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Ways to Volunteer Abroad

Ways to Volunteer Abroad

Interested in spending time outside your home country, learning and volunteering your services? Luckily, there are so many ways to volunteer abroad. The possibilities range in time frame, structure, and location. Read on to find the best fit for you.

A volunteer-sending organization

Volunteer-sending organizations connect potential volunteers with opportunities abroad. They'll likely have detailed information about their programs and will handle most logistics such as arranging the volunteer project, your room and board, and transportation. They often organize orientations, cultural excursions and provide ongoing support while you are in-country, which serves as a safety net should you encounter any difficulties. Some make an effort to connect volunteers with local citizens and volunteers and others are organized around international volunteers spending more time together than with the local community.

Most volunteer-sending organizations charge significant fees that cover project costs, staffing, housing, meals, tools, and other logistics. Programs can range from an an affordable two-week volunteer stint to an expensive three-month experience tailored to your skills and interests. Volunteer-sending organizations include:

  • Nonprofit: mission-driven organizations focused on addressing social or environmental issues. They have volunteer boards of directors and reinvest all profits into their activities and programs.
  • For-profit: organizations which may or may not have a stated social or environmental mission and whose profits go to their owner(s). They are designated as businesses under tax law.
  • Government-run: programs funded and/or managed by a government agency, such as the Peace Corps (USA), Australian Volunteers for International Development, the European Voluntary Service and UN Volunteers.
  • Faith-based: usually run by churches or missionary organizations, these programs are often some of the oldest operation. They may or may not have a religious requirement for volunteers, and their work does not necessarily include a religious element.
  • Gap year: organizations catering to those taking their gap year, offering three-to-twelve month programs. To learn more about gap years, consider reading articles by Susan Griffith, an authority on volunteering abroad. 
  • Voluntourism: these are organizations focused on incorporating service into vacations and tourism. Their approach is more volunteering-while-traveling instead of traveling-to-volunteer.
  • Educational: some study abroad programs combine learning with volunteer service. There are also language schools that integrate service into their immersion programs.
  • Employee engagement: increasingly, multinational corporations and organizations are facilitating opportunities for expat employees to connect with the local community through volunteering.

Spend time researching the various options and comparing projects, locations, organizational reputations and cost. Once you've narrowed your choices, it is highly recommended that you ask detailed questions about costs associated the opportunity. It is also reasonable for you to ask to speak with previous volunteers about their experiences. If you are not comfortable with your interactions with the organization on the subject of costs or if they are not forthcoming on the details about their programs, you should look for a different organization to volunteer with. Also check out our list of 10 No Fee Volunteer Programs Abroad for a more affordable experience.

Finding your own opportunity

The other option for volunteering in another country is to go independently, doing the legwork to identify an organization and making your own arrangements. On the one hand, this is decidedly more work—all the responsibility for making sure things are set up and legitimate is yours. On the other hand, it can be more affordable and give you more freedom and control over your experience.

Going solo requires you to plan and coordinate with a local organization. You assume the risks related to vetting the organization and not having support from staff for any difficulties you encounter, as you would with a volunteer-sending organization. There are a few ways to connect with an opportunity:

  • Planned in advance: this path involves connecting with a local organization in the country of your choice before you arrive. This approach is recommended if you plan to be in the country for a short period of time because it allows you to start your volunteer opportunity as soon as you arrive. You'll have time to research and plan logistics in advance and, most importantly, you’ll have an established contact on the ground when you arrive, a benefit that can be invaluable.
  • Find after arrival: This path is apt for students studying abroad, expats and travelers with no fixed schedule or itinerary. After you’ve decided to settle in a particular town or city for a longer period of time, you can research and connect with local organizations to see what opportunities exist. The benefit of this approach is that you’ll have the opportunity to get to know the community and gather local perspectives and recommendations on where to volunteer. The downside is that you may discover that the organizations have limited or no opportunities for impromptu volunteers.
  • Study abroad, then volunteer abroad: Another option is to complete your studies abroad and then stay on to volunteer. This can be an especially valuable experience following a language program as it gives you a concrete opportunity to apply your new skills. Check out on-campus resources for international students and talk to program staff who may have great suggestions for organizations to connect with. If you're staying in the community where you studied, you've already got a network in place to help you find great volunteer opportunities in town. Finally, there is a hybrid option—independently volunteering while engaged in a study abroad program. For more information on volunteering while studying abroad, you might also want to read some of the volunteering while studying abroad articles on TransitionsAbroad.com.
  • Working abroad: If you are already living and working abroad, here are some tips to get started as a volunteer in your present community:Volunteer via your employer: Check with your or your partner's employer to learn more about any volunteer engagement projects they coordinate for their employees. If they don't have an employee engagement program, encourage them to start one: employee engagement demonstrates investment in the country, can generate positive visibility for the company and connects employees to their local community.
  • Find your own volunteer opportunity: Spend some time thinking about what motivates you, what you'd like to contribute to your host community, and what you'd like to gain from the experience. Begin by asking local friends, neighbors, and fellow expatriates if they volunteer and which organizations do they know and trust. Talk to community-focused organizations like Rotary International, local affiliates of international organizations such as Greenpeace, and places of worship. Find out if there is a volunteer center in your local community. These centers will often have volunteer opportunity postings from local organizations.
  • Create your own volunteer opportunity: If you just can't find an existing volunteer opportunity that fits your interests, availability and skills, consider creating your own. Focus your research less on finding the volunteer position and more on finding the right organization. Learn about their activities and come up with a proposal for how you can assist them as a volunteer. Run it by them and be prepared that not all organizations have the capacity to take you on; after all, they don't know you yet and just may not have the time or interest to give your idea a try. However, if you keep looking, chances are you'll find a good fit somewhere.

Volunteering as a family

Volunteering in another country provides unique opportunities to learn about different cultures, develop new skills, practice a new language, and experience the power of philanthropy and service firsthand. Increasingly, parents are looking for such opportunities for their families. Here are some things to consider:

  • Get buy in: Ask each member of the family what they hope to gain, contribute, and experience. What types of projects are most interesting? What sounds like fun? What sounds difficult? What kinds of projects are most appropriate for all members of the family—both in terms of levels of physical activity and emotional maturity? Keep in mind that, while many international volunteers want to get involved in some of the most challenging and economically depressed areas of the world, it's important to consider if a project or an environment might be too intense or overwhelming for a child to understand.
  • Go with a program or on your own? Determine if your family will go abroad with a volunteer-sending organization or find an opportunity independently. While a volunteer-sending organization or program might be better equipped to provide appropriate service opportunities and support, they can also be very expensive.
  • Learn as much as you can: Tailor your search to the interests and needs of your family. Once you've identified a few potential programs, ask specific questions relevant to your family: what vaccinations are recommended for children? What standard family food items or supplies might you be unable to find there? Will the housing situation work for your family? Has the organization placed or accepted family volunteers before? Is there a minimum age requirement for volunteers? Finally, be sure to talk to former family volunteers to learn more about their on-the-ground experiences.

Finding opportunities

  • On Idealist, you can browse by country or search by keywords, area of focus, location, dates, skills or language needed, and other criteria.
  • Many countries have national volunteerism organizations that host searchable databases of in-country opportunities while many larger urban areas also have a volunteer center or other organization that centralizes local volunteer postings.
  • Seek an affiliate or chapter of an organization you already know; for example, you could check to see where in the world Habitat for Humanity is accepting volunteers.
  • Reach out to large international organizations such as Oxfam, the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity to inquire if they have partner organizations who accept volunteers in the country you intend to visit.
  • Tap into your network of friends and colleagues who might have volunteered before and ask fellow travels in networks like CouchSurfing and JourneyWoman.
  • Learn if volunteer opportunities exist at your accommodations. For example, many Hostelling International hostels organize short-term volunteer projects and will also have a good idea of which local organizations might need volunteers.

Do Your Research

When researching organizations, look for specifics on programs and logistics, either online or in materials they send you. If you’re having trouble finding this information easily, follow up with the organization by email or phone. If you’re not satisfied with the information provided or the conversations you’ve had with a particular organization, it’s recommended that you look to volunteer with a different organization. Here are some suggestions on things to look for/ask about:

About the organization

  • Detailed descriptions of programs and projects including how they work with the local community
  • Their history and when they were founded
  • A list of staff and board of directors
  • Sources of funding (grants, individual donations, earned income)
  • Any specific political or religious affiliation
  • Partnerships with other organizations

About their volunteer program and/or their volunteer opportunities

  • Who will volunteer projects benefit? What are the goals of the project?
  • Why are international volunteers needed for this work? (Make sure they know the benefits both for you and the community.)
  • What do you think are the largest challenges for international volunteers at this organization? Is there anything I could do in advance to prepare for them?
  • How do you match volunteers to projects, both in terms of skills and interest?
  • What kind of training and/or orientation will I receive?
  • What expectations does your organization have of me once I've returned home?
  • Where is the volunteer project located? What is the work environment like?
  • Who will I be working with? Will I be largely working independently or with a team?
  • Do you engage local volunteers? (This is an important question both for cultural exchange—working side by side offers rich opportunities to learn more about one another's cultures and lived experiences—and sustainability, as local volunteers provide continuity as international volunteers come and go. Finally, involving local volunteers also ensures that the human and social capital developed by volunteers stays at least in part in the community.)
  • Does your organization offer tools and resources for returned volunteers? An alumni community?
  • Do you have insurance for volunteers, or do I need to carry any specific type of volunteer or emergency insurance?
  • How many international volunteers have you worked with (if going solo) or sent (if going with a volunteer-sending organization)?
  • What age, nationality, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. are your volunteers?
  • What will my hours be as a volunteer?
  • Will I have free time or days off to travel?
  • Are there planned excursions (especially for those going with a volunteer-sending organization or program)? Will there be additional costs for these?
  • What language resources will be available to me? Will onsite staff speak my language? Are there classes or a translator available?
  • What costs should I be prepared for? (If going with a volunteer-sending organization or program, ask what is included in your program fees, e.g. airfare, housing, in-country transportation, insurance, meals, etc.)
  • What is my volunteer position? What tasks will I be doing?
  • What level of physical activity should I be prepared for (e.g. heavy lifting, lots of walking, etc.)? It's important that you be honest with yourself here regarding the types of volunteer positions that are a good fit for you given your health and well-being.
  • Will I be interacting with locals as a volunteer or largely working behind the scenes?
  • Will other international volunteers be onsite? How many?
  • How will my work as a volunteer be sustained after I leave?

About living abroad

  • Are there any security or health concerns I should know about?
  • Are there vaccinations required or recommended for the area I will be living in?
  • Should I bring any particular health-related supplies (mosquito nets, water purifiers, etc.)?
  • Are there any physical or cultural barriers you think I might experience based on my gender identity, physical mobility, race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, etc.?
  • Can you accommodate special needs like dietary restrictions, allergies, physical mobility, etc.?
  • Is your organization family-friendly? Do you accept youth volunteers?
  • Can couples volunteer together? If they are married, unmarried, LGBTQ, etc.?
  • What is the timeline for the volunteer project or position?
  • Is housing provided? If yes:What type of housing is it?
  • Will I have my own room?
  • How many people will I be living with?
  • If my housing is with a host family, how are they selected? Are they affiliated with the organization?
  • What should I expect (e.g. what are the shower/toilet facilities like, will I have access to electricity, is a computer or internet access available, etc.)?
  • What should I bring?
  • Will there be day-to-day tasks that I'm responsible for (for example, cooking or cleaning if you're staying in a volunteer camp or homestay)?
  • If housing is not provided:What type of housing is available in the area?
  • What local and/or online resources are available for arranging housing?
  • Is there a place to stay temporarily upon arrival (e.g. hostel or homestay) so that I can set up housing once I get there?
  • How much should I expect to pay for housing?
  • What type(s) of housing should I expect?
  • What should I bring (e.g. is bedding generally included, etc.)?
  • Can or will I be living near my volunteer project? If not, will I have access to transportation?
  • Are meals provided? Can you accommodate dietary needs and restrictions?
  • Are there local meal options for vegetarians, vegans, etc.?
  • How can friends or family contact me while abroad?
  • What are your emergency plans or procedures?
  • Is there a local doctor, clinic, or hospital I can go to in case of emergency?

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