5 Questions to Ask Before You Volunteer Abroad or at Home

by Ryan Wilcox

When there is need at home, is it more responsible and effective to volunteer at home than abroad? What are the long-term benefits and cultural impact of volunteering abroad?

It seems today, wherever you look, there is poverty in the world. In the United States, almost 15 percent of Americans live below the poverty line. I witnessed the challenges many Americans face getting out of poverty during my service year with AmeriCorps at a nonprofit in Texas.

Workbench with buzzsaw and protective ear muffs
Where are your skills best put to use? At home, or abroad?

But, in many cases, the need is even greater abroad. In Mexico, the poverty rate is 53.2 percent, according to the World Bank, which is a staggering figure compared to United States. I observed this need in high school firsthand on a short-term mission trip. The work teams built cinder block houses, which replaced housing with dirt floors. In spite of economic difficulty, the people I met in Mexico were kind and rich in every way that really mattered.

No matter where you volunteer, you can make sure your next volunteer assignment is both fulfilling and makes a real difference. Here are five questions to ask before you volunteer abroad or at home:

Domestic Volunteering: Building Capacity with Community

An estimated 62.8 million Americans volunteered a total of 7.9 billion hours in 2014. Your volunteer time and skills provide critical support for nonprofits, helping them address needs in your community created by the recent economic downturn.

The value of this service is both economic and social; you provide support for paid staff, which saves the expense of hiring additional employees. In 2014, the total value of volunteer service was $184 billion dollars, based on the Indpentent Sector’s value of a volunteer hour. Your time is worth money, literally. A nonprofit with a robust volunteer base, like the American Red Cross, is more able to spend on programs, hiring, or marketing.

Volunteers also play a huge role in helping to fight social problems and build communities. Linda Kurtz, an AmeriCorps VISTA Alum and nonprofit communications professional, provided insight in to the value of serving close to home.

I think putting time into your own community is extremely valuable. As a VISTA, I learned all about asset-based community development, and one of the very first assets a community has is its residents.

Local service doesn’t offer you the opportunity to get on a plane and experience another culture first-hand. And you won’t get to add a stamp your passport, either. But, you can still gain an appreciation for life in America.

Portrait of a young girl being held by a volunteer
Are you looking to make an impact, or just take a great profile pic?

Volunteering Abroad: Service, Cultural Exchange, and…Tourism?

Although Americans have been serving in the Peace Corps since 1961, it has only been in the last decade that the volunteer abroad industry has grown, increasing access and choice for potential volunteers.

In 2008, over 1.5 million people chose to volunteer abroad. The overall growth, both in number of volunteers and in organizations serving them, reflects a public interest in responsible travel and giving back. Note: It’s difficult to find current statistics that track international volunteers, in part due to the varying definitions of voluntourism.

The benefits of volunteering abroad range from personal to professional. An internaitonal service, whatever the length, combines travel with the chance to use your talents for good. It’s also an opportunity to witness world poverty, maybe for the first time in your life.

In spite of the benefits, questions have been raised about industry practices, the motives of volunteers, and the long-term cultural impact on local residents. A central question drives a large part of the debate over voluntourism: Do volunteers help local communities, or mostly themselves, by signing up for short-term voluntourism trips?

In a blog post that took the internet by storm, and was later featured on the Huffington Post, Pippa Biddle discussed her experience volunteering abroad in high school. She argued that you should be honest with yourself about the skills you bring to a volunteer abroad project:

It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper, I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be. I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries.

It is unfair to ask students to provide professional “long-term solutions” abroad, entirely on their own. Biddle’s piece points out the flaws in short-term volunteer trips. It is very difficult to make a long-term dent in poverty, unless the service provider partners with local residents, and each volunteer is part of a larger long-term effort.

How to Choose Your Next Volunteer Assignment

There are some key issues to consider before choosing a service provider or program, whether at home or abroad.

1. Are you more interested in serving your own community or exploring new cultures abroad?

The location of your service will influence the project, so think about your desired volunteer assignment. What cause is important to you? Can you serve best at home, or would you like to go overseas? Are you ready to volunteer abroad?

Ken Budd, author of The Voluntourist, a book detailing his life-changing six-country tour volunteering abroad and at home, agrees. As a volunteer, he formed relationships that continue to this day, and helped give a different view of Americans abroad.

“In my own case, I met extraordinary local people who were doing outstanding yet unsung work in their communities,” Budd said. “People learn about other people, Palestinians learn about Americans, Americans learn about Kenyans, Kenyans learn about Germans, and stereotypes disappear.”

The same could be said of volunteering close to home; service is a great way to break pre-conceived notions.

Busy street in Asia filled with motorcycles and pedestrians
Is your main motivation volunteering or travel?

2. Does the project match your skills and schedule?

It’s important to consider the length of time you want to volunteer, now that you know where you want to serve; your time commitment may change the service provider and project you choose.

Although I loved my volunteer service overseas, I would look for something more skills-based if I were to serve again. I think it’s important to find a role that matches your skills, or puts you in a position to build experience you can use later in your chosen career. You’ll then be more likely to make a direct and measurable contribution.

A great place to start your search for programs is GoAbroad’s Volunteer Program Directory, where you can narrow your search of reputable programs, reviewed experiences, and even find helpful articles, much like this one.

3. How does the project or service provider support local residents?

You want to know that the organization is fulfilling its mission, whether you are considering volunteering close to home or around the world. You can use annual reports and social media to “investigate” a charity prior to volunteering. A reputable organization, with a track record of success, should be rated on sites like Charity Navigator. It’s also a good idea to consider how your chosen volunteer project will interact with local residents. Does the service provider focus on long-term goals?

4. Does the service provider charge a fee? How does it get spent?

You won’t find a local nonprofit charging a fee to volunteer. They’ll be happy to have you! However, many volunteer abroad nonprofits charge fees. Volunteer fees typically cover the cost of the overall volunteer experience, including personalized volunteer assignment, lodging, and sometimes travel insurance. The volunteer program provider should make the fee structure clear on their website and answer any questions before taking your money.

5. Do you plan to share your experience on social media?

In 2016, technology has changed the way we travel and volunteer; it’s now easier to find opportunities to serve, both at home and abroad. In this way, the use of social media can be positive. However, there is a downside to social media activity on a volunteer assignment. We’ve all been guilty of the occasional selfie, but you could truly miss part of the experience if you are concerned with documenting it for Twitter or Facebook. You should probably do some soul searching if your primary motivation for traveling/volunteering is more about your next status update than helping people. 

Group of women near the coast in Phan Thiet, Vietnam
Ensure that your program is sustainable and beneficial to the local community, whether at home or abroad.

A Common Purpose

In addition to these five questions, you’ll also need to examine yourself. What are your motivations? Your intentions? Your tangible goals? Who is serving whom, and what is the cost of that impact?

The local community should be a partner. Could your project be done better, and more easily, by a local? You don’t want to take labor (jobs) away from locals who are capable of doing the work. Do you have expertise not found where you will be serving?

In conclusion, one type of volunteer assignment is not better than the other. It largely depends on your goals, interests, capabilities, and the needs of communities you want to serve. Whether at home or abroad, you can have a major impact through volunteering (even in just a week!). The lines on a map don’t need to limit your volunteer spirit. It’s important to find a project that matches your skills, whether you choose to help your neighbor or hop on a plane to support an international nonprofit. Your service could be a life-altering dose of reality for you, and will also provide critical support for agencies in communities at home and abroad.