How Long Should I Volunteer Abroad?

by Niki Kraska

You’ve researched different cities and towns, and you’ve read through various causes and projects. You’ve finally narrowed down your options to one location and a handful of organizations you could volunteer abroad with. The volunteer teaching project you’re interested in requires at least a three month commitment, but the volunteer project in medicine has a range of lengths offered, ranging from short-term or long-term. So, now the big question remains: how long should you volunteer abroad?

AS LONG AS POSSIBLE! That’s always the rule of thumb.

Then, there are other questions about volunteering for you to ask yourself: are you going to be volunteering solo or with a group? Are you really ready to volunteer abroad? Will you be satisfied with the work you’ll be doing?

The longer you can volunteer, the more effective you will be and the bigger impact you’ll make. However, short-term volunteer projects are becoming more popular too, since a lot of people want to give their time, but work and other commitments don’t allow them to carve out six months to volunteer overseas (let alone 12 months to commit to year long volunteer programs).

volunteers laughing and chatting in Vanuatu
You always want to spend as much time as possible immersed in your community and your cause. 

If you’re struggling to figure out just how long you should volunteer abroad, let us help you determine which program length best suits your needs and interests...

One to Two Week Volunteer Programs

A good choice for: Students on spring break/school holiday, groups, corporate teams, or in other words, those who cannot take more time off from work or those who want to volunteer “in passing” while focusing more on traveling.

The best kinds of short-term volunteer projects: alternative spring break or pre-organized programs, environmental, farming, construction, disaster relief, and recreation placements.

To be frank, one to two weeks is quite short for a volunteer trip abroad. When you add in travel time, jetlag, and adjusting to your host community and project, you are pretty much leaving by the time you feel settled. When you plan appropriately and head out with the right mindset, however, you can make your short-term volunteer project just as meaningful as long-term volunteering.

So, how do you plan appropriately for a short-term volunteer stint? Traveling to a place a bit closer to your home country will give your body a better chance to adjust (versus having a 12-hour time difference or a drastic climate change), allowing you to be on your feet and ready to go right away. It’s also important to focus on your health, nutrition, sleep, etc. before traveling and while volunteering abroad. You don’t want to spend three of your 10 days abroad in bed with the flu.

Choosing the right type of short-term volunteer project and group size is key. Working with youth or community members may be geared toward long-term volunteers, as building relationships can take more time. For sustainability, short-term volunteer programs that are designed to have groups come and go quickly to work on a continuous project are best, such as construction or environmental clean up. Volunteering with a group of people by your side also increases the amount of work that can get done in even a few days time.

class photo with volunteer teacher
You’ll want lots of time to get to know your students as a volunteer teacher or counselor.

Three to Six Week Volunteer Programs 

A good choice for: first time travelers/solo travelers/volunteers abroad, or those who cannot financially afford long-term volunteer opportunities

The best kinds of long-term volunteer projects: The arts, water projects, conservation, reforestation, animal welfare, senior citizens, and health-related placements.

Three to six weeks is that “in-between time frame.” It’s not too short, so you have time to get comfortable where you are volunteering, but it’s also not too long, so you don’t have to worry too much about homesickness, loneliness, etc. It’s perfect for first-time volunteers who want to get their feet wet before trying an even longer stay, or the person who is yearning to make a real difference without going into debt.

Around a month is great length of time to volunteer overseas if you want to volunteer in teaching art, dance, or music, as well as if you are ready for a full-time focus on conservation efforts or animal rehabilitation. Pre-medical, medical, and nursing students can also benefit from a volunteer rotation abroad to get a new look at disease and treatment.

Two to Three Month Volunteer Programs

A good choice for: summer travelers, winter travelers, and those looking to gain more insight for their future/career.

The best kinds of volunteer projects: education, computer training, childcare, youth services, women empowerment, public health, nursing, and marketing.

What better way of spending your summer vacation than by immersing yourself in experiential learning through volunteer work abroad? Talk about gaining experience in the field, learning about a different cultural and society, and coming back home with new ideas and motivations to kick-start the school year!

woman working in fields alongside agricultural workers
Building and agricultural projects will lend themselves better to short-term volunteering, since there is usually a lot of turnover in that kind of work.

Or maybe you are really sick of winter and you’ve decided to grab your best friend and head out to work on a cause you both feel passionate about. Either way, two to three months is just the right amount of time to get truly adjusted to your environment and understand the most effective role you can play in your volunteer project.

This is also the first time frame suggested for a project solely dedicated to working with children and youth. Of course you can volunteer with kids for a shorter period of time, but since kids can take some time to open up and since consistency is good for positive development, the longer you are able to commit to working with children and youth, the better.

Three to Six Month Volunteer Programs

A good choice for: experienced travelers and volunteers, semester abroad, recent graduates, and those ready for full cultural immersion or those who want to see a volunteer project to completion.

The best kinds of projects: community development, business, microfinance, human rights, orphans, street children, disabilities, and nursing.

If you’ve already been able to spend one or two months abroad, then it’s time to take the next step and stay for half a year! You’ve proven that you can travel, so go ahead and get fully immersed in your surroundings, disconnect from life back home a little, and commit your time to social good (you’ll thank yourself later).

Students are the perfect candidates for three to six months of volunteer work abroad, as you can choose a semester-long volunteer program for study abroad or even as independent study or research. You’ll make it past the input period (i.e. learning about your site, the beneficiaries, the organizational culture, etc.) and still have enough time in the output period (i.e. taking initiative, leading programs, implementing change).

Three to six months of volunteering will also give you the time required to build relationships within communities, businesses, orphanages, and among other more vulnerable populations. These types of volunteer projects want volunteers their beneficiaries can rely on and trust, especially so as not to create even more damaging mental and emotional conditions for them; that doesn’t happen within a few weeks. Over a period of months, you will be able to see and feel the difference your efforts are making as a volunteer abroad.

young children eating provided meals.
Working with children and other vulnerable populations means making a serious time commitment.

Six Months to Year Long Volunteer Programs

A good choice for: a gap year before continuing your education or pursuing a career, sabbatical or time off from work to use your skills to serve others, and those considering studying or working abroad.

The best kinds of volunteer projects: Teaching, counseling, volunteer management (plus any more in-depth project from all of the three to six month suggestions).

If you can swing a year away from school, unpaid leave, or, better yet, a sabbatical, doooo it! Think of the benefits of taking a break from work, doing something you love overseas, and then returning to your workplace re-energized and with new perspectives to bring to the table.

Long-term volunteer opportunities are great for those who are looking to develop their professional career in an unconventional, but still meaningful, way. Volunteer projects that require stability and progression with beneficiaries, such as teaching and counseling, highly benefit from long-term volunteers. Some may even require this type of long-term commitment.

Think you are stuck with short-term volunteer projects because you have a kid at home? You’re not! Making volunteering a full on family affair can make long-term volunteering even more meaningful and rewarding.

The most important step in deciding how long to volunteer abroad is to ask yourself what kind of experience you are looking for; this is one of the most important questions about volunteering abroad that you should seriously contemplate. Once you understand your goals, and figured out what “as long as possible” means for you, compare volunteer programs side-by-side with myGoAbroad and read reviews to find the right fit!