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Volunteering: first steps

It’s been several weeks and many talks, questions and stories since my return from Kenya. The most common question I’ve received was ‘How did it all actually happen?’. Why I decided to go to Kenya and not another country, how I found an organization as tiny as Fountain Youth Initiative, and how I managed to ensure I would work on issues of my interest that matched with my skills and were needed and wanted by Fountain Youth Initiative and the Githurai community.

Simply – how did I manage to make this the perfect volunteering experience?

Well,  take a chunk of courage, pinch of luck, quite a bit of randomness and find an idle guidebook in your bookshelf…

Ok, ok, this is a good start, but let me get to the point.

Choose a country

I recommend you give this one a good thought. Although in my case the country selection was quite random and what I’d do as a volunteer was more important for me than where I do it, I was quite happy that I landed in Kenya. If only because I had a never-used Kenya guidebook in my bookshelf…

Check where you or your friends have contacts, which country you already have some information about or which one is on your bucket list. If you really don’t know or don’t care, just follow your heart and intuition. After all, there is something special about every place on our little planet.

The desired…

Think of what you would like to do as a volunteer. What is the cause you care about? What bothers you most in the world? Do you have any ideas of how to tacle it? What are you good at? What are you passionate about?

Do your homework – conduct a research, google to discover what’s out there and where you can see yourself functioning on a daily basis for a few weeks.

Look at the other side – think about what you would definitely not want to do.  Brainstorm well and be open-minded to discover activities and fields that are brand new.

If you are curious,  the number one for me was to get an exposure to microfinance, but I was open to stretch this towards any sort of youth/women empowerment ideally through entrepreneurship. Quite a solid idea to start with.

…and the possible.

It is not only what we want as future volunteers, but more importantly what we can contribute with and what is really needed ‘on the other side’ – by the organization or community it works for.

Make sure that you can really be useful for the organization and its clients, rather than focus on your own experience/pleasure/fun. Personal gains became a massive side benefit of wanting to contribute.

To be a valuable and helpful volunteer, think well about what knowledge and skills you have that could be used by the organization of your choice. Be honest with them and communicate well before you make your final decision. Tell them about your education, experience, background, skills, hobbies, things you are passionate about, even if it seems irrelevant. I learnt in Kenya that every little skill can be handy, even if just to deal with the culture shock. And passion counts twice.

On your own or with an agency

Once you have an idea of what you actually want to give and what you expect to get, you are ready to start making things happen. Volunteering holidays have become big in the last few years and there is plenty of agencies in the market, who can help you find an organization, land safely with them and enjoy your very first volunteering experience. The benefit of using an agency is that you do not have to care and particularly worry about anything. Just like with a travel agency, your trip would probably be insured and you would have access to an agent to help you with any issue or concern during your stay.

The downsides are twofolds. Hiring an agency costs LOTS of money that you could spend elsewhere – on travel, spend longer time volunteering or donating or investing them in a good cause. Furthermore, agencies designing volunteering holidays must satisfy the client – you. I am sure there are good agencies who care both about their clients and the cause of organizations they assign the volunteers to. Yet, I personally have trust issues and would be worried that whatever I do is designed to entertain me as a client rather than contribute to the local community or organization.

So instead of hiring an agency, I registered at WorkAway and started communicating with three organizations all over Africa. Fountain was on top of my list and very responsive. It didn’t take a long time to discover that our ideas of cooperation match, and we stroke a deal.

Before leaving

If you use WorkAway (or another platform of direct communication with organizations), you’ll realize that you have no other choice but to trust the organization you’ll agree to volunteer with. To ease the tension, ask questions. A lot. Communicate over email, Skype. See how responsive the organization is, how clear is their plan for you as a volunteer, how helpful with accommodation, pick up arrangements they can be, if they can provide you contact of their previous volunteers, etc.

Listen to your intuition. It is normal to be nervous and scared, but when something is telling you this is a fishy arrangement, that this is not the right thing to do, don’t push it. Take a step back and look for a different organization or another country. After all, your safety is number one priority.


This would be my take on how to proceed in search for the right volunteering experience – safely and comfortably, yet without falling into a trap of organized volunteering holidays.

One last thing before I say ‘see you soon’, though. I would love to share with you what my starting point was before I departed for this amazing mind-opening trip. Bear with me for a couple more paragraphs! 🙂

  • First timer

With all it takes. I had never been to Africa before, and I had never done volunteering. In every sense possible, it was a totally blind step for me. On the other hand, I have travelled a few developing countries (mostly in South East Asia) and tried to live in one (the Dominican Republic). As different as they are, I at least had a very rough idea of what the conditions would have probably been like in Kenya. Very basic.

  • Passion and determination

I guess this is the ‘must-have’ to compensate for having no clue of what is coming. For me, spending summer like the one in Kenya has been a dream since 10 years ago. I studied development at uni and have been repeatedly trying to get into the field. With no success. It’s been a long journey with many detours, yet – with lots of patience and determination – I made it to the beginning of the new path. My greatest fear before I took off? I was scared to discover that what has been my dream for so long is in reality not for me. Thankfully, the very opposite happened.

That’s it for today. Whether you are now checking WorkAway for the first time ever, or already buying your flight to the next destination, I want to wish you best of luck and lots of positive vibes. In searching, finding, preparing and finally being in the field, present with your eyes and heart wide open, ready to make a difference in one’s life. And trust me, the reward is there and is life-changing.

Thanks for reading!




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