Volunteer Your Skills Abroad in Central America

The complete guide to making a real impact

Anybody can visit Central America. But if you really want to experience the rich culture, incredible coffee, and inspiring people, you’ll have to invest more than money.

This region of the world is rich with social impact organizations making the most of its natural resources and advantageous location to powerful economies. By sharing your business, professional, and/or technical skills with Central American led organizations, you can help them accelerate their progress. This sort of volunteering is commonly called skills-based volunteering or Experteering.

But, before jumping at the first volunteering project you see, here are some tips to make sure you have the experience of a lifetime.

Finding the Right Volunteer Project in Central America

Central America has many promising emerging markets, and recent reports show that it is poised to bring over 100 million people out of poverty. This will largely driven by local entrepreneurs creating new solutions for its people.

For that project to be realized, volunteer should focus not on doing, but on transferring skills to locally-led organizations and their people. So when you search for a project in Central America, beyond ensuring that it is safe, and legitimate, make sure it can create a long-term impact, too. To ensure that a volunteering project is legitimate, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does this project use my real skills?
  2. Is this something that a local could be doing? Is it possible that I’m taking a local job?
  3. Will the tasks I will be completing leave a lasting impact on the organization and the surrounding community?
  4. Are the goals and objectives I am being asked to complete locally driven?
  5. Is the host organization reputable?

There are many organizations that make sure the volunteering opportunities they post are through organizations that operate in an ethical and sustainable manner. Some

include: VSO International (Voluntary Service Overseas), MovingWorlds, Cuso International, and Peace Corps.

Check out more tips for finding the right volunteering project abroad.

Examples of Volunteering Projects in Central America

Central America’s influence on music, dance, drink and more is already felt around the world, but it still has a lot to do before reaching its full potential. With that in mind, there are lots of opportunities for skilled volunteers to make an impact. You can help coffee organizations improve their supply chain, empower women entrepreneurs with marketing support, help startups improve technology, and help local manufacturers expand to new markets.

Best Practices While Volunteering in Central America

When you get to your destination, there is a right (and wrong) way to volunteer in a way that truly makes an impact. First, you should outline clearly defined goals that are created in partnership with your hosting organization. Beyond that, following these rules will help create positive outcomes for all parties:

  1. Support locally initiated projects, to make sure that the work will continue after you leave.
  2. Train local staff to take over your work so that the transition after you leave will be seamless.
  3. Spend more time teaching than doing.
  4. Do what’s best for the host organization, not what’s most interesting to you.
  5. Embrace cultural differences and discuss with your host the differences you might have, and how you can use those to your advantage.
  6. Check in with your team consistently to make sure everyone is on the same page about tasks and timelines for projects.

Take this free training for international volunteering best practices through Udemy, and review this complete guide to volunteering your skills overseas.

Cultural and Communication Tips to be an Effective Volunteer in Central America

It is important to understand the cultural differences that Central American countries have from other parts of the world so that you can work and communicate effectively with your partners while you're abroad.

globe-smart-central-america This chart shows the cultural differences between someone from the US and Guatemala, and where a typical Experteer might be. Image from GlobeSmart® provided by Aperian Global.

As an example, people in Central America tend to be family and relationship-focussed, hierarchical, and competitive. According to Geert-Hofetede's cultural comparison:

"In these cultures there is an emotional need for rules (even if the rules never seem to work), time is money and people have an inner urge to be busy and work hard, precision and punctuality are the norm, innovation may be resisted, and security is an important element in individual motivation."

- Geert-Hofetede's cultural comparison

Use Kwintessential and other country-specific travel guides to learn more about customs and social norms.

Finishing Your Project and Recapping Your Story

When you return from your trip it is essential that you keep in touch with your host organization: We like to say that success happens after you leave. This is because success should be measured by what happens after you leave. By doing what you can to ensure your work lives on after you leave, you can also ensure that the work you did made, and continues to make, a real impact.

You should also make sure to reflect on your experience during and after your overseas experience. There are several reflection strategies you can use to promote your own learning and improve happiness. You should also be sharing your stories with as many people as possible about your experience with the aim to inspire others to go volunteering abroad and do good, just like you!

Share your story with the #Experteering hashtag

Additional Tips While Volunteering in Central America

Here are some additional resources to help you plan, fund, and prepare for your trip, if you do decide to travel and volunteer in Central America:

  1. Guide to funding your trip
  2. Gear, resources, and tools for your volunteering adventure
  3. Books to read while volunteering in Central America

In Summary

Central America is a beautiful part of the world that is very easy to get to from almost everywhere. With projects starting as short as 1 week, you can make an impact and transfer skills while on vacation or during a short sabbatical. Considering that the majority of opportunities posted through movingworlds.org offer free accommodation during your stay, we hope you'll take the time to help Central America prosper, and that you keep this guide in mind to ensure that the work you do is done in partnership with the local, sustainable, and impactful to all hose involved - including you!

So get out there and seize your next life adventure in Central America. We promise you’ll find that immersive life-changing experience you’ve been searching for!