Build Together: A Story about Volunteering

NOTE: This is a guest post from Pamela Hawley, the founder and CEO of UniversalGiving, which connects people to the top opportunities to give and volunteer all over the world. She is an Expert Blogger for Fast Company, and writes her own blog, Living and Giving.

When people ask me what they should be prepared for when they decide to volunteer, they usually think I give a pretty strange answer:

Build Together.”

Volunteering is an amazing experience. These days you can work with street children in Lima, Peru; volunteer at a children’s art center in Cambodia; teach English to migrant workers in Thailand; or construct a health center for the Luo tribe of Kenya. You might be someone just out of school, a family seeking both travel and volunteer experience, or a professional who would like to donate their skills – how about serving as a dentist for three weeks in a Medical Clinic in Nepal!

In my first volunteer trip to Managua, Nicaragua, we were scheduled to build schools and dormitories. At that time, 90% of students in the community were not currently attending school. We jumped into the project with the villagers and finished the school — but ran out of materials for the dormitories. First instincts as Americans were to brainstorm every possible way to get it done. But access to resources was severely limited. As our Nicaraguan leader stated: “You Americans just want to complete things. We want to create and nourish relationships.”

As we let these words sink in, we truly began to connect and listen to this community. We learned about their life. We built relationships, played with their children, helped cook hundreds of tortillas over hot grills for hundreds of people in the community. We embraced their daily life, and the more we did, the closer the bonds of understanding and joy grew.

It is wonderful to go to another country, complete a volunteer project, and feel that you really had an impact. But establishing a relationship with the local people is by far the most important aspect of the volunteer trip. Building true, lasting relationships results in the greatest benefit for our world: less barriers are formed and increased understanding is achieved. We are all a team working together to face and resolve the challenges in our world.

Here are some key tips when you ponder volunteering internationally:

1.  Practical Planning. Contact the organization a few months prior to leaving and find out if there are materials which are rare and hard to attain for the project.  Often what we consider plentiful here (such as nails or hammers) are in great need in other parts of the world.

2.  Do the Project Together, Not on Your Own. You are a guest in their community. The most successful outcome is not that you built something and walked away, but that you and the community build something as a team. No one feels empowered when you do everything for them. Share skills. Build Together.

3. Be Flexible. Not everything is going to go as planned. Often the country doesn’t have the right tools, manpower, transportation or funds to get all the needed work done. In a word, they lack infrastructure. You can either get frustrated by this, or pitch in and help in other ways. Be flexible. Be creative!

4. Connect to the People in the Community. Often you will have “downtime” outside of the scope of the project. Rather than retreat to the group with whom you traveled, be sure to spend time with the people of the community. Listen about their lives. If you can’t speak the language, smiles work wonders. And you’ll be surprised — you will find a way to communicate!

Volunteering is a special, life-changing experience for everyone involved. Be prepared that the person who may be changed the most… is you. It’s a joyful, humbling, often rigorous experience which will encourage you to view yourself, your neighbors and your world quite differently.

Remember, too, that 2/3 of volunteers are more likely to give, so we have designed our service allowing you to give and volunteer in one fell swoop! UniversalGiving™ efficiently provides both in one service, allowing you to maximize your giving of time and funds to exceptional organizations.

Let us help you find ways to get involved:

Work with At-Risk Youth in Jamaica

Empower Hill Tribes Girls in Thailand

Volunteer with Mayan Families in Guatemala

Check out more opportunities, and choose the right one for you!

I hope you will join us in UniversalGiving’s vision to “Create a World Where Giving and Volunteering Are a Natural Part of Everyday Life.” I look forward to your comments, and hope to hear your stories of volunteering too!

Related Stories:

Volunteer In Tanzania & Help Support People Living With HIV/AIDS

5 Things to Consider Before Choosing a Wildlife Conservation Vacation

Photo credit: UniversalGiving


Jess D.
Jess D6 years ago

Aw Nem, there's no such thing as "no useful skill"! :-) I've done some volunteering in Mexico, and often what we were doing required very little experience- moving rocks, mixing cement, or painting, for example. If you are interested in staying local, I would recommend calling your local Habitat for Humanity- they'll have supervisors on site who will show you exactly what you need to do for whatever project you're working on. There are also always soup kitchens and food banks who need a helping hand. And I'm sure you have planety of hidden talent you just need to discover! good luck! :-)

Debbie Wasko
Past Member 6 years ago

TOGETHER is the key word here. Combined energy does produce results. Lack of togetherness on any front these days shows clearly ... government, families, religions, etc.

Joy Dantine
Joy Dantine6 years ago


Nem van genne
Nem van genne6 years ago

i love the idea of volunteering overseas but i think i'd get more from it than i'd give as i dont really have any useful skill! i should do something in my own area, i did put my name and the skills i do have on a local directory but i never got contacted to do anything, hehe, how depressing, there must be something i can do, i think i'll have another look into it, thanks for the inspiration and motivation!

Jennifer C.
Past Member 6 years ago

Good to know. Thanks for sharing.

Meta Reid
Meta Reid6 years ago

Thanks for the article, wish I had the time and money since I'm sure I've the skills.

caterina caligiuri

thanks I liked it

Rosie Lopez
Rosie Lopez6 years ago

thanks for sharing!

Alessandra C.

So interesting. So true. So stimulating.