How to be a great volunteer – One host’s perspective

We like to hear about the different perspectives and expectations that people involved with Workaway have.

Listening to the voice of someone involved as a host with Workaway can give us an idea of the benefits and challenges that are involved in having a volunteer stay.

This blog post was written by Nicola who has hosted many volunteers at her place and shares some of her thoughts about the characteristics of a useful Workawayer.

How to Lend a Helping Hand

help text written in light

Photo by Rainier N

Over the last three years we have hosted many volunteer visitors. It’s not a decision to make lightly – sharing your home, socialising and working alongside new people on a regular basis takes some diplomacy. Your house becomes a public space and the atmosphere changes markedly as new personalities arrive and friends leave.

I try hard as a host but know I don’t get it right 100% of the time – we are still learning. I really appreciate when volunteers share best practice with me. Here I will try to return the favour – what works well from a host’s point of view.

Nine out of ten times the visits are successful. Our volunteers leave after having a positive experience, learning from and contributing to the project. Though we have lots of tales to tell about the one-in-ten exceptions, I want to talk briefly about the others.

Be Reliable and Informed

hands of an old clock

Photo by t23e

    • Good volunteers book in advance and then show up when expected.
    • They are honest about their background and abilities and are willing to learn new skills.
    • They are able to get on in a group with a variety of personality types without causing physical injury, social offence or emotional trauma to others.

The best volunteers are fun to spend time with, no matter what their level of ability.

The top visits are those from people who have read the information provided. They know roughly what to expect of the location, the types of work we have available & our reasons for being. People who are passionate about sustainable living or wanting to learn more are a pleasure to host.

If you don’t care about the environment and visit a project like ours, it will be immediately apparent. I’d imagine this would be true in other places – for example if you’re an atheist visiting a holistic therapy centre or have accidentally ended up at a nudist colony.

There needs to be an ideological fit to make a really successful visit.

Have Basic Domestic Skills

Having some basic domestic skills is important. Often people who are nervous of their practical abilities have a whole host of skills they just haven’t valued highly enough before. Cleaning, for example. We have a rule that the toilet must be cleaned by the person who hasn’t done it for the longest.

girl sweeping

Photo by estreya

Most volunteers are house-trained – if you have domestic servants at home – or self-suffering parents who have provided a hotel-like existence, you will be at a disadvantage. Each host will have their own systems for cooking rotas, dish washing & general cleaning which a good volunteer will pick up quickly.

If you don’t already know how to cook a decent veggie meal then you should start practising now. Some places – like ours – primarily use local and vegetarian ingredients, and you will definitely come across (and end up cooking for) other volunteers who are veggie or vegan.

Anyone can cook meat dishes to taste good, but veggie food needs a little more skill. You need to think about both protein and flavour, then again, there’s a saying in these parts that “hunger is the best chef” and we certainly build up our appetites. Also, special recipes from your geographic origin are always appreciated.

Have Some Experience of Manual Work

If you have never had a manual job before – as is often the case with travellers who are fresh out of college or from an office-bound background, you will find physical work demanding, but your fitness and muscle tone will increase quickly and you will leave looking buff.

two girls gardening

Photo by marionzetta

People who have no work experience at all are sometimes obvious to hosts because they tend to work very slowly, even when given very simple jobs. Please appreciate that there is an opportunity cost for hosts.

The time we spend training and supervising you is time we are not working ourselves. If I can do a task in a quarter of the time it takes you, I need to believe that you will get up to speed quickly and will not need someone standing behind you in order to get the job done.

If I need to ‘manage’ you, it’s not working.

Therefore, any, literally any, experience of manual work in your profile shows me you understand work in the real world and will appreciate the nice jobs you’ll get to do here.

Be Proactive

If your host has a lot to organise, then the completed sentence “Would you like me to…” is a godsend. It normally means that a volunteer feels confident to do a specific job and can go and get on with it without a high level of supervision.

That leaves me free to supervise the people who don’t know the difference between plants and weeds – so I have a cat-in-hell’s chance of saving the spinach, asparagus or raspberry canes from being pulled out.

Likewise, if you can spot something which needs to be done every day (feeding animals, doing the grocery shopping, really anything) and offer to take responsibility, this will often be very helpful.

Embrace Honesty and Positivity

Hosts expect breakages. The volunteers who let us know when something’s been broken are never beaten, locked in a cupboard or otherwise punished.

We really appreciate knowing so that it doesn’t cause a bigger problem down the line & I will try my hardest not to look cross (something I think I still need to work on!).

If you are visiting a poor country and you’re wealthier than your host, the offer to pay for a replacement would be appropriate and appreciated, especially when accidents happen on multiple occasions.

Finally, sometimes it feels like a storm is on the way. Some of our favourite volunteers arrived with us totally lacking in any obvious skill or ability.
But do not underestimate the power of a positive attitude.
There are times when we have been under a deluge, but a sunny nature can dry out the situation pretty quickly.

With heartfelt thanks from a project which has positively benefited from Workaway helpers.

Long may it continue.

21 replies
  1. frankie
    frankie says:

    Yes, thanks for this article. It needs to be read by ‘volunteers-to-help’, specially the bit about manual/physical work. I assumed once that my new helper knew how to rake the lawn. She didn’t, then complained and screamed at me, not wanting to be shown or told.

    Anyway, “workaway” is a great experience!

  2. Mark Charlton
    Mark Charlton says:

    Great article about what you expect from volunteers. When Ive been volunteering in the past (mostly through WWOOF), I`ve expected to learn on the job because Ive struggled in a college / academic environment to learn physical things. But I hadn’t considered that the host can`t get on with their tasks.

    I`m new to WorkAway and I haven`t yet had any replies from hosts I`ve contacted. I`ve made my profile reasonably brief and stated my skills. If you have 5 minutes, I`d really appreciate if you could give me some tips on improving responses?


    • Cat
      Cat says:

      From a host perspective I would include the following things in your inquiry:

      1) Time frame “I would like to visit in June 2013 for 3 weeks” NOT “I want to visit Hawaii sometime for awhile”.

      2) Proof you read our profile – “I saw you mentioned you are growing vegetables. I am interested to learn what veggies grown in your area on the Big Island”. (notice this means that they know what we are doing, and know where in Hawaii we are as there are different islands that are completely different in weather and topography.)

      3) In our profile, it lists where we live, before you respond, look up something about our island. As Example “the Big Island looks like there are many things to do. I am interested in going to the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in April, or I am interested in hiking Red Hill on Mauna Loa while I visit”. Our area is very rural so looking up info BEFORE you contact is is helpful to weed out people who need to be in a more city-type area.

  3. Diane
    Diane says:

    This is a must read for guests. As a host I certainly relate to this article i.e. false expectations because the host’s profile was not read or interests does not fit our project and life style, breakage issue, “If I need to ‘manage’ you, it’s not working” so true.

  4. Cat
    Cat says:

    This past month with 6 workawayer’s here, I realized I needed to make up a Pre-Arrival info sheet for them. With the input of these workawayer’s, I think I got all the points and now will send it out to workawayer’s before their booking tix! We also made a sheet of fun things to see and do while you are here, so they can sight see on their free time!

    I also ask prospective workawayer’s to re-read our profile (because they are usually making inquiries to numerous people so I want them to be familiar with our profile to make sure we fit their needs). Again, I had one of the workawayer’s reread our profile now that they are here, and critique it for me and I had to change nothing! 🙂 But it was important to me that workawayer’s knew what it would be like!

    • Diane
      Diane says:

      Nice to read about a host with whom we share a similar experience. I was just wondering what you have put in your Pre-Arrival Guide.

      When someone arrives at our place we do sit down and list a few thinks to facilitate cohabitation but some did take offence to it. We did list some obvious things like “no smoking in the tent” “to avoid criminal prosecution and prison – no swimming naked (that the local law where we live)” but we fell the need to do some prevention since several workawayers did these things.


      • Livia
        Livia says:

        Rednaig this article gave me a whole new outlook on this topic. I enjoyed reading your article very much. I agree with some of your views shared so well here.

  5. june donaldson
    june donaldson says:

    We have had a mostly positive experience with our volunteers. The top ones are those who are proactive – take the time to thoroughly acquaint themselves with our profile and arrive with ideas. Others have been taught by us how to do tasks not done before and have produced amazing work that makes us and them feel proud to have shared time together.

    The volunteers who let the side down are those who think we owe them – “We are working for you for free” or think certain tasks are beneath them and that they are being trained for free – “We didn’t come here to clean, we came here to learn something new”.

    We have now changed our profile to emphasise that volunteers must be willing to do whatever needs doing. We list all possible tasks in the profile. But of course getting this across depends on volunteers reading our profile.

    One experience we will never repeat is taking on multiple individual volunteers. They turned our place into a hostel, and the self-proclaimed ringleader encouraged minimal work, unpunctuality and barely concealed disdain. Four of them went on to publish fictional accounts of their time with us on their travel blogs, instead of airing their grievances to us or as feedback so that we could address any issues.

  6. Anne-Elizabeth
    Anne-Elizabeth says:

    We are new to the concept of workaway and seriously looking into the possibility of being a host family. Thank you for your candid, yet diplomatic, information and encouragement.

  7. Eileen Noakes
    Eileen Noakes says:

    Those that come to help as volunteers are most welcome and behave like civilised human beings and give back in help what they receive in kind. Please helpers do realise that we ask for HELP because we are too busy to do everything singlehandly. The best Helpers are those who usually ask us to write down what we want them to do first thing in the morning and finish all the jobs by the evening without complaining – they may have the radio on full blast and they may have to ask us a couple of times if what they are doing is correct but they HELP and that is what we offer food and accomodation for.

  8. Lorna Tyther
    Lorna Tyther says:

    Thanks for taking time to write the article, we have had fantastic experiences with volunteers. every now and again we get people who have no idea what a huge thing it is to share your home and to teach your knowledge to people who will learn a little and then continue traveling…while you start again patiently with the next person.

  9. cat
    cat says:

    Any one had issues with only one member of a couple, and the other party is just wonderful.

    How do you deal with that kind of thing?

    • Family Ekelund
      Family Ekelund says:

      Yes – we´ve had that situation occasionally and it depends of what kind of an issue it is… Our experience is that this might be a relationship matter, some kind of a pattern, between the two and therefore something the couple really should solve on their own. We try not to treat a couple as one. That would only consolidate the problem – better to direct the non-functional person and alone, without his/her spouse present, asking what´s wrong… “You don´t seem happy here..?” AND praising the one that´s well funtioning…
      If that´s not working, we usually are quite frank and confront the couple, telling them how their “mood” inflicts the whole working group. Be prepared of hastily departures, though… But – mostly better for the the rest of the group!

  10. Patricia
    Patricia says:

    Useful, thanks, and confirms some of my own experiences over the past 3 years. One fairly frequent problem is that as I work at home some Workawayers expect me to be able to stop and chat and simply do not understand the concept of deadlines.
    Many don’t know how to do washing up manually and one didn’t know how to sweep a kitchen floor! The best ones can see what needs cleaning but don’t argue if I say that cleaning behind the fridge is less important than taking the dog out before he pees on the floor.
    I’ve also discovered that people who live in flats in cities haven’t a clue about gardening!
    The best ones are happy to chat in the evenings but also to sit quietly and read when that’s what I want to do; they also ensure that everything is spick and span when they leave.

  11. cat
    cat says:

    Here are the things our best volunteers do:

    1) Arrange convenient to us travel arrangements. No pick ups at 10 PM, or they have stayed over night near airport and taken bus to us in the AM or we picked them up in the AM. (We are 45 mins from airport). also got to Hilo instead of expecting us to pick them up in Kona (2.5 hrs away). ***This was the most important thing***

    2) Come prepared with things they would like to see while they are here so that I am not their total personal sightseeing reference guide. We also started a FB page with fun things to do while they are here and past workawayers have added to it. I also provide a copy of Big Island Revealed for them to check out.

    3) They took my pre-arrival guide and added to it or fixed it so it reflects the experience of the workawayer not just my perspective! <<This was really helpful and they typed it up and just gave it to me when I asked for suggestions!

    4) Been self sufficient in their entertainment because I do work from home too so it is hard to entertain all day long.

  12. Mary Shepherd
    Mary Shepherd says:

    I found this post very useful. Thank you.

    At the moment, I am suffering from uncertainty around whether a workaway will arrive as promised. We only have two people at a time so it interrupts our schedule if a) they do not let us know if they have a better offer or b) don’t give us clear arrival dates.
    Any suggestions for increasing reliability?

    • Workaway
      Workaway says:

      Hi Mary,

      We do encourage all users of the site to be thoughtful and conscious of communicating well, especially if plans change. We find that chatting on skype (or some other video calling software) really helps establish a relationship where people are much more likely to let others know of changes in circumstances or schedules.

      • Betty
        Betty says:

        Very inratmofive and trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy reading.

  13. Patrick Russell
    Patrick Russell says:

    As a fellow host who’s also encountered the ‘1 in 10’ syndrome (we call them ‘special ones’) I can fully agree with all you’ve said. One thing I may add, apart from volunteers being honest about their practical abilities they should also be open about their disabilities. Without going into too much detail, we hosted a young chap, pretty quickly we realised he suffered from a form of Aspergers Syndrome, something not mentioned in his profile. We did a little research, made allowances and had some ‘interesting’ times, we ended up working ‘with’ him and supporting him, making up the lost time when he went. Another host on a tighter timescale / budget might not have been as understanding. We believe that ‘Feedback’ is very important, It was a real dilemma when this time came. I like to think we were positive yet honest. This visit wasn’t a ‘problem’ for us but is something that hosts should be aware of, a difficult situation as the volunteer doesn’t consider it a ‘problem’.

  14. Barbro Tornquist
    Barbro Tornquist says:

    I’m grateful for all the advice given here for hosts and I would like to add my own experience with work-awayers. I have had lovely people here whom I still keep in contact with but I have also had a few bad eggs. I’ve learnt to write on my presentation exactly what I offer in order of food. But I have had people who wants ecological meat (en masse) and thinks I should take them golfing?
    I’ve had my living room taken over during football W.C. and my house more looking like a hostel then the beautiful home it is.
    So why do I still invite them? I get so organised while they are here and work so much harder if only to show them. They are mostly inexperienced workers but in between you do get some work done that you have put off. I think you need to state very clearly what you expect and have a way out if they get on top of you. Must be easier if you got a partner and don’t have to do it alone.


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