How to Choose a Volunteer Abroad Program

by Courtney Allen

The Ethics of Volunteering Abroad

Volunteer abroad programs can be a meaningful way to travel internationally and share your passion with the world. Each one involves donating your time, skills, and energy to issues and causes you care about to help make a difference in communities around the globe. International volunteer programs are available for individuals with a wide range of interests too.

Volunteering with children in the Philippines

A volunteer in the Philippines reading and playing with kids in Bliss, Tacloban City

Whether you’re delivering medical supplies, teaching in orphanages and schools, building homes, or working with endangered or abused animals, volunteering abroad is a great way to see a new place, learn about another culture, and help out those in need. However, it is important to do your research before choosing a volunteer abroad program so that you can be confident in the organization’s mission and goals and feel good about the work that you will be doing.

Questions to Ask

What type of organization best aligns with my personal values?

There are many different organizations and volunteer abroad programs. Organizations can be not-for-profit, faith-based, for-profit, government-run, combined with study abroad, and more. Local, grassroots volunteer organizations are oftentimes more dedicated to creating effective change and will have a better understanding of the local community and their needs than larger organizations.

Volunteer in the Philippines with a local friend

Volunteer for the Visayans (VFV) volunteer in the Philippines posing with his local friend at the community center

Where is my money going?

Volunteering in your local community often won’t cost you a dime, but when it comes to international volunteering, many companies charge hundreds to thousands of dollars for volunteer abroad programs. Companies should have transparent annual spending reports and be upfront with you about where your money is going. Many volunteer organizations will advertise that the money goes toward volunteer placement, housing, and food, but these costs often vary.

Doing your research will not only save you money, but will also ensure that more of your money is going to those you are actually trying to help through volunteering abroad.

What do the reviews say?

Companies with proven track records will likely have great reviews online and may even set you up to talk with past volunteers about their experiences. Googling an organization’s name will also often bring up blog entries that previous participants have written about their experiences. Reading these participant accounts can help you gain insight into what to expect before you choose a volunteer abroad program.

Things to Keep in Mind While Volunteering Abroad

Be a Partner for Change

Cultures vary across the world, and it can be difficult to see things done in a different manner. However, just because you are traveling from a more developed country does not always mean that your ideas and resources are better or more effective. During your volunteer abroad program you should see your work as a collaborative effort or partnership between you and the local community. Offer your time and expertise as additional assets.

Going into a volunteer abroad program with an open mind is the best way to learn from those you’re trying to help.

Additionally, it is important for locals to be a part of the volunteer abroad program so that the local community, not just the international volunteers, benefit from the efforts. The locals need to be involved in their own change process and should want or need the services being provided.

Volunteer nursing in the Philippines alongside local nurses

Volunteer nurses bonding with local nurses in the Philippines

Have Realistic Expectations

Having realistic expectations about what you can accomplish in your time as an international volunteer is important. It is likely that you won’t see much immediate impact of your volunteer work, but keep in mind that you are part of a larger process. Individual contributions made by you, your fellow international volunteers, and local community members will make a difference and help make change happen. 

You should also be prepared that your participation in a volunteer abroad program may receive mixed reactions. While some people may be excited to have outside help and learn from foreigners around the world, others may be cautious about receiving aid. In some countries, you might attract a lot of attention due to your skin color, hair color, height, weight, sexual orientation, accent, etc. While those characteristics are things you can’t change, you can talk to past volunteers to get a better idea of what to expect. You can also show respect by dressing appropriately for the culture and learning a few key phrases in the local language.

Do Good

By doing your research before you choose a volunteer abroad program, you can ensure that you’ll be doing more good than harm in local communities throughout the world. Donating your expertise and experiences to causes you’re passionate about is a great way to have an incredible and meaningful volunteering experience abroad.

You’ll reap many benefits from participating in volunteer abroad programs. It is a great way to broaden your horizons, gain perspective, learn about the world around you, be humbled, and feel inspired. However, it is important to keep in mind that while your efforts can contribute to great change, the end result belongs to the local community, and your job above all is to help them reach their goals.