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To volunteer abroad you’ll need to know the answer to this question

This is a guest article by Dr Ian ‘Macca’ McDonald, recruitment consultant at Australian Volunteers International (AVI). Dr McDonald sadly passed away in 2019, after almost 30 years working at AVI.


“Why do you want to be a volunteer?”

That’s usually one of the first questions asked during the volunteering interview process. Indeed, it was the first question asked of me back in 1984 at my first interview with AVI, who managed the Australian Volunteers Abroad program.

My response must have cut the mustard – I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the program and took up a position in the Solomon Islands the following year. It proved to be the original life-changing, life-defining experience. It has been an unbelievably privileged and fulfilling journey since.

Two years later, I returned to Australia and joined AVI, this time on the other side of the recruiting desk. Since then, I would have interviewed well over a thousand potential volunteers and that question – why do you want to be a volunteer? – remains one of the most important when it comes to assessing fit.

Some of the most common responses I hear are:

  • “I want to give something back”;
  • “I want to see the world”;
  • “I seek challenge and personal growth”;
  • “This will be good for my family and the kids’ development”;
  • “I’m committed to a specific cause or social justice”;
  • “I want to further my career by learning and applying new skills”; and
  • “I’m committed to an area of the world or particular country”.

Other candidates have less appropriate motivations which need to be guarded against. Sometimes a candidate will explicitly state them, while other times they might need to be teased out. These include:

  • Financial motivation;
  • The desire to find a partner (or leave behind a current one);
  • The desire to support a political cause in a particular country;
  • The desire to “save the world”.

Having the right motivations is important – as is understanding and committing to your own motivations. That is so when the going gets tough, you can reflect on why you chose to do this in the first place and draw upon your reserves of resilience and commitment to see you through.

Only those who have been totally honest with themselves about their motivations and expectations will successfully make it through the most difficult periods which invariably occur for all volunteers.

What’s your motivation?

Those under around the age of thirty are often looking to add practical meaning to their studies in international development, or to give their relatively short careers a kick-along.

Others come to volunteering with a view to redirecting their careers. Given that many skills required of a volunteer are highly transferrable, changing careers is a good motivation for volunteering as long as the basic technical skills or qualifications are there.

The desire to ‘work for a better world’ is another good motivation for volunteering. Many communities around the world lack the basic necessities – infrastructure, health and social services and education opportunities that we take for granted in Australia. As a volunteer you can make a difference by working alongside local counterparts to help bridge some of these gaps and make a real difference in the lives of others.

But this idealism needs to be tempered with some realism. Volunteering overseas with the belief that you can singlehandedly solve a problem or change the world could end up leaving you feeling disillusioned, so it’s important to approach the experience with an open mind and flexible expectations.

The personal benefits of volunteering

Beyond the impact you can have on the lives of others as a volunteer, studies have shown that participating in volunteering can readily lead to increased employability.

Being immersed in another culture for a year or two brings with it exposure to the complexities, nuances, contradictions, frustrations and exhilarations that come from identifying and working towards a common goal in someone else’s culture.

Employers are always on the lookout for the skills acquired through volunteering, like negotiation, resilience, adaptation, compromise, communication, and working both independently and cooperatively.

Other personal benefits of volunteering include making new friends, improving social skills, increased self-esteem, and significant boosts to mental and physical health.

In the end, volunteering is a little like motherhood – it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s hard to argue against the intrinsic richness and goodness of the experience. And like motherhood, volunteering exposes you to risks because it’s about people, circumstances and human nature – parameters over which we have very little control.

Despite these risks, volunteering overseas has a lot to offer. That’s why millions of people around the world clamour to do it every year – and a great many say it was the best thing they ever did. Understanding and being able to articulate your motivations for wanting to volunteer, which is something you can control, is a big step along the road to having such an experience.

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