Well, I think it IS for everyone, but like everything else in life, you need to be prepared before you start. I have been volunteering and working with volunteers for so many years and although I have led many a training session for new volunteers, I had forgotten how new volunteers might see things, especially here in Honduras. My bad! My eyes are open now and I want to help others enjoy the crazy rewarding life of volunteering as much as I do.

First, if you have been thinking about volunteering, DO IT! It helps the organization you are working for and the people they support, and it is self-fulfilling as well. However, you need to be prepared for your volunteer activity in order to get the most out of it. That’s where I come in. In this post I will help you get ready.
My experience this past year with volunteers in Honduras is that many arrived unprepared. And I have found there are two kinds of unpreparedness; 1) not being ready for long term volunteer work, and 2) not being trained properly for the work you will be doing. For example, this was Jim’s first time doing long term volunteer work with non-profits and non-governmental organizations. I now think it would have been a better experience for him if he had some hands on experience or even some training on how to accept and deal with them. If you ask me as an experienced non-profit volunteer and employee, for most part, non-profits all over the world are a little screwy in the way they work. This is not all bad, but you just have to know how to deal with them. Also, this summer I have worked with many unprepared volunteers. They would pay some not for-profit internet based organization a fee and off they would go. Either the organization did not prepare those young inexperienced volunteers or they did not read the material they were given. How is some young person leaving the States probably for the very first time, supposed to know what to do with orphaned Honduran boys? Steve, who is now a seasoned volunteer at Casa del Nino, told me the program he first went with, through his university, did not prepare him for the work with the boys. Matter of fact, they did not talk about them at all. He thought the children would be meek, quiet, shy boys who would be afraid of him. He had no training on what to do with the boys, how to interact with them, or to even bring activities.

Steve with the kids on a river day field trip!

From Semana Santa River Day with the Boys – Easter 2009

This can be very frustrating for a volunteer once you are trying to do your work. And sometimes it can be frustrating to the staff and experienced volunteers as well. So my advice to you is: make sure you are properly trained for the work you sign up to do. I do think organizations in the United States that perform work inside the United States are better at training their volunteers than here in Honduras. So this may not be an issue unless you are volunteering internationally, but it may give you some questions to ask during your training program.

Long Term Volunteer Work:

From Masica Land Fill with Justin-Dec 2008

As I have mentioned several times already some organizations do not train people to prepare them for their volunteer work, but training is not the only issue. Some also do not work in the most efficient way. Some do not really use the skills of the volunteers. Some do not listen to volunteers even when they are an expert in the field. And worse some suffer from all of the above. A long term volunteer abroad can burn out fast under these conditions!

To avoid volunteer burn out, here is what I suggest: First, do some longish term local volunteer work before setting out to lands unknown, just to get the feel of how some non-profits work. Or if that is not feasible, try to mentally prepare yourself for what you are about to face.

Second, be open to get involved with back up volunteer opportunities! With Jim’s engineering work, there are a lot of steps in a project, so that could mean for a lot of waiting around. I recommend back up volunteer work that gives you instant satisfaction and keeps you busy. For example, Habitat for Humanity has volunteers build houses; you go there for a day and make progress building a fence, a wall, whatever it is. You have accomplished something, the people you help are happy and that feels good!

From Computer Room Project at Casa Del Nino

Third, do not take it personally if they do not take your advice, even if you are an expert in the field. They have their reasons and most likely it is not because they do not trust you or think you are able, it is mostly because of some whacky thing they have going on or just the difference in values. Such as: a big financial supporter wants it another way, it is put on hold for lack of funds, something else “more” important has come along, or it can get done “manana.” You also need to know, bureaucracy in every country is a pain in the neck.

From Yoro Projects

Basic Training Issues:

First, make sure you know where you will be volunteering (the name of the program and what kind of work they do), especially if you are going to another country. I know this may sound odd, but many people sign up with the “paid for” volunteer programs and have no idea what kind of work they will be doing before they get to the country!

So, now you know where you will be working, you must find out what kind of work you will be doing there. There are countless jobs, medical positions, teaching kids in schools, working with kids at an orphanage after school, building houses, building community programs, designing and constructing water systems, setting up agricultural and other cooperatives, etc. So, try to find out as much as you can about the program you will be working with, what is required for that type of work and what they expect of you.

From Beading day at Casa Del Nino – April 2009

For example, you are going to be doing volunteer work with 6 to 18 year old boys. You should ask, “What kind of work will be performed?” It could be things like cleaning, educating, playing, and so on. Once you have figured out what the work is, then ask for examples of what you can do, such as teaching English, math, arts and crafts, computers, or how about playing soccer, board games or tag. Then prepare yourself with a list of activities, leadership plans and materials. Yes, materials! Most non-profits have some materials available, but many do not.

Before you start volunteering, make sure you have information about the people you will work with, ages, general backgrounds, cultural customs, and any rules and regulations established by the organization. For example, it is not proper in Honduras for women to wear miniskirts or short shorts to work with boys. Also, pin the tail on the donkey might be great for 5-10 year olds, but teenagers may not want to do it.

From Actividad – Casa Del Nino Feb.09

With this all said, I personally feel that it should be the responsibility of all organization/programs to train their volunteers, but many do not. So, please take ownership of your volunteer work and make sure you are prepared for what you are about to do. It will make the experience much more rewarding for you, the organization, and the people you are trying to help.

Another part of taking that ownership is to make sure there is communication between you and the staff. So, that means either you should know basic language skills of the country where you will be volunteering or at least one of the people in your group should. You may not agree with all that you see, but remember things are done differently all over the world. With that said, without a doubt you should always be treated with respect. One last note; do not expect appreciation for your volunteer work. If it comes, then good, but do not take it personal if it does not come.

Being ready and trained for your volunteer work, whether it is short term, long term, in your own country, or in a developing country, is of the utmost importance for the best experience for everyone involved. Now go out and do that volunteer work you have been thinking about…JUST DO IT!

~ by My Gnome Little World on September 22, 2009.


  1. I applaud your work and your attitude! I would love to help though it is difficult to get time to volunteer. If there are things that you need or could use for the children I would love to be able to help! I am sending my email address for you to send requests.

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