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What to expect when you're volunteering: Advice from VSO volunteers

When is the right time to volunteer? How can you make the most of the experience? And what should you pack?

If you’ve been thinking about volunteering overseas but are still undecided, take it from those who have been there. 

Be patient and proactive

Accenture volunteer Jenny in Uganda ©VSO/Ginny Lattul

Jenny Hoevenagel

“Volunteering shows what can be accomplished if you have patience, enthusiasm and a proactive attitude. "Time is relevant; if something doesn’t happen today, then maybe it will tomorrow."It’s something I had to get used to but it’s currently one of the things I really like about Uganda”

Jenny Hoevenagel, Accenture corporate volunteer in Uganda

Talk to your employer about volunteering

VSO volunteer Cath Nixon in Nepal VSO/Peter Caton

Cath Nixon

“When I told my employers I was thinking about doing VSO, they asked me if I’d like to take a two-year career break, which meant I didn’t have to give up my job."I didn’t know the NHS offered that before so it’s important to talk to your employer to find out your options.”

Cath Nixon, volunteer public health nurse, Nepal

Leave your comfort zone behind if you want to discover your potential

VSO volunteer Richard in Tanzania VSO / Mwanzo Millinga

Richard Asaku

“I can say that until you volunteer, you have not truly discovered your skills. I have found out I can teach, I can do facilitation, I can do community work. I feel my efforts are seen more vividly than before. So go and discover your skills!”

Richard Asaku, volunteer electrical adviser, Tanzania

Be ready to go without luxuries

VSO volunteer Santha with teachers in Myanmar VSO/Robert Dyar

Santha Arulanandam (in green)


“Be open-minded and be prepared for a few sacrifices."I have had to learn to cope with travelling in very overcrowded hot buses, being prepared to walk on rough, dusty roads with heavy traffic, walk through flooded stretches of roads when it rains.  But I don’t need many luxuries in my life. You’ll get life experiences that will change you as a person.”

Santha Arulanandam, volunteer teacher training adviser, Myanmar

Make sure to spend time building relationships with people

Sandy Hung is helping small business owners such as peanut butter processor, Celina Kisha in Iringa. Tanzania Mwanzo Millinga

Sandy Hung

“My job, when you get down to it, is to build trust with people. No matter whether I am talking to a person with millions in assets or someone with almost nothing, everyone is just a person. Their concerns are the same: their kids, their family”

Sandy Hung, volunteer financial management adviser, Tanzania

Be ready for your beliefs to be challenged

VSO volunteer Salvador in India ©VSO/Gitika Saksena

Salvador Segura-Ortega, IBM corporate volunteer, India

“Seeing things under a different lens challenges your traditional perceptions and beliefs and opens up new ways of thinking."I have a disability, but I believe that being in contact with people who are thriving in spite of their disability, as I have volunteering, would resonate for anyone. It is a humbling experience that helps you value what you have in life. I feel more accomplished as a human being.”

Salvador Segura-Ortega, IBM corporate volunteer, India

Don’t forget what you stand to gain by volunteering

VSO volunteer Julia in Malawi ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

Julie Muchocho

“I would encourage anyone to volunteer if the opportunity comes up. There’s a big need and there is so much to give."Volunteering allows you to use your skills in a free way. You learn from the people you work with and they learn from you. The challenges build you as a person.”

Julie Muchocho, volunteer education specialist, Malawi


Stop making excuses and just do it

VSO volunteer Ram in  Zanzibar VSO/Sophie Tremblay

Ram Singh (on the left of this photo)


“As humans we are resistant to change. No one wants to get out of their comfort zone, even if they are unhappy there. So the first step is very crucial. My advice is to just take that step. Don’t think too much– you won’t regret it.“You can always go back to what you are doing now, and if you do, you will have a new perspective to it. When I took this huge step I knew in my mind if this doesn’t work out, I can always find another unhappy job like the one I am doing! No one can take away those skills that you already have.”

Ram Singh, volunteer business adviser, Tanzania


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