5 Ways to Prioritize, Pursue Goals, & Focus When Choosing Volunteer Abroad Projects 

by Jennifer Bangoura

Have you been thinking about what to do with those vacation days you have adding up? Do you have some time between jobs, or is your summer break just ahead and you want to do something meaningful? You must be considering volunteering abroad. Lucky for you, the options are endless!

However, if writing this article is any proof, prioritizing, pursuing your goals, and focusing as you choose your volunteer abroad project will not be an easy task. Distractions in the forms of social media, phones, family, and friends will prevent you from buckling down and selecting the volunteer program you’ve been dreaming about completing abroad. So close the other tabs in your browser and focus for the next few minutes as we share some tips on how to select a volunteer abroad project!

Volunteer with children in India

In order to facilitate the process of deciding what to do when you volunteer abroad, we’ve come up with a list of questions to ask yourself that will help you prioritize, pursue your goals, and focus as you choose your next international volunteer project. Let’s dive in!

1. Prioritize

Why Do You Want To Volunteer Abroad?

First things first. What is motivating you to volunteer abroad? What’s making you want to choose volunteering abroad over a standard vacation? Some people would say there are plenty of volunteer opportunities to pursue where you are, so why travel around the world looking for something when there is need at your front door?

Luckily, volunteering (anywhere you choose to do it) is not a zero-sum game! Volunteering abroad can strengthen your skills as a global citizen while you give back to a community in need. It can also make you a better volunteer when you return home as you improve your cross-cultural skills – something that’s transferable no matter where you are.

To be effective on a short-term volunteer project, you need to have a clear purpose for why you’re there in the first place. Spend some time asking yourself why volunteering abroad is important to you and make sure you keep that in mind as you search for programs that match your goal.

Where Do You Want To Volunteer Abroad?

You’ve heard real estate agents say it over and over again and the same is true for volunteering abroad: Location, location, location. To help narrow down your options, make a list of the top five countries you’re curious to discover but wouldn’t normally travel to.

If you can’t decide on a country, then browse by continent; check out GoAbroad for opportunities in Africa, Asia, or South America. With literally thousands of options at your fingertips, the decision of where to volunteer abroad can be overwhelming. Continue to filter down your results by duration, type of work, and country to ensure you’re making the best choice for you!

Do you have a particular type of international volunteer project in mind and don’t mind where you do it, such as construction projects, working with children, or teaching English? Consider filtering your options by volunteer project type or a specific cause you are passionate about and letting location come afterwards. Remember, while location is important, wherever you are you’ll be doing worthwhile work (as long as you choose a program that’s sustainable and locally conscious!). If you’re feeling adventurous (and/or undecided), maybe let someone else pick your location for you!

2. Pursue Goals

How Long Do You Plan On Volunteering? (And How Much Can You Spend?)

Now that you’ve thought about why and where you want to volunteer abroad, it’s time to think about how much time you have to volunteer (and how much you can afford to spend) so you can pursue your goal. If you’ve got one to two weeks, consider staying in your time-zone to lower the impact of jet lag on your productivity (and your mental health!). If you’re able to volunteer for a few months, look a little farther away and consider making a time-zone leap.

If you’re concerned about cost (and who isn’t??) there are many ways to fund your volunteer abroad adventure. But the money won’t fall into your lap without any effort on your part! Please make sure to leave your contact information in the comment section if it does for you, though. I’d love to connect if that’s the case!

Indian children

What Do You Want To Achieve By Volunteering Abroad?

You’ve likely heard of making sure your goals are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound). In order to pursue your goal of volunteering abroad, you’ll need to have in mind what you hope to achieve.

If you want to improve your language skills, consider volunteering abroad in a country where the language is different from your native tongue. Do you want to go into the medical field but aren’t sure what you aspect interests you? Look into medical volunteer programs to get first-hand experience in the field. Do you love the idea of conservation but don’t have the experience to launch your career in it? Check out these volunteer conservation opportunities abroad.

3. Focus

Once you’ve prioritized and make headway on pursuing your goal of volunteering abroad, it’s time to focus your efforts to seal the deal and make your dream of volunteering abroad a reality.

In order to do that, you’ll need to ask yourself a few more questions:

When Do You You Want To Volunteer Abroad?

Do the winters where you live make you want to stand a little closer to a full-spectrum light bulb? Are you rubbing your hands together as you read this to keep your fingers from freezing? Maybe it’s summertime and you’ve just fried an egg on a non-cook surface like your driveway or the roof of your car.

Whatever your reason, whatever the season, give some thought to when during the year you would like to volunteer abroad. This means taking into consideration the weather in your hemisphere and that of where you’re headed, as well as when in the year volunteering abroad fits into your schedule.

When can also refer to what time of the year with relation to your work or school schedule. Take a look at your academic or professional calendar and look for opportunities to volunteer abroad that coincide with your breaks. If you don’t have that many vacation days, try and work you volunteering abroad around work holidays so you can take less time off.

Who Do You Want To Volunteer Abroad With?

Think back to a field trip or family vacation from your childhood. What drove you crazy about your travel companions? Did they complain about the journey? Did they not want to try new foods because they weren’t like the ones at home? Did they take the good seat in the car - leaving you to fend for yourself?

Volunteering abroad with others won’t be much different in terms of travel companionship. The journey will likely be long, the food wherever you go will likely be different from home, and your seat on the bus - well, hopefully you’ll have one and you won’t have to stand the whole way! If you choose to volunteer abroad with someone, give careful thought to who you choose! Make sure they’re thoughtful, ready for the journey and up for an adventure.

It is important to read reviews of international volunteer programs to determine the quality of the experience. Find an organization that is committed to sustainable, positive impact in the communities they are serving. Ideally, projects have longevity that develop even after you leave. Even more ideally, the organization will be committed to empowering locals to be involved in the projects, allowing you to work alongside and collaborate with individuals whose lives are very different than yours.

The ‘who’ you volunteer abroad with also includes yourself! Take a look in the mirror to make sure you’re the kind of person someone else would like to volunteer with, too! Before you go, check out some tips for how to avoid driving your host organization crazy when you volunteer abroad to make sure you’re the kind of volunteer your host asks for again. 

Indian school children sitting outside

Are You Serious About Volunteering Abroad?

We sure hope so! After answering the questions listed above, you should be equipped to prioritize, pursue your goals, and focus as you choose your next volunteer abroad project. Why, where, how long, when and with whom are just a few of the questions you should ask yourself before getting started when selecting your volunteer abroad project. Once you start answering those questions, the rest will fall into place.

And if you find yourself getting distracted watching cat videos while selecting your volunteer project, you can always look into how to volunteer abroad with animals or even how to volunteer to help wild cats! There’s no guarantee that the animals, or your volunteer abroad experience, will make for a viral video, but they will definitely leave you with an experience that you’ll want to share with the whole world!