The Best Way to Volunteer Abroad

by Published

Volunteering abroad is a serious commitment. Unlike other forms of traveling abroad, volunteering puts you directly in the lives of people from other countries, cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles. You are a guest in their home, and because of that, you want to be the best volunteer you can be! From the program you choose to go on, to your work ethic, to your relationships with your new neighbors, we’re here to give you the perfect recipe for the best way to volunteer abroad.

the best way to volunteer abroad

Your volunteer projects should follow S.M.A.R.T. goals

What makes a goal SMART, you ask? Your goals as a volunteer, and the overall goals of the volunteer organization and project should be:

S - Specific.

M - Measurable.

A - Achievable.

R - Relevant.

T - Time-based or trackable. 

The best way to volunteer abroad is to make sure the project you’re supporting is tangible, has a clear start and end, actually fills a need in the community (one that can’t be met by locals), and still heavily involves locals in the community— as project manager, support staff, etc.  You want to maximize your impact and the success of the project long-term.

close up, two women with glasses smiling

Everyone has what it takes to be a great volunteer, you just gotta do it! 

The very OFFICIAL recipe for the best way to volunteer abroad

One Handful of Personal Skills Assessment

When deciding what sort of volunteer abroad program you should go on, it’s important to first take a moment to evaluate yourself and your skill set. What are you passionate about? What drives you to give back to the world? Do you want to help communities through education, through mentorship, through environmental cleanup? The world of volunteering is a big one, and you’ll have to narrow down your objective to one cause, to be the most efficient.

Once you’ve decided what area you’d like to volunteer in, consider yourself and what you are good at. You like the idea of teaching in rural communities, but you know that (if you’re being perfectly honest with yourself) you’re not particularly good with children. So maybe that wouldn’t be the best path for you. Or, alternatively, you could be bilingual in English and Spanish, and so maybe you should focus your efforts on volunteering somewhere in Central or South America, where you can bridge the gap between volunteer organizations and the communities they are trying to serve. 

It’s okay to admit that you might not thrive in a certain situation, or be particularly good at a certain job. Although you should definitely challenge yourself while going abroad, you don’t want to attempt to take on a project that you know you’re not capable of doing. When volunteering abroad, people are relying on you to do the job, and to do it right. To be the best volunteer abroad you can be, you have to be fully aware of what makes you an intricate part of the team, and what makes you possibly not qualified to, say...operate heavy machinery. 

Keep reading: Do you have what it takes to volunteer abroad?

young girl looking over book with teacher

You’ll need more than a few pinches of patience and understanding.

Three Parts Researching Perfect Programs 

Like online dating, finding the perfect match can be tricky. You want to find a volunteer program that not only meets your needs, but also one in which you match theirs. That means doing your research.

Explore GoAbroad’s extensive program directory of volunteer programs to see the endless options you have for helping the world abroad! Many programs will also have reviews from past program participants, which can give you an authentic glimpse into the daily life of a volunteer. You can also easily use the MyGoAbroad tool to compare programs side-by-side, to see what they offer you, and - importantly - what you can offer them.

If a program absolutely requires their volunteers to have extensive, previous experience in handling wild animals in order to work on their marine conservation project, you might have to accept that your three years of pet-sitting your neighbor’s dog don’t count. Pick a volunteer program where your passions and natural abilities can shine through and really make a difference.

Keep reading: How to choose a volunteer program abroad

Two Parts of Assuring the Program Monitors and Evaluates Success

Yes, waking up in a tiny, idyllic village in the Andes Mountains would be a dream. Of course working with sweet, eager children and their families would be rewarding. Do you want to contribute to a project that will eventually lead you to your future career of working with NGOs? DUH. But here’s the thing - even though your chosen program might have all of the best intentions, they may not be very successful in making changes for the better.

It’s important while researching various volunteer programs that you investigate whether or not the programs monitor and evaluate success in their work. You want to be able to see that the time, effort, and money that is being put into a volunteer program is actually bringing forth positive results, and not just perpetuating the feeling of a volunteer program.

children in school, Myanmar

The best way to volunteer abroad includes a nice sprinkling of vigilance in researching programs and ensuring projects are sustainable.

Remember that the communities you are volunteering with are made up of real people. Although volunteering abroad is an incredible opportunity for you to connect with another culture and/or issues that may not be present in your daily life, you have the luxury to come and go as you please. At the end of your time volunteering abroad, you can presumably return to the relative comfort of your home country. However, for the communities you volunteer with, this is their home and their livelihoods. So when choosing a volunteer program, it’s crucial that you ensure the work your program does actually improves the lives of the people they touch, and isn’t just a vacation or the dreaded “voluntourism” syndrome.

Keep reading: What do you get out of volunteering abroad?

Ten Scoops of Involvement with the Local Community

Speaking of the local communities, get to know them. Once you’ve chosen your volunteer abroad program, have bought your plane ticket, and laced up your working boots, it’s time to dive headfirst into the country and culture that you’ll be living in for the next few days, weeks, month, or even a year.

Embracing the local culture can be challenging; after all, culture shock is very real, and it can be difficult to adjust to a new way of living and thinking, but that’s all part of the experience! There is no better way to immerse yourself in another culture than to befriend the locals. Make an effort to chat to your local fruit vendor, the lady who hands her laundry on the balcony next to yours, or the people you are volunteering with/for.

You should also always try to befriend the locals who are on-staff for your volunteer program’s projects! Getting to know them as friends, and not just staff, will not only make you feel more connected to the community, but will also certainly improve your volunteer work as you collaborate on projects together! Besides, who else is going to introduce you to the culture around you? The friends you make here will be the friends who invite you into their homes to cook you a traditional dinner, who will teach you about the music of their hometown, who will explain the various traditions of their culture, or why that one building is always advertising for free spiritual consultations.

You could, of course, volunteer briefly and only focus on your work. You’d technically be “getting the job done,” but there’s more to volunteering than just putting in the hours. It’s about making real, human connections between yourself and the communities you are trying to help. So don’t be afraid if your French is a little shaky - say hello to the coffee barista, talk to the people you are working with on your volunteer project, make friends with the locals on staff. You won’t regret it.

Keep reading: How to integrate in your new community

cans of paint with hand reaching brush into brown paint

You’ll need a hearty helping of applicable skills.

Throw in One Whole Heart (of Love)

No, not a literal heart, your heart. That is, your compassion, your drive, your endless energy. The best way to volunteer abroad is to really and truly believe in the work you are doing, and to put everything you have into making that work happen.

Sometimes, caring deeply about a cause can be exhausting. When suddenly faced with the harsh realities of volunteering abroad, you may be shocked by the challenges that previously you had only read about online. Putting your time and effort into what can seem like an insurmountable problem can sometimes be disheartening (pardon the pun). Just remember that the work you are doing matters, it is helpful, and you are improving the world one day at a time. When you volunteer abroad, you have to commit to it and throw in your whole heart. In the end, you’ll get it back, but it will be forever changed by the communities you’ve worked so hard to help. We all agree volunteering abroad should be a compulsory part of our education, right!?

Now that you have all the ingredients, place them in a pot, let simmer, and...ta daaaa! You have officially made one delicious, life-changing, colorful experience that is undoubtedly the best way to volunteer abroad. 

[Printable: Your Volunteer Abroad Packing List & Planning Timeline]

Programs that can help you find the best way to volunteer abroad

Excited to make a difference? Here are a few programs to help you find the best way to volunteer abroad:

1. International Volunteer HQ

This is a great organization for those looking to volunteer on safe, reliable, but also affordable programs abroad. International Volunteer HQ is one of the leading volunteer organizations in the world, and it ensures that all of its programs are sustainable and make a real, positive impact in the communities of the over 30 countries in which they are based. The safety and comfort of their volunteers are also prioritized, which is a plus!

2. GVI

For those interested in tackling serious, global issues, GVI is the organization for you. Their programs focus on community and environmental development, ranging from healthcare projects in South Africa to volunteering at elephant sanctuaries in Thailand.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico people walking down street

It’s all about the people and the places you’re serving.

3. Cross-Cultural Solutions

Cross-Cultural Solutions is a highly reputable volunteer organization which focuses not only on making a significant impact on the issues it focuses on, but also in providing its volunteers with an incredible, life-changing experience. They are highly connected to the communities and the staff on-site, and guarantee a fully immersive volunteer experience abroad that will ensure you make lasting friendships and bonds with the people you work with.

4. GoEco

Passionate about animal welfare? Join teams of volunteers across the planet who are working to conserve and protect some of our most precious global ecosystems. GoEco has years of research experience to back up their ecological conservation work - from baby sea turtles in Costa Rica to lion rehabilitation in Zimbabwe, if you’re crazy about wildlife, these are the programs for you.

5. Kaya Responsible Travel

With more programs than you can shake a fist at, Kaya Responsible Travel programs span the gamut of experiences abroad. You can work with youth, try your luck at conservation volunteering, or even work on construction projects. See what makes Kaya Responsible Travel a great choice for volunteering abroad by referring to their website.

Save & compare these programs side-by-side with MyGoAbroad

Magadan, Russia, people spread out in a field in sunlight

The best way to volunteer abroad? Well, that’s really up to you.

So, what’s the best way to volunteer abroad?

Ultimately, that is up to you. We can give you our super-secret-recipe for success as an international volunteer, but the rest is what you choose to do with your time abroad. Remember to be SMART, be passionate, be caring, and be responsible. It’s not about you, the volunteer, it’s about your project, your work, and the community you’re serving. 

If you're feeling stuck, ask us for advice on volunteering abroad

Topic:  Before You Go