What is International Volunteering?

A group of people planning a trip with a map, a laptop and a notebook.

Traveling to a different country to volunteer your time, skills, and energy offers adventure, an opportunity to explore your curiosity about a certain part of the world and support an organization’s efforts to make things better in their community. There are many routes to connecting with an international volunteer opportunity: you may choose to go with a nonprofit, faith-based, for-profit or government-supported program, or strike out on your own. Students can add a service component to their study abroad experience and vacationers may decide to volunteer for some or all of their time away.

If your main motivation for wanting to volunteer abroad is to immerse yourself in a new culture or to address a pressing need facing a particular country, by all means seek that opportunity. However, there are often communities in your home country that could also use more support from volunteers. If you’re looking to do the most good, volunteering closer to home may have the greatest impact. Such an experience also offers a greater likelihood of a shared language and some cultural commonalities. It may also be the more affordable option.

Here are some tips for identifying an international opportunity that’s right for you:

  • What to do: Do you want to apply skills that you already have or, learn new skills? Do you want to work with a specific population, such as children?
  • Where to go: Is there a country or region that fascinates you or, are you more interested in the work you’ll be doing? Will certain weather conditions, such as humidity or cold weather bother you? What is your comfort level with certain types of governments or political situations? Is there an aspect of your identity - your religion, gender, sexual orientation or nationality - which could put you at risk?

  • When to go and, for how long: Generally, the more time you have to volunteer, the better experience you’ll have and the more substantive contribution you’ll be able to make to the organization. This may mean saving up more vacation days at work or planning less travel during your study abroad experience. 

When you volunteer in a different country, you’ll be confronted with many new experiences and ways of doing things. Keeping an open mind and having realistic expectations about your contribution will help things run smoothly for you and your hosts. A major critique of international volunteerism is that it’s a modern-day form of colonialism. One way to ensure that your well-intentioned volunteer service doesn't unwittingly support this is to see volunteering as a collaborative effort, offering your time and skills as additional assets to local know-how and expertise while recognizing that you have as much to learn as you do to give. It’s also possible that you may not see the impact of your service immediately. Instead, focus on your service as one contribution to a long-term continuum of local and international volunteer efforts. To learn more about the ethics of international volunteerism, consider participating in Unite for Sight's free online courses in Volunteer Ethics and Professionalism and Cultural Competency and reading about strategies for ethical tourism from Tourism Concern.

Budgeting for your experience

Expect to pay for your transportation, housing and meals while volunteering abroad. There may also be program fees associated with securing your opportunity. A well run volunteer program requires good volunteer management and training, all which comes at a cost for your host organization. Programs with minimal out-of-pocket costs exist, however, many require a long term commitment and/or a specific skill set such as medical expertise or engineering.

It highly recommended that you ask detailed questions about costs associated with your opportunity, thoroughly research the organization and ask for references from other volunteers before sending payment. If you are not comfortable with your interactions with the organization on the subject of costs, you should look for a different organization to volunteer with.

Here are typical costs associated with volunteering abroad:

  • Fees for securing passport and any applicable visas
  • Any necessary vaccinations
  • Transportation
  • Housing
  • Meals
  • Insurance (if you don't have regular health coverage or your insurance won't cover you abroad, it's recommended that you invest in affordable travel insurance)
  • Language classes or materials
  • Program fees (if you're going with a volunteer-sending organization or program)
  • Miscellaneous spending (shopping, entertainment, in-country travel, etc.)

It’s common for volunteers to raise funds to offset their costs. Useful resources include Cross Cultural Solutions' Funding Tool, GoFundMe for Volunteering and Volunteer Forever.