How to Volunteer Abroad Sustainably

by Laura Jelich

While volunteering abroad is meant to provide the opportunity to benefit and become immersed in a whole new culture, volunteers should be aware of what their own personal impact is and the ability they have to influence whether it is positive or negative. Is your destination better for having hosted you, or are you unintentionally leaving a greater mess in your wake?

The most important theme in sustainable volunteering abroad is to know what you are supporting with your time and money. If you research your program destination and organization, as well as your accommodation plans ahead of time, you can be sure to choose options that match your sustainable values. By choosing sustainable volunteer programs, you are using your consumer voice to vote in support of such organizations, which in turn encourages others to follow suit.

Volunteering in Costa Rica in Turtle Conservation

Volunteer abroad to help protect and conserve the world's sea turtle population. Photo credit to Laura Jelich

Here are four tips to help aid you in deciphering which options and practices are signals of a sustainable volunteer program, to ensure you are actually leaving your destination better than you found it.

1. Do Your Research

There are a couple things to be aware of when researching where you want to go, which volunteer program you want to apply for, and what type of work you want to partake in. Ethical Traveler is an independent non-profit organization that ranks popular destinations based upon in their environmental and social and human rights standards, which will be very useful in determining right off the bat where you would or definitely would not want to go.

In terms of sustainable volunteer programs, it is important to make sure the organization you choose actually does what they advertise and helps who they claim to help. Some populations, such as endangered animals and underprivileged groups, are especially susceptible to profit-motivated organizations that promise to make a difference, only to end up harming the population in need more often than not. These are, however, both extremely important causes, so instead of counting out all placements working with vulnerable populations, ask your potential volunteer program provider the following questions:

  • Do they outwardly promote that they are a sustainable volunteer organization?
  • Do they visibly contribute to the local community?
  • Do they respect the environment, customs, and current issues of the specific location?
  • Are they transparent about their affiliations and how their funds are used?
Volunteer helping with disaster relief distribution

Support local communities in the ways they need it most! Photo courtesy of Volunteer for the Visayans (VFV)

2. Choose How and Where You’ll Live While Volunteering Abroad

If specific housing is not required or provided by your volunteer abroad program provider, you have the power to choose a sustainable accommodation option. Homestays are not only usually the most cost-effective housing option, but the money that they cost will usually go directly to benefit a local family. Additionally, living with a host family will provide volunteers with the most cultural-immersion bang for their buck!

For volunteers not comfortable in a homestay or who don’t have a homestay option, locally operated places of accommodation will almost always be the best bet to benefit the community’s economy and avoid supporting outsourced employees and supplies - not the mention the cost of and fuel used in transporting everything from outside locations!

Asking a lot of questions and taking advantage of research resources are simple but helpful strategies that cannot be overemphasized in aiding your research. Accommodation policies to ask about include whether the place utilizes composting, recycling, fair labor laws, renewable energy sources, green cleaning products, and offer guests options that reduce their impact (such as not having day-old, barely slept-in sheets washed and replaced with new ones each day).

3. Live Responsibly While Participating in Sustainable Volunteering Abroad

Once you are abroad, many of the ways you can live and volunteer abroad sustainably are very similar to those at home. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a great sustainable mantra no matter where you are, and choosing local is always better.

  • Walk, bike, or take public transportation instead of renting a car or getting a taxi. For longer distances, try the train and avoid flying when you can.
  • Minimize your carbon footprint. Unplug appliances, reuse clothes, towels and sheets, and turn lights, air conditioning, heat, and water off when not in-use.
  • Choose restaurants that use locally sourced foods, get your groceries at farmers markets, and bring a reusable water bottle (and filter or purification system if needed). Just be careful to avoid eating any ingredients derived from endangered species.
Volunteers inside a jeepney in the Philippines

Utilize local modes of transportation to support the economy and have a truly local experience. Photo courtesy of Volunteer for the Visanayans (VFV)

In addition to the universal rules of conservation, sustainable volunteering abroad in a foreign country creates several additional factors that must also be taken into account. Many are destination-specific and usually relate to the local ecology, economy, or culture. It is especially important to be aware of where products come from and what you are supporting when purchasing goods or participating in tourist-driven activities.

  • Go with locally-based tours and organizations for guided or adventure activities when in-country, and do your research to ensure they follow sustainable practices. Then always be sure to stay on the trail provided!
  • Supporting local artisans is a great way to give back, as long as the souvenirs you purchase don’t come from any endangered species, historical monuments, or whose removal harm the ecological balance in any way.
  • Know what to take and what to leave. Donating clothes to a local charity in your meaningful travel destination is okay, but dumping and leaving your unwanted trash is not. Electronics, gadgets, and other garbage can often not be properly disposed of and should be taken back with you to be recycled correctly. 
  • Along with that, don’t leave a paper trail of tossed guides, pamphlets, and maps. Instead, share them with fellow volunteers or travelers while abroad.

4. Spread the Word Back Home

The first step towards sustainable volunteering is education, so share your experiences and knowledge and encourage others to choose sustainable volunteer programs as well. Since you have already done the research leg work, make your findings available for others by posting on your blog or other social media outlets, writing reviews about your experiences, or products that you used, and simply talking to your friends back home.

Another great way to continue benefiting your host country even after your return home is by supporting a charity or cause you worked with or learned about while volunteering abroad. Whether you can afford to give financially or not, again, spreading the word online and by word-of-mouth about the great work they are doing is a powerful thing - the reach of social media spans far and wide!

Though it may take a bit more time and effort, making the conscious decision to support and practice sustainable volunteering will always be worth it.

Just remember that sustainable volunteer programs will not only be the most beneficial for your host country, but it will ensure you have even more meaningful experiences and feel confident knowing you are doing your part to be a responsible traveler.