’

Stay tuned. 🙂




My students were learning to pronounce the word ‘sincere’. You can check out the video here.

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