8 mins

What they don't tell you about volunteering

Diane Priestley reveals the secrets to a successful volunteer assignment in developing countries

Diane teaching kids in Ghana

In her mid-50s, journalist Diane Priestly returned recently from a stint volunteering in Ghana. Below she shares the five things she believes will help you get the most out of volunteering in a developing country.

1. Assess your skills

Poor countries need enthusiastic, skilled volunteers such as builders and tradespeople, doctors and nurses, child carers and teachers, businesspeople, horticulturists and farmers. If you are qualified or training in any of these fields you will be of immense value building infrastructure, assisting in schools and orphanages, working in clinics and hospitals, assisting locals with business projects and helping rural communities grow food.

2. Load up on stationery

Take as many school resources as you can squeeze into your luggage. Pack stationery such as pens and notebooks, colouring pencils and colouring books, and storybooks. School kids in poor countries are often as desperately deprived of basic tools for learning and creativity as they are deprived of nutritious food.

If you want to find out what the charity you're working with really needs, keep up-to-date with the Stuff Your Rucksack website. That way, you can take the items the charity is crying out for, whether it's foam alphabet letters, paint pots or plasters.

3. Let your hair down

Be willing to be spontaneously generous... Have fun with children by telling jokes, reading stories, singing songs, taking photos and exchanging smiles and laughter. Spend your money on goods from traders and street hawkers, chat with and tip taxi drivers and hotel staff. Be generous. Be kind. Form cross-cultural bonds of friendship.

4. Supplement your diet

As a vegetarian, I found it difficult to acquire non-meal protein and veggies and lived on high-carb white rice and yams! Pack a supply of protein energy bars, nuts and other speciality foods to keep you going!

5. Keep a record

Be in the moment and absorb the unique experience of exploring a different culture. Take loads of notes and write a daily blog post or journal, capturing the sensory details of your colourful surroundings and record your own thoughts and feelings; your struggles and challenges, exhilaration and joy. 

Adventures in GhanaDiane Priestly is an experienced journalist encouraging people to go MAD … that is, to Make A Difference through ‘voluntourism’, which combines volunteering with exploratory travel in developing countries. Her rollicking book, Adventures in Ghanashares her surprising experiences of volunteering with the dynamic UK charity, Madventurer, in this vibrant West African country. It is available online here.

Related Articles