Ready to travel the world and do good? Read this ultimate guide to volunteering abroad so that you have the tools needed to find the right program and travel SMART.
Volunteering abroad is a way to explore the world while helping a community in need. Trips might last from a few days all the way to a year or more, and can be close to your home or on another continent. You can travel solo, in a group, with your family, or as a couple, and experiences are available for a wide range of backgrounds, from teen trips to professional career breaks.
As a volunteer traveler, you’ll live in and work with a community you may not have known before, but that you’ll never forget once you return home. Your involvement benefits a dedicated, community based organization in need of an extra hand—and you’ll build skills and knowledge that can cross over into your career, education, or in day-to-day life.
Regardless of your experience, age, or physical fitness, there’s a volunteering abroad project for you—one that’s mutually beneficial for you, the organization, and your host community.
Volunteer travel buzzwords—defined!
While choosing a volunteering abroad program, you’ll come across some terms that often are used interchangeably. This guide will focus primarily on volunteer vacations and long-term service, but let’s take a look at the more common types of travel associated with these two, and note the differences.
Volunteer vacation or short-term volunteering abroad
These short-term programs last as long as standard vacations, often cost about the same (we’ll talk about trip costs shortly), and—of course—incorporate a service project. Overall, these programs are structured to engage many short-term volunteers over a long period, meaning you likely won’t see immediate results of your work.
Popular and volunteer vacations can include renovation and beautification, trail maintenance and beach cleanup, and research and information gathering.
Long-term volunteering abroad
Long-term volunteering abroad includes those programs that last six months or longer. Many are free of charge, and might even provide a small stipend for your work, usually comparable to average income within your host community. Common programs include agriculture, business development, childcare, education, and healthcare.
Most long-term service organizations ask that their volunteers have background experience or education in their project area. If you don’t have much experience—for example, if you’re just out of college—the application process may take a little longer and be more involved.
Long-term service is similar to a job placement overseas; since the host organization covers your housing, food, and even medical care for several months, they want to know that you’re the right person for the project.
This term often is used interchangeably with “volunteer vacation,” but it’s not quite the same thing; philanthropic travel includes a monetary donation to a charity or community program, rather than a hands-on service project. You can usually find philanthropic travel opportunities through hotels, cruises, and travel agencies, which can offer cultural outings and activities with a donation to a sponsored program.
This is exactly how it sounds: it’s time to travel, explore, learn, and even volunteer if you choose. Gap years usually are taken between high school and the first year of university—this time can be used to reassess your current path, build a new one, expand on your current skills, meet new friends, and try your hand at living independently. Volunteering abroad projects often are incorporated into gap years, but they are not always the priority.
This is kind of like a gap year for professionals—a career break allows you to take some time off from work, whether it’s several weeks, a few months, or even a year. A career break allows you to recharge, reassess your career path and goals, and forge a new one if you choose. As with a gap year, you might volunteer during your career break but it’s not always a priority.
Service-learning combines volunteerism and education. Many service-learning programs are organized by specialized study abroad programs or by a school. Usually programs take place during a spring, winter, or summer break for high school students or during a regular semester for college students. Projects integrate field experience with the classroom to identify key issues in a program area, and then hash out ways to address those concerns.
Service-learning can be applied to college credit or as an internship for students interested in pursuing that field of work. For example, you might collect data on marine life in a protected area, and then later report on and study ways to preserve endangered species and their habitats.
Study abroad is most popular among university students, though it also is certainly available at the high school level. While universities often organize study abroad programs during a regular semester, high school students often go this route during summer or winter break.
Study abroad programs focus on cultural immersion and education—those that incorporate a volunteering abroad component generally fall under the category of service-learning. Study abroad programs usually last from a few weeks to a year, and can include cultural outings and tours, special projects, and even part-time employment or internships.
Professional development opportunities abroad, usually in the form of internships, are a wonderful choice for students and young professionals who wish to gain hands-on experience in their chosen career, but who may have trouble finding those opportunities locally. Popular internships include medical and healthcare, business development and NGO support, and law and legal work. Many intern abroad programs can be customized to your needs, and can be taken for course credit.
This can be described as a learning vacation where you might stay with a host family, eat local food, and observe host country customs. These trips can include a volunteering aspect, but community service is not always the priority. Cultural immersion trips are designed for an interactive, educational purpose for those interested in learning more about the host community from a local’s perspective, rather than from a tourist’s view.
Language immersion programs abroad are created for those who not only want to learn a foreign language, but to understand it fluently. You’ll travel to a country where that language is predominantly spoken, take intensive language learning courses, and learn to navigate your way through day-to-day interactions as though you were a local. Volunteer service programs can be included with language immersion, but aren’t usually the priority.
Work abroad trips are ones where you pursue a job in an international destination. Popular work abroad opportunities include farm work, au pair, teaching, and hospitality and tourism. You can expect to earn a local wage, and will usually stay a few months or a year or longer.
Why should you volunteer abroad?
By taking part in a volunteering abroad project, you’ll benefit the community, the volunteer organization, and yourself.
Impact on the community
The community you’ll work with needs resources and assistance from volunteers worldwide. Whether they want help on developing a new project, or just an extra hand with an ongoing program, the community benefits from the efforts of dedicated volunteers.
Sustainable volunteering abroad projects actively engage locals, creating jobs and providing valuable career training and experience for those who need it. These programs also contribute funding to the community through tourism and donations.
Impact on the organization
Your involvement in a volunteering abroad project promotes the host organization’s ongoing efforts outside of and within their community. Program fees and donations enhance marketing, volunteer recruitment and retention, and staff support.
As a volunteer, you’ll have an individual placement, such as teaching or providing healthcare services, but you also will likely help with daily tasks, like cooking, and cleaning—something that benefits everyone involved. And when you return home, you might just convince others to work with or donate to the host group as well!
Impact on the volunteer
International volunteering abroad builds upon your existing abilities and trains you in new ones. You’ll gain measurable skills, like a new language, or soft skills, such as self-confidence. Your service also may enhance your resume, expand your career, and open you up to scholarships and financial aid to further your education. You may even become more involved in community projects at home or continue with volunteer programs worldwide.
Why should you pay to volunteer abroad?
Many prospective volunteers cite cost as the most important factor in choosing the trips that they go on. Why should you pay if you’re already giving your time? If one group is less expensive than the other, does that mean it’s not as good? Or if a trip is more expensive, does that mean it’s a rip-off?
To answer the first question, some volunteer organizations are not-for-profit, and only receive funding through donations, grants, and memberships. Others are small businesses that do community work, and rely on tourism dollars to keep that work going. Your placement fee helps to cover:
- Operational expenses: This might cover facility rent and maintenance, employee stipends, and permits.
- Host families and local staff: A portion of the project cost goes toward those who house and feed you, and make sure that you have the training and support you need on the project.
- Volunteer expenses: This can include orientation and training, airport pickup and drop-off, handbooks and manuals, and project supplies and tools (such as construction materials, teaching aids, and so on).
But why do some organizations charge only $100 per week, while others charge upwards of $4,000 for the same? Well, it’s all in the type of experience you want and what’s offered with that program. To start, there are two main types of volunteer organizations you can work with, which can change costs drastically:
Volunteering abroad placement groups
If you’ve started the volunteering abroad program search online, you might be familiar with placement groups—they’re the larger organizations referenced time and again in articles about where to volunteer worldwide. They can be likened to travel agencies, but with a focus on volunteerism.
Placement organizations partner with local, community based groups that don’t have the resources for global marketing and recruitment. They find volunteers, guide them through the pre-departure process, provide orientation and training, and perform regular site visits to in-country staff that support the participants.
Many of these organizations provide extra benefits for their volunteers, like cultural immersion activities, presentations, adventure tours, and language classes. As a result, they’re often more expensive than host groups.
Volunteer abroad host groups
These are the smaller, local organizations that volunteers are placed with when they participate in an international service project. Placement organizations provide the volunteers for host groups.
If you volunteer directly with a host group, rather than with a placement organization, you still will receive in-country staff support from locals. However, you likely won’t receive some of the added benefits that placement groups give, such as guided tours or presentations, and you likely will have to take on a lot more of the trip planning yourself.
Some volunteers prefer this route, as they can determine their own arrival and departure timeline, find their own housing (often this is provided by the host group, but it’s not necessarily required for the volunteer), and in most cases, save more on program fees than their counterparts working through placement groups.
Costs also vary widely depending on the type of program you’re pursuing. For example, if you volunteer with an after-school sports program, chances are the monetary investment in that program overall is minimal; volunteers need little training, equipment is generally donated or purchased at a low cost, and the program usually takes place at a school, community center, or church. Conversely, if you sign up for a marine research program that provides divemaster certification, costs are significantly higher: equipment, training (both dive training and research gathering and interpretation training), staff, travel, and other necessities require a larger investment.
Cultural imperialism and sustainability
Before jumping in with the first volunteering abroad organization that piques your interest, do your research to ensure they’re conducting positive, successful, and sustainable work with their host community.
We’ve all heard the dangers of groups that “parachute” in to a host country while neglecting existing work being accomplished there, and doing instead what they think the community needs. This doesn’t usually happen with negative intent in mind. In fact, many unsustainable organizations and initiatives are founded by volunteers who were inspired by a trip abroad, and wanted to find a way to encourage others to support that cause; but rather than funneling support to an existing, local program, they create their own NGOs without understanding or appreciating how this dilutes development efforts. While their intentions might be good, their actions are not.
Oftentimes when a host organization develops a partnership with a larger, international placement group, it’s because the community doesn’t have sufficient resources and assistance available at its disposal. Reputable placement organizations pride themselves on providing local solutions to local issues—building partnerships with host country groups allows them to avoid the cultural imperialism issue and instead focus on problems already identified by a community, and to provide additional support (e.g., funding or volunteers) to existing initiatives.
While choosing a volunteering abroad program to work with, ask yourself whether they have a long-term, positive effect on the host community. In what year was the organization established, and how long has it worked with that particular host community? Do they have project reports available? Do they have recognition for their efforts, or partnerships with well-known or regulatory organizations and agencies? Speak with staff, read reviews from past volunteers, and browse articles and blog posts about the organization before signing up.
Are you up for volunteering abroad?
When choosing a volunteering abroad project, consider your expectations—what do you want to get out of the program, what will you give in return?
Do you want to emphasize ‘volunteer’ or ‘vacation’?
Knowing this from the start will make all the difference in planning a positive travel experience. If you’d like ample time to explore the host community and surrounding areas, you might want to sign up for a less intense project, or even one with built-in excursions and tours.
Get in touch with your volunteer program coordinator to see what the typical travel experience is like. Ask how much free time you will have, how physically demanding the project will be, and whether outings or weekend travel are feasible.
Why do you want to go?
Are you passionate about a particular cause? Do you want to help others with a project they find worthwhile? Volunteering abroad makes you feel great for a reason: you help a community in need, learn more about the host country, and meet like-minded friends along the way.
Keep in mind that most volunteering abroad programs are long-term solutions accomplished through the help of many short-term participants. Don’t expect to see the impact of your work overnight or by the end of the week, or even at all unless you keep up-to-date with your host organization’s activities over the long-term. While your assistance is very important, remember that you’re part of the bigger picture, and try not to become discouraged if you do