By Erick Widman
As Sarah made clear in her case study in volunteering abroad from last week, there are more options to volunteer abroad than you could have ever imagined. You will be able to narrow down the thousands of possibilities by looking at key criteria like time, money, location, and type of work.
How Much Time do You Want to Spend Volunteering?
I personally recommend spending an entire year in a volunteer program—and this can be an academic year if you’re teaching abroad. A full year allows you to get completely immersed in a new country and culture, and also is a clear-cut way to handle your time off. It’s a “clean break” to take a full year for career purposes or for your resume. But if you can’t do a full year of volunteering abroad, I still recommend that you volunteer for a shorter period, and ideally take a year off to travel. You can volunteer for one week up to several months, all the way up to several years.
How Much Money Will You Need?
Don’t let money get in the way. First, keep in mind that it’s much less expensive to live outside of western countries in regards to rent, food, and health care. Second, there are many fundraising options available if you can’t self-fund your trip. Third, we highly recommend that you pursue employment abroad opportunities where you are regularly paid an amount by the host country that will cover your food, housing, and living expenses while you’re working overseas.
For the majority of volunteer opportunities, you are required to pay a fee to the organization that is sending you abroad. It sounds a bit like a scam—or at least inefficient bureaucratic overhead. However, I think a number of organizations that help you volunteer are earning their money and providing valuable services. For example, I would basically not have been able to teach overseas if my organization had not sought out opportunities for American teachers in Hungary. They provided training, guidance, advice and support and a team of other built-in friends and colleagues who were also heading overseas.
Also, if there are issues like not getting paid, then they immediately take action to help. I had to come up with an extra four thousand dollars for the year, but it was well worth it. Keep in mind that some organizations are better than others and the best organizations don’t necessarily charge the most. So do lots of research and talk to people!
Where Do You Want to Go?
I had studied the effects of communism on Eastern Europe and was very intrigued about this and wanted to help too. You should target a country or a region that you care about. Explore the options online—I’ve listed out some excellent websites below that allow you to search by type of work, length of time you want to volunteer, by region, or by country. By the way, a big reason I had such an amazing time in Hungary is because I was interested and curious in learning more about the country and the people. Some of the others in my group were not as interested in learning more and building friendships with the locals and, as a result, didn’t have as good a time. It’s truly possible to be bored anywhere in life.
Also, perspective is very important. A friend of mine from college is a veterinarian—Doctor Steve Smith. He specializes in large animals, and does important work here in the U.S. But it all depends on how you look at it to see whether what he does is actually enjoyable and prestigious or not. A big part of his job job is sticking his hand (in a glove) up cows’ behinds to check for problems. He enjoys his job—it’s an essential one—and he’s a doctor after all. He has the right perspective and he’s truly interested in his work and understands the science behind it.
The Professional or Occupational Option
I highly recommend taking the same approach I did: use your professional skills and training overseas. It’s a very satisfying and effective way to structure your volunteer experience to ensure you are making a difference. Although many people might want to do manual labor for a change, if you’re a medical doctor, it makes sense that you would use the full extent of your training to help people’s health problems. Also, by getting paid—at least a basic stipend to live on—this also ensures that the foreign government or organization puts you to work and is incentivized to get the most out of you.
In addition, working as a professional overseas is great for your career if you want to continue with what you’re already doing. Moreover, the more challenging the country, the better the opportunity in terms of responsibility overseas. I could have taught law to law students in Russia or China as a 26-year-old. I opted instead to teach business law to undergrads at the Budapest college of Economics. Similar to the pros and cons that come from working for a nonprofit, the pay is very very low but your title is very impressive. It would not be extremely difficult to be a “Professor” or “Managing Director” in the Sudan, for example.
This is a fantastic option. If you have the interest and basic aptitude, most of us would be able to teach English at the high school level. My friends Barry and Laurie did this in Hungary. He took a year off of law school because his girlfriend was going abroad and he just jumped right back into his legal studies after the year was over. Barry and I were roommates in Budapest and he had a wonderful, challenging year just like I did.
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, or JET program, is an excellent option that my friend Kim did for four years. She’s now fluent in Japanese. In fact, I interviewed her for Frayed Passport here!
Work on organic farms
Consider doing agricultural work. Scott Clyburn went to New Zealand for eight months and volunteered with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF for short. He had a great time working, traveling, and living with host families, and we detailed his trip here on Frayed Passport as well. But be aware, this is physically demanding work and very different from cushy office or computer work that many of us do.
Other Types of Volunteering Abroad Opportunities
Shannon Varis is a photographer who has volunteered across the globe. I interviewed her about a trip to Morocco last year, and she travelled with her parents around the world multiple times to teach students photography. In the spring of 2012 she did this in Romania at an orphanage; she actually no longer needs an organization to arrange volunteer trips.
Author and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau served overseas with Mercy Ships for four years and had a life-changing experience. The founder of Charity:Water also spent time on Mercy Ships as a photographer and was so impacted that he went on to build this very successful non-profit to help Africans suffering from water-related diseases. A friend of mine named Kristin Ericsson also spent six months on Mercy ships and loved it—she worked in the HR department and enjoyed her role.
Do What My Sister Laurel has Done—She’s a Volunteering Superstar
My sister has had three different, and very rewarding, volunteer experiences. This is why she keeps volunteering!
First, she volunteered at an orphanage in Guatemala for three months during the summer. Second, she worked for a private elementary school in Honduras for a year. Most recently, she spent half of 2011 and 2012 volunteering in Spain and got certified as a TEFL instructor.
Keep in mind that, just like Laurel did, you can volunteer in richer, first-world countries if you’re not sure about starting in a developing country. However, even in wealthy, developed nations there are many needy spots and this doesn’t by any means guarantee an “easier” experience than in countries with a lower GDP.
In Spain, Laurel participated in an excellent program called Vaughan Town. In return for free room and board at beautiful Spanish villa, she was the conversation partner for two weeks to Spanish businesspeople and students. She had a wonderful experience and recommends starting a long-term trip to Spain with Vaughan Town because you’ll be able to make friends with lots of great Spaniards. In fact, some of her new friends invited her to be their roommate at their flat in Madrid, which is where she lived for a number of months and greatly improved her Spanish. The opportunities to have rich, novel experiences with another culture have made this one of the best years of her life.
Other Simple, Practical Recommendations
Short-term volunteering doesn’t present any enormous hurdles—simply plan for it as you would any one- to three-week trip. However, when people consider the steps required for long-term volunteering and travel, this is when it can appear daunting. I think Tim Ferris’s advice in the Four Hour Work Week about considering “what’s the worst thing that can happen” is very helpful in this context. The exciting thing is that you have more options than you realize. Consider these simple ideas:
Pursue a sabbatical. If you have a job you want to keep long-term, but you’d like to spend a year volunteering and traveling abroad, approach your boss about it. Discuss the ways that the trip would benefit you and also, potentially, the company. Many people are able to take a formal or informal sabbatical and return invigorated and an even greater asset to their company or organization.
Quit your job. Or, you can simply quit your job. My sister is an elementary school teacher and she has done this twice to volunteer—once for a year in Honduras and then for a year in Spain. She used savings for her last trip and did fundraising for her initial one. It was obviously well worth it for her because she volunteered abroad twice for an extended period!
Rent your house or apartment. Renting or subletting your place is not as hard as you think. Or, if you don’t need rental income in your absence, you could have a house sitter stay and take care of things.
Minimize your stuff. Many people use a trip abroad as a great chance to simplify their lives and pare down their possessions. You won’t worry about your things back home if you don’t have a bunch of them.
Have Kids? Bring them with you. I taught for a year in Hungary with a man who was an engineer from Minnesota. He quit his job and brought out his 9-year-old daughter and all three of his 4-year-old triplets! Spending time abroad is a fantastic educational and life experience for kids.
As my favorite musician Regina Spektor says, “Today we’re younger than we’re ever gonna be.”