The Difference Between Volunteering & Interning Abroad

by Mary Ellen Dingley

So you want to volunteer or intern abroad? Awesome! Both are great opportunities for growth, exploration, serving others, and look good on your resume, but which one is the best fit for you? Volunteering and interning can often appear to be essentially the same when it comes to daily duties. If it’s an unpaid internship, then they are the same in compensation. If the internship is for an NGO, then they can be the same in result as well (i.e. completing a community service project).

Man dressed in business attire wearing sunglasses
You’ll likely need to dress a little sharper for an internship.

So then, what IS the difference?

The goal is different.

This is about word definition, and also about conceptualization, so hold on tight, it’s about to get wordy (and nerdy) in here! How do volunteering and interning differ as concepts? What is their goal?

Interning abroad is supposed to train you.

That is the goal of an internship. While your internship will certainly help the organization you work for, and hopefully the community, it is also understood that it will help you in your career by training you in some on the job skills and giving you specialized industry knowledge. Internships are supposed to get you real-working-world ready.

Volunteering abroad is supposed to help the local community.

Volunteering is not about you. One more time for the people in the back, volunteering is not about you! It’s good for you as well, obviously; it changes your life, gives you skills and knowledge, and promotes personal growth, much like an internship, but that is not the goal of volunteering abroad. One can intern based on what it will give you, but if one decided to volunteer based only on what it will give you, without considering whether or not it helps the local community, then that is a major problem. If you want to be a responsible volunteer, you need to ask yourself if your presence is going to help the local community, because their benefit is the goal of volunteering.

If you are volunteering and find that you are not useful then you need to leave, because you are not fulfilling the goal. If you are an intern and aren’t being useful, but are learning a lot, then it’s fine to stay.

Muddy boots
Volunteering sometimes requires a little more “down-in-the-dirt” work.

The result might be the same in both an internship and a volunteer position, you gain experience, others gain help, but the goal is very different.

The stakeholders are different.

Stakeholders is an international development term that simply means whoever is involved, or whoever has a stake in the outcome of a program or project. In an internship, the stakeholders are the intern and their host organization, and all terms are negotiated between the organization and the intern. Volunteering is about benefiting community, and should be negotiated between the stakeholders of the volunteer, the nonprofit organization, and the community.

Of course, this gets confusing if you are interning for an NGO, as any NGO would count the community they are serving as a stakeholder. But the idea goes that as a volunteer, you want to be sure the local community is cool with you being there and you must be sure there is local support for a foreign volunteer. Don’t show up in a community that doesn’t want you there! As an intern, the goal is more about your specific training, and then duties and logistics will be worked out between you and the organization.

Women taking notes at a meeting
Internships are a learning experience for YOU!

Expectations are different.

Interns are usually treated like low-level staff. They have deadlines, they come to meetings, they show up in office attire if required, and they keep to the hours asked of them. They need permission to leave early or come in late. It is expected that their internship is a priority in their life, and this is especially true if it’s a paid internship.

Volunteers often have more flexibility and can negotiate scheduling. It’s understood that your volunteer placement, while important, is one among many things you have going in your life, and that many people have to be working on the side to make money. As a volunteer you may be treated as more of a helpful guest, rather than a staff member.

Of course, all of these differences can depend on the organization and on your placement. So which one should you choose? And how do you know the difference when you are flooded with options? Here are some questions to ask to help make the choice clearer:

What am I seeking? A jumpstart to your career or academic life? Or an immersive cultural experience and to help others? They will certainly overlap, but if your career is the most important thing to you at this moment, than an internship could be a better fit than volunteering.

Am I willing to not be the number one priority? If your only goal and main priority for going abroad is your own career and experience, and if you will be upset if your expectations aren’t met, then you shouldn’t volunteer. In a volunteering placement, the local community is priority, and that can mean that your desires and preferences can (and will) often be put on the back burner. Would you be ok with that? If not, go for the internship. Also, if you aren’t willing to learn a little bit about development before you go, then you definitely shouldn’t volunteer. Are you ready to truly be an effective volunteer?

Smiling students wearing school uniforms
Volunteering is NOT about you; it’s about helping your host-community.

What is my field? Volunteering abroad will never hurt your career, but some careers require internships more than others, so you might focus on gaining internship experience instead. In some fields, volunteering may be respected, but won’t be very useful for landing a job. In others, like nonprofit work, it would be strange if you didn’t have at least some volunteer experience under your belt.

Where am I in my career? If you are really gunning for a great entry-level job that comes with a salary, it might be time for an internship to get you started climbing up that ladder! (Make sure to get your resume polished before you apply). If you aren’t trying to make any career moves right now, then an internship doesn’t have to be a priority.

Both volunteering and interning abroad will help you in your career as well as give you the experience of a lifetime.

Weigh your options carefully as you search for opportunities and be sure to ask lots of questions, both of yourself and of whatever organization you’ll be working with. Whatever you choose, go forth, work hard, and grow!