Module 4: Traits of a Successful International Volunteer

  1. Flexibility: : Although embarking on a volunteer trip with realistic and accurate expectations is necessary to ensure professional behavior, volunteers must also expect the unexpected. You may have modified job duties depending on the needs of the clinic, itineraries may shift at the last minute due to local circumstances, and clinics can run hours behind schedule. Efforts to firmly stick to a predetermined plan will likely be in vain. Successful volunteers are engaged and attentive, and can coolly adapt to changing circumstances and demands. As Lee Cridland of the Andean Information Center in Bolivia explains, “Being a good volunteer is about doing what is necessary.”(1)

  2. Patience: The pace of life and work in developing countries is often much slower than what Western volunteers are accustomed to for several reasons. Asian, African, and Latin American societies tend to place less value on punctuality, are less project-oriented, and have more limited transit and communication infrastructure than do their Western counterparts. As volunteer travel experts Joseph Collins and Luke Wendt point out, meaningful community development is a long and slow process. To maximize effectiveness and maintain a positive attitude, volunteers should focus on the process rather than the successes, avoid forcing an agenda, and let things develop at a natural pace.(2)

  3. Openness: Immersing yourself in a completely foreign culture is a rare and rewarding opportunity - take advantage of it by welcoming new perspectives on the world. You will be going into an environment where many things will not immediately make sense, so be careful not to jump to conclusions. Respect, tolerance, and an open mind are essential to averting unprofessional behavior precipitated by culture shock and ethnocentrism.

    "Volunteers should either have a really open worldview or have a willingness to have their worldview opened. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your prejudices. If you think that you do not have any, then you are pretty naïve."(3)-- Mary Helen Richter, Volunteer, Mennonite Central Committee, Vietnam.

4. Dependability: The privilege of volunteering abroad comes with great responsibility. It is your job to follow through on your commitment to your hosts and target community.

We interviewed hosts who felt they had wasted time orienting, supervising, and befriending international volunteers who ended up abandoning posts, taking holidays whenever they wanted, or just hanging around doing no work at all. Volunteers should not abuse the hospitality and warmth of their hosts. Follow through with your commitments and respect the time and energy of your host organization and host community.”(4)

5. Humility: Traveling to a place with an unfamiliar language, new rules, and a foreign culture will give you the unique opportunity to discover just how little you know. You may often find yourself asking for assistance to complete basic tasks, such as navigating a city or purchasing food. Regardless of your accomplishments or status in your home country, you will be a novice overseas; this is a realization that can be difficult for some volunteers. Collins and Wendt suggest answering the following Life Experience Assessment questions to “temper some of the arrogance and frustration that so easily impair the effectiveness and sense of accomplishment of many volunteers.”(5)

6. Enthusiasm: How will you be remembered when you leave? Your presence, attitude, and actions will leave a lasting impression on the communities you work with. Although it may be impossible to save the world through a short-term volunteer program, your presence itself is highly impactful. For those living in poverty around the world, the simple fact that you care about their struggles is more meaningful and encouraging than you may think, and the optimism you inspire will be contagious.

“It’s important not to underestimate what can be achieved with the right motives, energy, enthusiasm, open-mindedness, and willingness to learn from others.”(6)Andrew, international volunteer in India with Comhlámh, the Irish Association of Development Workers

Module 5: Guidelines For Observing and Assisting Doctors>>


(1) Collins, J. & Wendt, L. Volunteering Overseas: What It Takes To Be A Highly Effective Volunteer.” Transitions Abroad Magazine. 27.2 (2003).

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) "Code of Good Practice." Comhlamh,