Almost 3 years ago to this day, Manjeev and I left our corporate jobs in Singapore and jumped into the great unknown.
We had established what we did not want in life, which included a glitz life in Singapore (we had it - it did not make us any happier) but we were not sure what we wanted. We had some ideas about doing something around natural horsemanship and horse polo. These visions of ourselves into the future varied, depending on the day and mood, between having a huge estate Argentinean style with hundreds of horses running around or just having a small set up by the beach where we could teach horse liberty work.
On a ranch in Argentina
Safari in India
Safari in Mozambique
Saying ‘I want to do something with horses’ is probably just as vague as ‘I want to do something in art’ - the possibilities within each field are endless. This is when we figured out that the only way we’d be able to know what we really wanted would be to try these different options out. And that’s when the concept of volunteering crept up.
Manjeev had never done that before (not a very common concept when you grow up in India) while my only experience involved teaching in a school in India. So as we organised our year ahead we basically planned around the different types of activities we were interested in doing and where/how we could learn about them directly through volunteering. The activities included: working in a polo club, learning to make polo ponies using natural horsemanship, working in a horse safari camp and working in a horse holiday destination. Over the following 14 months, we did all of those, staying on average two months in every place/work environment.
This is what we learned.
You often need to pay to volunteer
When we started off looking for volunteer opportunities we were disappointed to see that most of them you had to pay for, and many of them (especially those including horses) were expensive. After doing it, however, we understood why.
Beyond the fact that many small organisations don't have the funds to pay someone inexperienced, when you new join an organisation (whether NGO or private) someone from that organisation has to take time out of their own schedule to teach that person. Even though that volunteer will eventually learn and be of help, it will take valuable time and therefore cost the company. This is why, these days, a lot of volunteers programs cost money.
2. Open your mind
Volunteering is all about experience and learning. If you come with pre-conceived ideas or something to prove you’ll often miss out on all the things you can learn. Every organisation is run differently and very often you will not agree with a lot of the things you’ll see. Try to understand why things are being done in a certain way. Ask questions, put yourself in their shoes.
3. Nothing is what it looks like from the outside.
Even for the most open-minded people out there, it’s hard to go anywhere without some preconceived notions of what to expect. The truth, however, is that almost nothing is what it looks like on the outside. If this was the case we would not need to go and experience them for ourselves. For example, photos and social media often show a restricted and edited version of reality. Be aware of this and look to complete the picture.
4. Location matters, a lot.
Go for something completely new, completely different. Chose a new culture, different climate, and even a different language if you can. This will make your experience all the more unique. You will also learn that where you chose to set up a business or organisation matters a lot.
5. Learn from other people’s mistakes.
No one’s perfect. We all do mistakes but we can minimise our mistakes by learning from others. When you chose to volunteer in a place it's in part to learn from the organisation. Ask about their journey, how they got to where they are today, what they learnt along the way and what they would do differently knowing what they know today. By doing this, you’ll get decades worth of experience.
6. Make your mistakes in someone else’s shop.
Established organisations are good places to suggest ideas because they often have the structure to support a new project. Don’t hesitate to make a proposal if you have one. You’ll benefit from an experienced umbrella organisation and if it goes wrong the damages will be limited. It’s much better to make your mistakes in someone else’s organisation!
7. The hard parts are rarely what you expect.
Many volunteers, including ourselves, have discovered that the best and the worse experiences come from other people. While working in a safari organisation we found out that some clients could be difficult. In other cases, some of the people working in the organisation were unpleasant to deal with. Some of the other volunteers we crossed path with told us incidences of falling very sick, missing home a lot or struggling with the physical workload. Whichever it is, it’s rarely what you prepared for! Talking to previous volunteers can help a lot to plan ahead. Otherwise, just be mentally prepared!
8. It takes time.
You’re not going to learn overnight. You’ll feel overwhelmed, often bored, lonely. But this is all part of the experience. You’ve come here to learn and fit into someone else’s reality, not to get them to fit yours. There was one volunteer experience we found very difficult while we were there but two years later we can say it was the one where we learnt the most.
9. Creating a support network is key.
Going anywhere new is exciting but also difficult. You’ll need to make friends and identify the people who can help and support you. These days with technology it’s easy to talk with people at home, but there’s a risk of missing out on amazing relationships where you are. You’re here to meet people and experience a different life. Do it fully.
10. Mentors for life.
All those we volunteered for, without exception (and even those we were not too fond of at the outset) have turned out to be very valuable mentors over time. Each of them has unique experiences and skills, creating a fantastic pool of knowledge and expertise we can dive into whenever we need.
All in all, volunteering really helped us realise what we didn't want. We thoroughly enjoyed our time experiencing everything, but it helped us realise the business ideas that weren't for us or those for which we would struggle to make a viable business. Without volunteering, we would surely have done many more costly mistakes!
If you want recommendations or are interested in where we did our volunteer experiences don’t hesitate to get in touch!