Are you looking to get a first-hand experience of local culture? Get some help in your home or business? Learn a few new things? Meet some people? Then welcome to the wonderful world of workaway! The idea behind these organizations (HelpX, WWOOF, Workaway, etc) is to facilitate an exchange between a host and a volunteer. Volunteering through these organizations has been one of the most fulfilling experiences during our travels.
What is the exchange? The volunteer offers an agreed upon number of hours of work per week with the host providing an accommodation and meal arrangement. Beyond this, the idea is that there is a cultural exchange as well; you share ideas, perspectives, traditions, recipes, and anything else you can think of from your culture so that we can all come out of this knowing a little more about the world. Beautiful concept, eh?
Meet new people, and share travel stories and advice.
Get local insight into great things to do/see nearby and in the country in general.
Have a buddy/guide to show you around and help you appreciate the local area.
Get an inside view into the local culture.
Try some local cuisine, straight from a local’s kitchen!
Save some money.
Working your sightseeing around time off.
May not be able to see as much as you would like.
Need to make a time commitment to your host.
You won’t always get along with everyone.
Occasional awkwardness with negotiating around someone else’s space/rules/eating habits.
Everyone is different, things that would bother one person won’t necessarily bother someone else. The big thing to keep in mind, is to be respectful, polite, and open-minded. Even if you’re finding that you’re not clicking with your host or fellow volunteers, don’t let it dominate your entire experience. Be mature, be polite, and figure out how much interaction you can take/is required. If things are too tense, politely request to leave early. Don’t be immature and leave in the night without saying a word (people have apparently done this).
We have been volunteering in a variety of places with a lot of different arrangements, but you see a lot of the same frustrations coming up on the part of the volunteer or the host. We wanted to provide some helpful advice for would-be volunteers and hosts to help them avoid some of the conflict we’ve seen in the past.
This article is written based on our experiences volunteering in numerous countries through the organizations HelpX, Workaway, and WWOOF, but I hope the advice can be translated across other organizations working under similar principles.
For the aspiring volunteer:
1. Be thorough in reading a hosts profile before applying.
Read the hosts profile through completely and when making requests, write an email specifically for that host. It may seem obvious, but several of our hosts have mentioned being frustrated with volunteers who apply after barely looking at their profile. Think about it, they spent time putting together that profile to give YOU, the would-be volunteer, an idea of what you were signing up for, so why would you skim it?
2. Be open and honest about your expectations and abilities.
Have a discussion with your host before you decide to visit. If you expect to have certain level of amenities, ask your host about them beforehand. It’s awful for both you and the host when you show up and are miserable immediately because things aren’t as you expected.
3. Ensure you understand the arrangement completely before agreeing to visit a host.
Do you know how many hours you’ll be working? How many days you’ll have off? Where you will be staying and if you’ll be sharing with someone? Are they able to cater to any food requirements you have? While you may be able to work some things out once you get there, it’s easiest to make sure you know the arrangement before arriving. One host told us about a couple that they had thought was coming for just two weeks, and after the couple arrived they found out that the couple were expecting to stay for three months! It worked out in the end, but it was probably pretty stressful for both sides when it didn’t have to be.
4. Be courteous.
Are you going to be a few days later than you expected? Or can’t come at all due to an unforeseen change of plans? Let your host know. It’s common courtesy. Depending on how busy the host is, they may have rearranged things in their schedules/lives just to accommodate you. Give them a chance to adjust their schedule to changes in yours.
5. If something is worth complaining about, bring it up to your host.
Don’t be that negative volunteer that brings everyone else down! Seriously, it’s amazing what one negative person can do to a group dynamic. If something is legitimately worth complaining about, bring it up in a respectful way to your host so they can address it. If your just a person who naturally likes to complain, save it for people back home. If I’m having a great time, I don’t want to listen to how you hate getting your hands dirty or your bed isn’t big enough!
For the welcoming host:
1. Be open and honest about your expectations and what you can provide.
I wrote this one for volunteers, but it counts for hosts too. If you expect your volunteers to occasionally cook meals for everyone or to clean, tell them. If you expect volunteers to take care of their own meals, let them know. We want to fit into your home, help us out by letting us know how you like your household to run. Also, if you can’t or choose not to provide certain things (specific foods, internet, etc.) let your volunteer know ahead of time so we can be aware.
2. Please try to answer every email.
We know that you are probably inundated with host requests and sometimes it’s hard to write a response to every single one. But please, it’s so nice to get a response, any response, when you’re trying to find a host. It’s easy to think that other hosts will respond so you don’t need to, but you’re not the only host that’s going to be thinking that way. Even a super quick, “Sorry, we have no space,” is really appreciated. Or if you know you can’t take anyone or won’t be around to answer emails, a quick note on your profile is great too.
3. Make some time to spend with your volunteers.
We know you have other time commitments, and everyone needs private time too. But it is nice when your hosts are able to spend some time with you. Especially if you have some time to show us around a little bit. If you know you won’t have much time to spend with your volunteers, it’s nice to let them know ahead of time. We won’t take it personally, and if we know ahead of time we won’t be disappointed.
4. Share some of your culture.
Whether it be food, drink, music, or anything really. The best way to experience to a new way of living is to live it! If you have a chance, share a couple of local recipes that you enjoy. Teach us how to make a proper cup of tea. Tell us a little about the history in your area. We’re visitors to your country and we want to know everything!
5. Allow time for your volunteers to explore the area.
Part of the idea of help exchange is to share your culture and country with volunteers from around the world. Give your volunteers a chance to see some of it. Once work has been wrapped up for the day, encourage them to use the rest of the day to explore. Give them at least a few days off during their stay to make longer trips. Don’t take it personally if your volunteers are going out a lot. For a volunteer it can be a balancing game trying to spend time with our hosts and making time to get out and see the area.
Volunteering abroad is a rewarding experience. Take your time reading through profiles and find hosts that are doing something you’re interested in. Check out the personal details in the profile and if they have reviews. If you get a good vibe, go for it! You’ll delve into the local community in a way you never could have as a typical tourist. Every experience is different; you’re bound to meet some amazing people and do/see things you have never dreamed of. So get out there and explore, you would-be HelpXers!