This post was first published without pictures. Please bear with me as I'm adding them in the next few days!
After last week’s “Top Ten Tips for Volunteers - from the Hosts’ Point of View”, I got a few requests from fellow hosts to do the same thing… the other way around. I’ve had a few extensive chats with our former volunteers, and asked a few of them to tell me about their experiences… They were great and gave me so much to work with! So here it goes…
1. Your profile on the volunteering websites
Your profile on a volunteering website is your future helper’s first glimpse of what you’re all about. Write something about you, about your volunteers’ accommodation, about what you do or what happens at your place, and about the work you need help with. This way people already have an idea what to expect when they write to you.
If you have no room for couples, don’t feel you could (or want) to cater for special diets or think an extra dog would be too much, mention it in your profile; not only does it save the volunteers the time of writing to you (if they happen to be a couple, vegan or travelling with a dog) - it means less clutter in your inbox and fewer people to turn away.
Don’t oversell yourself in your profile or your initial e-mails; most of the time people will come no matter what - it’s better if they’re pleasantly surprised than the other way around.
Be honest; more than one volunteer had a story about how they were promised nice things (like a room to sleep in, healthy food or four hours work) only to find out they were sleeping under the stars, eating junk food or working way beyond reasonable amounts of time.
2. Make sure the accommodation is ready for guests
Of course, volunteers are perfectly able to make their own bed or to set up a tent if they’ll be camping. However, you want to make sure that tent is presently in good shape (so they don’t end up unpacking and having to sleep in a mouldy tent). If you’re providing them with a bed in a caravan, cabin or even a real room, do a full check on the accommodation a few days before your helpers arrive; if you find a cracked window or a leaky radiator, you’ll still have time to have it fixed.
Don't expect people to give you their best work and attitude when you can't muster the respect of presenting them with decent accommodations.
3. Upon arrival: sit down and talk
99% of volunteers really appreciate it if you make a bit of time for them shortly after their arrival. Sit down with a cup of tea or glass of wine, and talk about what’s going to happen. Maybe you can combine it with a tour of the place?
It’s good to have a few ground rules; most helpers appreciate when they know what is expected of them. It's better to mention these right at the beginning, than to be annoyed with people if they don’t act like you think they should. Do you have set meal times, or can anyone dive into the fridge whenever they’re hungry? Do you buy all food and drinks, or should volunteers pay for their own snacks and alcohol? If you have pets or children, are there certain things guests need to know about them - can they take your dog for a walk without telling you, or can they play videogames with the children before homework?
Talk about what your plans are for the following days or weeks as well; what needs to be done? When are you expecting people to help out, and when are days off? (see later)
4. Make a solid work plan
Most volunteers are really eager to help out with whatever needs to be done. Have a plan for at least the first few days; buy the materials and check that you’ve got enough tools (and maybe protective gear like gloves or glasses) before they arrive. It’s a waste of everybody’s time (and your money) if volunteers have to sit around waiting for you to buy wood and screws for the porch they’re supposed to be building.
Be clear about working hours and time off. Your helpers might want to go out and explore, plan a Skype call with their friends back home or meet up with other volunteers in the area; providing them with a clear schedule allows them to make plans.
You can always make changes or become more lenient after a few days.
Some volunteers are keen to finish a job before they’re taking time off, or will even get bored and ask for more work to do. Be clear about how you want to handle this; will they get more time off on another day, or will they still need to work the same hours tomorrow?
5. Be patient and open
Arriving at a new place for work exchange is scary for everybody; you (the host) are accepting total strangers into your home - but they (the helpers) are also getting into a totally new situation, with other customs and rules, often in a foreign language and different culture.
Don’t expect too much in the first few days - best case scenario, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Some people are a bit shy and take a few days to open up; others could start out as a know-it-all but turn out to be nice and sensitive after all.
6. Spend time with your helpers
Work exchange is supposed to be an *exchange* in the first place; people will come and help for you, and in exchange you give them food, accommodation and an insight into your life. In principle, this implies that you’d spend a bit of time with them so they can get to know you and your culture better.
Of course this isn’t always possible; if you don’t have much time to spend with your guests, mention this in your profile or e-mail conversation so people know they’ll probably get more privacy, but less interaction.
7. Communication is key
Be clear about your expectations, rules and what you need to be done (and how). Take time to explain how to do certain tasks; if possible, show your helpers how it’s done. Be approachable; if a volunteer is not sure how to do something, they should feel free to ask for help.
Engage in conversation about their well-being every few days; is everything going well with their accommodation? How do they feel about the work? Do they feel they have enough free time? You can do this for instance during or right after lunch - or at the beginning of the working day, if you’ve got time for a coffee before you start.
This is also the time to talk about anything that’s bothering you. If you’ve got any issues - irritation, frustration, something that isn’t working great for you - talk with the volunteers as soon as you can. Don’t leave things like this festering until it’s too late!
8. Take the time to teach and motivate… and to learn and be inspired
Working with volunteers saves you a lot of time… but you still have to invest some time into it. Take your time explaining the work to them, and make time to check on their work while they’re doing it (so you can tell them right away if they have to change something, instead of having them redo the whole job).
We’ve heard from volunteers it’s a lot more motivating when the host is working with you on the project, although that’s not always possible of course.
9. Leave a review
Volunteers often depend on reviews to get their next work exchange gig. Especially when they apply for a highly desirable position (think exotic islands or a chance to work with reindeer), hosts will often have a choice of applications - and go for the ones with great reviews. Other hosts simply won’t accept volunteers without reviews - they want to be sure this one is legit.
There is nothing more disappointing than working your butt off for a host achieving everything they want to be done, to a great standard, only for them not to write a review
(direct quote from one of our former volunteers).
10. Be open and enjoy
Work exchange is a unique experience; it allows you to meet people you probably never would have met in another situation. Enjoy the fact that they will leave a mark on your project; also be open and talk to them about how you feel the experience is going. They might give you a few extra pointers to make your next hosting experience go smoother and be better overall.