Since the launch of Professionals doing good, a social enterprise whose aim is to connect qualified and skilled volunteers with socially responsible organisations in Cambodia, quite a few professionals from the for-profit sector contacted us to ask if it was possible for them to volunteer for a short time (1–4 weeks).
Volunteering abroad is different from volunteering in your home country, in that even if it is for a short duration, it requires a great deal of time, commitment, and financial sustainability. This is why it’s important that you think hard about the experience you want beforehand.
From my experience working with volunteers, I have noticed the following distinct advantages and disadvantages of short-term volunteering in Cambodia.
Advantages of short-term volunteering
You can volunteer while taking your annual leave
If you are a full-time employee, it is very likely that the easiest way to volunteer abroad is to do so during your holidays, which are typically two to three weeks. This way, you don’t need to ask for special permission or for unpaid leave from your work place.
It’s easier to keep living costs under control
If you volunteer for a few days or weeks, all living costs (such as accommodation, food, transportation or visa) can be kept under control. You will be able to do voluntary work at an affordable cost.
You can still give back by making the most of your professional expertise
If you come armed with a very strong and specific professional expertise and background, you will be able to have a meaningful volunteer experience even in a short time. For example:
- If you are a skilled pediatrician, even a five-day screening clinic would make a difference for local children in need.
- As an experienced English teacher, you could organise a full-immersion ‘train the trainer’ workshop for the benefit of local English teachers.
- As a business developer or marketing/sales professional, you could mentor and coach local managers on better ways to raise funds for their organisations.
You can experiment with a change of pace or life before making a definitive career or life change
If you are considering taking a gap year to volunteer abroad, change careers from the for-profit to the non-profit industry, or relocate to a developing country, all these decisions can be more easily made after short-term volunteering. You will be able to get a first-hand look at what it’s like in the field and take time to make a thoughtful decision when you’re back home.
You can return to the same place every year… and feel like you’re coming back home
If you’re thinking of doing a short-term experience and repeating it in the same country or even for the same organisation every year, it’d be a real win-win situation. You will have grown accustomed to the culture, place and staff, and coming back every time will feel like coming back home and visiting old friends.
Disadvantages of short-term volunteering
You will have a very limited immersion
If you volunteer for a month or two, you will only have a superficial understanding of the country, the local culture, and the way local people think and work. You will only scratch the surface.
You will have few opportunities to leave a legacy
Whereas you may be able to deliver a simple project in a short time, you will not manage to develop a more complex project with a wider scope and longer-lasting impact. You will be limited by time and be restraint with a very specific and possibly simple and narrow task.
You may have fewer interactions with local people
Khmer is a difficult language to learn and often Cambodian people speak very limited English or none at all. With limited time, you may be able to get acquainted the people, but you probably won’t have the opportunity to be immersed in the community or be able to create a deeper relationship with the people.
It could be a stressful experience
Things in Cambodia work differently from the way they do in many other countries, and they may take longer than expected. Some unplanned issues may cause delays to your project, and things may not go they way you planned, or even happen at all.
If you’re only there for a short while, you may have less of a time buffer and be more exposed to potential project failures. Sometimes you may feel the tension of having to get things done in a shorter amount of time. In other words, it can easily turn into an emotionally stressful experience.
You won’t have much time to travel and enjoy yourself
With limited time, you may have less opportunities to travel, visit places or to simply relax and enjoy yourself.
Time will fly… and it will already be time to go back home
This is a given, and it happens to everyone who stays in a new country for a short time. You will feel your experience lasted less than the blink of an eye. You will have the sense that time has flown and the feeling of wishing you could stay longer. You will be tempted to call home and ask your boss to give you a few more days. It will happen, no matter what. Just be prepared to deal with it.
So, what’s next?
In a nutshell, although a longer volunteering experience is what is usually recommended, we don’t suggest dismissing a short one if the opportunity comes up, as long as you come prepared. However, you should be aware that in most cases, the length of your volunteer stay will have a direct impact on how much you can achieve and how much you will emotionally experience.
It’s instrumental that you come well-prepared ahead of your volunteering experience. Try to learn as much as you can about the country and the culture in advance, identify the hosting organisation ahead of time, and agree with them the scope of work and the timeline to do it in so that you can make the most of your time there.
Understanding all of this is crucial for setting your expectations and being aware of what you are going to get or not get from your experience.
If, after reading this article, you’re tempted to try a professional volunteer experience, please take a look at our available projects. We will be happy to provide guidance and match you with the professional volunteering experience that is perfect for you.