How to Volunteer Abroad (and Great Organizations to Explore)

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Volunteering abroad allows you to make a difference—all while traveling and exploring a new locale. The experience is particularly ideal for between jobs, gap years and post-graduation—and even during spring break. And program options to volunteer abroad abound: You can visit just about any country in the world, and there are all sorts of ways to do good, including conservation, community building, education and more. 

Sign on to this adventure and not only will you make a positive impact, but you’ll open up your own world, gaining skills, making friends and getting to know another culture.

But, of course, like any big adventure, getting started can feel a bit overwhelming. This guide to volunteering abroad will help get you started, with nitty-gritty details on what you need to know before you sign up, recommended programs and much more. 

What it means to volunteer abroad 

When you volunteer abroad, you’ll work—without getting paid—in another country. During your time working abroad, you’ll make a difference. Often, but not exclusively, volunteer abroad programs are in developing countries. 

Many people who opt to volunteer abroad are young, but there are plenty of options (including volunteer vacations) specifically aimed at seniors and retirees. The experience can be incredibly rewarding. As with volunteering in your community, there are many benefits, including:

  • You’ll make a difference. This is the heart of why people volunteer abroad. Through your time, energy and know-how, you’ll improve a community in some way. That can involve teaching, conservation projects, building homes, providing health care support or any of the other many options. 
  • You’ll be immersed in a new culture. You may find yourself trying new foods, meeting people who have a lived experience very different from your own and generally experiencing a new type of community. 
  • You could gain skills. Before volunteering abroad, you may be trained on how to do a task. You may do something new, and transition from a novice to a pro, or learn from peers or supervisors. Plus, you can find out if a potential career—for instance, teaching—is something you gravitate toward or not. Depending on where you volunteer, you may also find yourself gaining language skills. After all, it’s one thing to speak Spanish in class for an hour a day or learn on an app and something entirely different to speak it all day long. 
  • You’ll meet new people—and broaden your network. It’s not uncommon to make lifelong friends while volunteering abroad. You can also make connections that potentially could further your career. 

What to know before you volunteer abroad 

You’ll want to do your research—and start it early on—before embarking. Not all programs are created equally. You’ll want to land with one that’s reputable and responsible. Here are some aspects to consider: 

Know what you want to accomplish 

Since there are so many options when it comes to volunteering abroad, consider some fundamental questions to help narrow your search, such as: 

  • What areas interest you? There’s a big difference between teaching, building homes, providing medical care and supporting wildlife conservation. Knowing the type of work you want to do, and what mission you want to support, can help narrow down your options.
  • How long would you like to volunteer abroad? There are programs that are a week long (great for vacation or spring break), programs that require a 27-month commitment (the Peace Corps) and just about any length of time in between. Think through what amount of time makes sense for you financially and logistically. 
  • What’s your budget? Even though you’re volunteering, it’s not free—there are flight costs, lodging and fees associated with the program. (More on the cost in a moment.) Think through what you can afford. 
  • Where would you like to go? “Abroad” is a big place. Do you imagine yourself in Africa, Europe or Australia? Once you’ve thought about an area of the world you’re hoping to go to, narrow it down more. Think about if you’d like to be in a rural or urban locale. The timespan of your volunteer trip may help steer your decision. If you’re volunteering for a week, a shorter flight (and not, say, the daylong airtime to get to Australia) might make the most sense. 
  • What do you hope to achieve? Of course, you likely want to get many things out of volunteering abroad. But try to think about the most important priorities. For instance, some people may be most interested in exploring a new locale, while making friends might be another person’s priority, and growing skills and adding to their resume might be another person’s driving force.  

Volunteering abroad isn’t free. 

Even though you’ll be volunteering, this experience isn’t free. 

First, there’s the matter of transportation to consider, including flights, as well as the cost to obtain or renew a passport if necessary and, for some destinations, visa fees. You may also want or need travel insurance. Plus, let’s not forget spending money for extra meals, activities and fun while you’re abroad. 

But that’s not all: There are application fees for programs, as well as fees to participate in the program. Depending on the program, these fees help  provide lodging and meals, logistical and administrative support, training and so on. Some programs may also provide cultural excursions and activities. Plus, there are operational costs for the program that you’re covering with the fee. 

Keep in mind that scholarships and grants may be available for volunteer abroad programs. 

You’ll need to apply

Don’t expect to find a volunteer abroad program and set up your trip a week before you want to go. Some programs may have requirements or prerequisites, such as knowledge of the language or physical ability to do certain tasks. That is, if you’re volunteering to build a home, but can’t lift heavy items or hammer a nail, you might not be the right fit. It’s beneficial for both the program and you to figure that out before you arrive in the country. 

In the application, you will likely need to share some information about yourself and your background. After you apply successfully, some programs may have orientation and training before the trip (or once you arrive). 

Create a before-you-go checklist

Even after a volunteer program accepts you, you’ll need to tackle some logistical matters before you begin. These include booking flights, getting visas and vaccinations (as needed), procuring travel insurance (check if it’s provided through the program first), enabling an international plan with your cellphone and packing. 

How to choose a volunteer abroad program 

You’ll want to choose a reputable program, one that’s making a real difference in the community and doesn’t focus on profits. To do that, take a look at: 

  • The program’s mission statement or stated goals. Browse the program’s website to get a sense of its mission, and make sure you feel aligned. 
  • Reviews. These will let you get a sense of what previous participants thought of their experience. You can also look on LinkedIn and other networking sites to connect with previous volunteers directly and hear about their experiences.
  • The application and screening process. Explore all the available information. While it may feel onerous when you’re going through it, ultimately, your experience will be better if your fellow volunteers are all qualified for the experience.  
  • Dig into the pricing and what’s covered. Make sure you have a good sense of all the fees, and see if you can uncover what those fees are used for. You may find that you’re most interested in volunteering with an organization that has low overhead and admin costs, so that most of the fees are returned to the community. Make sure you also have a good sense of what you’ll get as a volunteer (think: lodging, excursions, support, training and so on) and what you’ll be expected to cover yourself. This will help you get a good sense of the total cost you’ll need to cover.
  • Consider safety. Things can go wrong. Know what support the program will offer in the event that you’re injured or there is a natural disaster or war where you’re volunteering. 

Some volunteer abroad programs to consider

There are so many programs available if you’re interested in volunteering abroad. Here’s a sampling of programs, and the opportunities available with them, for a starting point: 

  • Projects Abroad: This organization, which has been around for 30 years, has international volunteering and internship opportunities and is focused on safety and support for attendees. Its goal is to “tackle the world’s social and environmental challenges,” and it’s staffed by alumni of the program and in-country locals. It offers a range of opportunities, including refugee support, architecture and teaching to name a few. 
  • Volunteer World: Volunteer World screens partner programs, so you can feel assured you’re getting a vetted option. You can search more than 1,000 programs in 84 countries. There are conservation, environment, community service, humanitarian aid and teaching programs listed through this resource. 
  • United Planet: Through this nonprofit, you can volunteer in more than 30 countries. There’s flexibility in the length of the project you take on, with options as short as a week and others that stretch out for six months or more. There are opportunities to contribute to women’s empowerment, health, children’s education and more.  
  • International Volunteer HQ: This well-reviewed organization has been named Top Volunteer Abroad Provider by Go Overseas for five years running. It’s a good choice if logistics feel overwhelming because it manages airport pickup and lodging. It has projects related to education, the environment, health and community development. And, it’s truly around the world, with programs based in South and Central America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean. 
  • GVI: Founded in the 1990s, this organization has two main opportunities for volunteers: GVI Planet, focused on nature conservation, and GVI People, focused on community development. It offers programs in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and Australasia.

Photo by AJR_photo/Shutterstock.com

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