Every volunteering website has a few tips on how to make your experience a good one. Many volunteers have a blog of their own as well, in which they share their experiences, tips, and tricks.
In the few years we’ve been hosting volunteers, we’ve been asked many times what “hosts” find important in their helpers. Although not one host is like the other, there are a few talking points that keep surfacing when we talk to other hosts. So here it goes… Top ten tips from hosts to volunteers!
1. Your profile on the volunteering website
We see all kinds of profiles when we're looking for volunteers for our farm: from empty ones to some that read like a technical manual. No need to put the phone numbers of all your past employers on there (yep, seen that!); your profile is just meant as a first impression. A few pictures of you doing things you like, a short text describing yourself, your hobbies and passions; and of course something about why you’re travelling and looking for a place to volunteer at.
If you know what kind of host you’re looking for, it’s ok to write something about that; do specify how important your criteria are. If you’re a beach lover, should mountain hosts write to you if they’re looking for helpers?
If you can, keep your profile up to date: have it mention places you’re actually planning on going in the near future - don’t waste our time saying you’re looking for a last minute position in Spain if you’re actually in Vietnam and have no intention of going anywhere else.
2. First contact with a potential host
Most of the e-mails we get from potential helpers are bulk e-mails and clearly not destined just for us. I have had people offering to babysit (we have no children), do our groceries (why?) or even talking about horse riding at our place. Our dog is not THAT big…
Make sure you do read a host's profile before sending them an e-mail. Many will not write back if it’s clear you haven’t looked at the job description, the dates they have spots available at or other (important) details. We’ve even heard of a host who included a “password” in their profile; whoever applied without mentioning that password, would not even make a chance.
If you don’t get a reply from a host you’d like to go to, it’s ok to send us a reminder. Most of us are just busy and can happen to overlook an e-mail… And some of us get so many requests that a personal e-mail or even a follow-up after a few days shows you’d really like to come here.
Be honest about possible disabilities, special needs or diet, tell us upfront if you’re planning on taking a dog or other people with you. Disclosing those at a later moment is just not cool. We’ve all had that one person who waited to tell us they’re vegan until they’re looking at an omelette we prepared for them with love and eggs from our own chickens... Most hosts won't mind catering for special diets, but specialist shops (for special foodstuffs) are not always close by.
If for some reason you can’t go to your host at the projected time, let them know as soon as you know. It’s a small thing for you, and they will be able to start looking for other volunteers.
On the other hand, if a host you’re planning to go to sends you a message - answer it, even if the answer is just “I’ll get back to you”. Often when volunteers don’t write back to us, it’s because they’re not planning to come after all; if you’re taking a really long time to reply (despite reading the message), we’re going to look for other volunteers in the mean time.
3. Come prepared
When I asked a few fellow hosts about what they found important, this seemed to be the second most important thing (after being polite and considerate and washing up, which I'll come to later). Some of the stories that were told with it were incredible... and to be honest, we've had some weird things happen there as well.
People showing up at our farm (to do farm work and building) with only fancy city shoes and no working clothes. Volunteers turning up without a hat or sunscreen in the middle of summer, or without a coat or shoes that can take mud in winter. Not bringing the right currency when you're going to a country with different currency - not every village has a cash point! Not bringing medication you need, adaptor plugs, a phone card,...
Don't expect your host to provide you with anything, unless they've said so (or you've asked). Bring your own towels and shampoo,
4. How to get to your host's place (and back)
Hosts will often come and collect volunteers from the airport, train station or bus stop. Let us know in time when you’re planning to arrive, so we can adjust our plans for that day.
Let us know if anything goes wrong. Write our phone number down, so you can reach us in any case; if your phone dies (or if you don’t carry a phone), you could borrow a stranger’s phone - even if it’s just to send a text.
When it’s time for you to leave your host, plan your trip in advance. Let your host know in time when and where you’ll need to be dropped off, so they can make the necessary arrangements. There’s nothing wrong with planning a few days ahead.
5. Ask questions and be honest
When you arrive at your host’s home, they will hopefully make some time to sit down for a chat. If they don’t, it’s ok to ask for it. We usually sit down with a drink to go over the house rules, working hours, days off, meal times and more. If your host doesn’t, do ask them about it; it saves frustration from both sides if you know what you’re getting into. They should take some time to show you around as well.
During your stay, it’s better to ask ten questions than to mess up once. Although it's nice when volunteers show initiative, do ask your host if you're not totally certain it's something they'd want done. Many of us have lost countless plants to volunteers strimming where they weren't supposed to, removing mulch without being asked or just not paying attention when being shown what are weeds and what are not... It's often not even about the money - last winter, I lost the last plant that moved with us from Amsterdam - a passion vine that found itself completely naked to fend off the cold of winter after a volunteer removed all of the other plants around it (that protected it from the wind).
Be honest as well; if things are not working well for you (maybe the work is not as you expected, there’s something wrong with the accommodations or the food is rubbish), try and talk to your host to see if things could be changed. If you decide to leave, let your host know as soon as you’ve decided it. If you do this in a respectful way, there is no reason to get into a fight - they should be thankful you’re not wasting their time, and they could help you find the best way out - or maybe even help you look for another host that fits your needs better.
6. Be polite and respectful
Many hosts appreciate politeness - saying good morning and good night, using please and thank you and greeting other guests and visitors with a smile. Unless you're volunteering at a hostel, you're a guest in somebody's home; offer to leave your shoes at the door (especially if they’re muddy), help set the table or do the dishes after meals; it’s only five minutes of your time and even (especially!) if the other volunteers are nowhere to be found when your host needs a hand, you’ll definitely earn their bonus points.
Be aware of possible cultural differences; it’s not always common to pile up seven layers of fine charcuterie on your plate, to help yourself to far too much food during meals (and then leave half of it on your plate), or to raid somebody’s fridge or pantry. Ask if you’re not sure; it’s also fun to start a conversation about habits and customs (we learn a lot from those).
7. Clean up after yourself
Tidying up is one of the things we struggle with most with work exchange; on a regular day, I find piles of clothes, stray shoes and random electronic appliances (or power chords) all over the place. Try to keep your belongings in your bedroom or with you.
About half of the fellow hosts I asked said the number one way to their heart was to help out without being asked. Especially with the washing up; although many will wash up their own plate, hosts will often find themselves utterly alone with a big pile of pots and pans after dinner.
After working hours, clean your tools and return everything to their rightful place. Don’t leave garbage or washing up lying around; let your host know if something got broken or if your working gloves are so worn out they don’t protect you anymore.
At the end of your stay, clean up your bedroom, take the sheets off the bed and collect your garbage. Leaving your accommodation a mess won’t influence the rest of your stay, but it might get a star off your review….
8. Respect other people’s belongings and boundaries
When it comes to your host’s tools and machinery, see above: tidy up after working hours (except if you’re told not to) and let your host know if anything is wrong or broken.
When you’re using tools or appliances that are not yours, use them with care.
Don’t help yourself to things that aren’t yours; whether it’s “borrowing” a sweater, eating a snack that was “just lying there” or “checking out” somebody else’s camera… Ask before you take. Some hosts might be very relaxed about it, but others aren't; it's good to know how your host stands.
One thing many hosts have an issue with is volunteers not knocking. Helpers barging into their bedroom, suddenly opening the bathroom door, sneaking up on them and standing behind them while they’re working on the computer… Announcing yourself is a tiny thing, but it makes all the difference!
Unless your hosts specify that they are not to be disturbed, it’s ok to spend time with them. Don’t overstay your welcome though; you might like to spend your day off just chatting to them, but they probably have other things to do.
On your first day, find out if there are any boundaries; can you just dive into the fridge when you’re hungry or should you wait for meal times? Can you just go anywhere and do anything in the house, or are certain spaces off-limits?
If the host has either children or dogs, find out if there are any rules applying to them; people might not permit their children to play video games before homework, and many dogs are not allowed to jump up or beg at the table. I know ours aren’t, and having guests tell us that “it’s ok if he does it with me” doesn’t help their education.
Never take children or dogs for a walk without the parents’ (or owner’s) consent; we once spent a good hour looking for a dog that was just taken for a walk by one of our volunteers. I can’t imagine what it must be like if a child went missing that way, even for a little while.
9. Don’t waste
We are off the grid and aim to host volunteers who want to live a more sustainable life. It baffles us when the last person to go to bed leaves all lights on in the living room, when somebody turns on the tap and just walks away, or when we find tons of (fresh) food in the garbage mixed with plastic and cardboard (our chickens love to eat our leftovers, you know).
Above all... Smile. You might be having a bad day and so might your host; it's ok to chat about what's going on, but walking around with a long face for days on end is not helping anybody.
You might be given a rather boring job on your first day; smile and do it well. Us host never know who you are and what you actually can do (since some people tend to exaggerate their experience, we've learned to not take anybody upon their word); so we might start you off with a simple job to see how that goes. If you're really interested in doing something or learning more, let your host know; they might just have been waiting for the right person to start on an interesting project with.
Thinking about volunteering? We mostly work with Workaway and HelpX. Both organisations are similar in that they will only help you get in touch with a host - beyond that, you're on your own.
If you'd like more tips for volunteers, you can follow the Workaway Facebook page. If you're a volunteer and would like to share an awesome source of information with your follow volunteers, let us know in the comments!
This article wouldn't have been the same without the generous help of my fellow hosts - our local friends who will share their stories with me, and the members of the "HelpX Workaway Hosts Europe" Facebook group. If you're a host and are curious about how others do it or want to vent from time to time, come and join the discussion!
A big shout out to Anna, Iris, Julie, Tracey & Claire.
Hosting volunteers to work on a project or to help us out on a daily basis is a fantastic addition to our lives. I have written about all the reasons to host volunteers before, and I thoroughly believe in the benefits of volunteering as a way to learn about other lifestyles and cultures (for volunteers), and as a way to get help when you're low on cash while getting to know other people (for hosts).
Have you done any work exchange before? Are there other tips you would like to add to these - or do you simply think not all of this tips are relevant for all hosts? Please discuss, we'd love to hear from you!