How You Can Change the World Through Volunteer Work

Derek Turner from The World By Sea
Derek Turner at Ngorongoro Crater

Derek Turner at Ngorongoro Crater. Photo by Derek Turner.

Find a need. Fill a need.

For many of us there comes a point in life, when you take pause, look around and realize we have it pretty good. It’s that moment when you discover that no matter how many points the Dow has dropped, or how high gas prices have become, we still live like kings and queens compared to a lot of people in the world. Then comes the wave of guilt, compassion, inspiration – whatever it is that moves a person to say: “ I want to do something. I, (insert full name here), want to make a difference.”

This is probably the biggest step: realizing that we can, even should, make a difference. But then, after that beautiful, humbling moment of self-realization where we decide YES (I am going to change the world!), comes the more complicated and often de-motivating, “how.” This step, as it turns out, is even more difficult than first.

After that beautiful, humbling moment of self-realization where we decide YES, comes the more complicated and often de-motivating, “how.”

Volunteering is a broad term. It can be as simple or complicated as you like. It can mean anything from picking up trash, to serving bread at a soup kitchen, to serving on the front lines for a country you love. You don’t have go anywhere to do it, but if you’re like me and would rather travel than stay home, the opportunities are endless.

From the first time I flew at the age of 3 and fell in love with my flight attendant, I have loved to travel, to see new places, and meet new people. However, the more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve been haunted by that motivating whisper to make a difference in this world. So one day, standing hip deep in the corporate world of sales and marketing, I decided the time had come. Despite a new promotion and other promising job offers, I quit. I left my job, and at the tender age of 30 years, joined an old college friend on 33’ sailboat adventure around the world.

I had never sailed a day in my life, but I had traveled, and I wanted this trip to be more than just vacation. So, days before I left, a friend and I designed a website. The idea was simple: I would raise money on my website-all of which would go towards needs I saw and projects I volunteered with along the way. Then through the website I would blog about everything. Through video, picture and word, I would raise awareness and hopefully money, and those giving could (literally) watch their dollars work.

It was sort of a pipe dream at the beginning, but contrary to many skeptics, it actually worked. And, a simple idea for grassroots humanitarian work has since moved past the bow of the boat. Money was raised and needs were met. Orphans were given clothing and supplies for school. Prisoners were given books to study and seeds to plant. We even raised enough money to buy one charming, less fortunate man a prosthetic leg and the doctor’s appointments to support it.

African boys

“Find a need. Fill a need.” Photo by Derek Turner.

Five tips to help you find volunteer opportunities

Still, how and where do you begin? There are needs everywhere, but it can be hard to know where to start. Fortunately, there is no one right answer, but I’ve learned a few things since I began:

1. Contact Before Contact: If you’ve never been to a place and would like to get involved, the best thing you can do is find someone who’s been. Ask around. Try to find a contact who is already plugged in. If you don’t mind letting someone else call the shots, there are a number of volunteer companies that can organize your entire trip. On occasion they’ll at least provide a name or email. Personally, I started with Facebook. Asking friends or friends of friends for advice, usually (or eventually) I found someone in the country I was headed for. Not only can they help you find a project, they can help find the bus station.

2. Watch and Learn: The more you know about a culture, the more you’ll understand their true needs. If you can, learn about the culture before you visit. Read about their history, their current situation. This will also help you relate to people you may not have much in common with. But even if you enter a country, without a contact or prior information, you’ll learn a lot just by watching.

3. Ask Around: As simple as it is, nothing has paid off for me more than this. It doesn’t take long to spot a malnourished boy or a girl with no shoes, but some problems are hidden. I knew there were children with needs in the Dominican Republic, I didn’t realize children had to meet certain uniform requirements to go to school. I also would have never learned about “Viejito” (the man without a leg), had I not simply asked around a community for people with need. Even the “Tourist Information” may be able to point you in the right direction.

4. Be Flexible (in action and idea): Even if you know the project beforehand, you may be asked to do something that to you seems unimportant. Be prepared to be insignificant. Not all jobs are glamorous and often times you will be behind the scenes where neither you nor your work are obvious… And that’s ok.

5. Be Cautious: Remember that in most places, especially those with heavy need, you will be viewed as wealthy. Compared to them, you are. There is a chance when you start offering help, you will be bombarded with requests. Use discretion. I always try to respectfully verify with a second or third, unrelated source.

You know that bumper sticker you see on the back of VW buses that says “Practice random acts of kindness”? Well I don’t have dreadlocks, and I’ve never lived in a commune, but I think it’s true. I’m convinced that most things in life are self-perpetuating, which is why when someone does something nice (or not nice) to us, we in turn are moved to also do something nice (…or not nice) to someone else. You might change the world. You might find and fill some need so vital it affects an entire culture. Or you might just hammer a nail that holds a humble home for someone who’s less fortunate. You might just buy a guy a sandwich. I’m not saying you quit your job, and live on a boat, not all of us can do that. But everyone can do something.

About the author:

In November 2007, Derek set out with his friend to sail around the world, while helping charities and communities along the way by raising funds on his blog, The World By Sea.

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Discussion »

  • #1Tim Dodwell

    Really good article, Volunteer work has become more and more popular, and is a great way and different way to travel, learn a about a culture and feel you make a big difference.

  • #2Andy B

    Nicely done, Derek.

  • #3Jenna Howard

    I just wanted to stop by and tell you thank you for for all you are doing. I think it is amazing how you ventured out into the world and the only money you asked for was for others. My heart is with orphans, street children and well, basically just children in general and i was so excited to hear that you are helping the cause and cry of the orphans. As I have read through your blogs on children I am encouraged that I am not alone in this fight to help orphaned and abandoned children. I am the Director of Public Relations for a non-profit organization called World Orphans. We build church based orphan homes all over the world and our mission is simple E3 to reach each church…each child…each community. I would love for you to take a look at our website and let me know if you have any questions. ( thank you again for your heart and words that you have written. I hope you will have a glorious blessed day!
    Jenna M. Howard
    -Director of Public Relations
    [email protected]

  • #4Heather Wagner

    I appreciate the tips on volunteering. I think there are a lot of people out there who want to go help somewhere, but don’t really know where to start. Your flexibility and willingness to just go is inspiring. Hope your next stop in Argentina is full of good stories!

  • #5Mark Newland

    I spent last year doing something similar (minus the sail boat) through an organization, and I’d just like to say you’ve hit it on the head here, this is great advice. And it makes the whole endeavor just a little more attainable for those that don’t know where to start. So thank you, well done, and keep up the amazing work.

  • #6Tyrone Tyson

    Hello anyone,
    I’m a 32yr old man who has lost custody of his son. His mother comes from lots of money and was able to strip me of my life. Now I’m left feeling empty and have the need do something that is fullfilling. I’ve thought long a hard about it and I feel seeing the world and giving myself to help others would be the best thing I could do with my life. If anyone can help or lead me in the right direction in order to make this possible please reply

  • #7Mary

    Dear Tyrone,
    I’m not sure if you’ll ever get this, but I don’t think you should leave the area (especially the country) your son lives in for a long period of time…one way you can change the world is by making your son’s world a better place..
    even if you can’t see him.. you could write him letters.. record video of you for him … even start a website to talk about your life so that he can learn more about you….

    i will definitely pray for you and your family!


  • #8Natasha Sensenbrenner

    I found your volunteering tips very useful. I will definitely take those into consideration in planning my next volunteer trip. I went to Costa Rica last summer and could’ve used these to plan my trip better. I know what you mean by being flexible. My task was not so glamorous but I knew that I was contributing to the collective goal. Good luck with your trip!


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