Editorial note: This piece was originally published in GoAbroad & GVI's ebook for First Time Volunteers Abroad. With helpful articles, scholarships, and even a planning timeline and packing list, this is your new favorite resource if you are considering how to volunteer in another country. Get your copy of this awesome ebook here.
Doing research on volunteer projects and organizations is no easy task. There are so many to choose from that often first time volunteers don’t know where to start. To help you do this, we’ve got a few guidelines to help break down how to volunteer in another country, and as you weed through the many programs and projects.
So, what’s the first step in how to volunteer in another country? Figure out where you want to go, what you’re able to give, and then you can use the questions below as a means of measuring the quality of projects or organizations you are investigating. Remember, it never hurts to ask if something is unclear! Speak with a representative if necessary, to get all the details.
First, decide where you want to go and what you are able to give
Listen, volunteering abroad is not about you, obviously, but you want to pick a volunteer location and project that suits your skills, goals, and interests. Happy volunteers are good volunteers, right? So you need to do some soul searching and find your dream location to volunteer. You know, that sweet spot right in the middle of the venn diagram that includes: projects you’re passionate about, somewhere you dream of traveling, and a community in need.
How long should you volunteer abroad? For as long as your schedule will allow! Truthfully, the more time you can dedicate to your volunteer project, the better. While there are benefits of participating in short-term projects, it’s important to put in as much time as you can, ensuring the project is sustainable, and that you’re contributing to the project and community, rather than putting a strain on resources. And, if you’re really strapped for time and a six month volunteer trip isn’t possible for you, look into how you can contribute to the project from home! Fundraise if you can, talk about your volunteer experience— remember, the work doesn’t stop once you return home.
Next, ask and understand these questions
1. Where does the money go?
This is a big point for responsible volunteering: you want to know where the money goes. How much of the funds are distributed back into the sustainable projects? You want to be sure you are working with an organization that incorporates the needs of the local community, and one that provides a clear breakdown of where the money goes. It is important that the organization is transparent with its funds, and that it puts the majority of proceeds back into the volunteer projects, not back into the organization.
2. Are the projects sustainable?
Find out how sustainable the projects are (meaning you want to make sure the project you are joining is long-term). This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go for long-term; you can be a short-term volunteer on a long-term project. You just want to be sure the project you join has a sustainable impact and doesn’t end when the volunteers leave. The most successful projects have been going long before you join the program, and will continue to flourish after you. You also want to look for organizations that work with local partners. This way, when the volunteers leave the project, the community can continue to build on their contribution for long-term success.
3. Are the projects making an impact?
Is the project directly responding to the needs of the community? You want to work with volunteer programs that incorporate community members into the projects. As a volunteer, you want to have an impact on empowering a local community to thrive. Good volunteer projects consult the local community, and projects should be run and directed by in-country personnel, which means the volunteer organization should have partnerships with locally-run organizations that control project specifics. Make sure that the organization accepts feedback from the community and is implementing project changes based on their advice. Ideally, the organization also runs impact (or progress) reports on their projects. These evaluations and realistic outcomes will help you see a clear picture of the organization’s involvement with a local community and overall impact.
4. Do they have proper volunteer policies?
The organization you choose should be mindful about the dynamics of engaging the local community abroad. If you’re not sure, or if you want more clarification on this point, ask them about their policies. You are visiting different cultures and seeing sometimes striking, emotional scenes of the disadvantages some communities face. The goal of the project, and of volunteering, is about impacting real people in real communities, and empowering their lives so that they can prosper. A good volunteer organization should provide guidance and mentorship through these complex experiences.
5. What kind of Alumni Services do they offer?
Alumni networks are incredibly important. How active is theirs? What kinds of activities or rewards does their network offer you after your experience? Do they make it easy for you to stay involved once you return home? GVI’s Alumni Program provides participants with ways to stay involved with our projects even after they return home, including opportunities to win points for discounts off future project participation. The stronger and more active this network is, the better and longer-lasting your connections will be throughout and after your experience.
6. What do their reviews say?
Skim over reviews and testimonials to see what past volunteers have said. If possible, ask to speak with an alumni of a project or program so you can ask them some insider questions and get a better feel for the company. Go Overseas and Go Abroad are the best places to check for these. Don't be afraid to ask a representative from the organization to speak with an alumni member. This is a great way to get a good idea of what to expect while abroad!
7. Do they offer adequate volunteer support and mentorship?
Does the organization provide proper support and guidance through the program duration? If you are participating in an internship, are you getting quality training, complete with mentorship sessions and one-to-ones with knowledgeable staff?
8. Are there any additional components (e.g. leadership courses, specific trainings, etc) to further your professional development?
Some organizations offer the option to take service-learning courses (that you can potentially receive college credit for!). These courses incorporate a service project, intercultural competency training, and academic learning. Be on the lookout for how they structure their curriculum or courses, and how instructors engage with the learning material.
Lastly, pack your bags and go!
Now that you’ve chosen your location and your project, thoroughly vetted your volunteer program, filled out your application, and met your fundraising goal, there’s just one more thing standing between you and that jetway… time to pack!
So, what are you waiting for? Grab that backpack off the top shelf, double check your packing list, make any last minute purchases, take out half of what you think you’ll need— but definitely over-pack underwear and sunscreen (trust us), and Get. On. That. Plane!
[Save and compare top volunteer abroad programs with MyGoAbroad]
Who can help you to volunteer in another country?
If you still need help getting started in your search (we get it, the sheer number of options can make it feel overwhelming!), here are some GREAT organizations that can help you figure out how to volunteer in another country.
GVI tackles critical local and global issues by operating education and training programs on sustainable development projects around the world in partnership with acclaimed international organizations.
- Where? Fiji, Thailand, Mexico, Costa Rica, Greece, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa
- When? Year round, programs run from five to eight weeks
- Popular program: Wildlife Research Expedition in South Africa
- See all of GVI’s volunteer programs | Visit their website
GoEco is a top-rated organization focused on ecotourism and sustainable volunteering and development. Volunteers who are passionate about the wildlife, conservation, making a positive impact on our planet, will find their perfect program with GoEco.
- Where? From Australia to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between — GoEco operates in dozens of countries
- When? Year round; all GoEco volunteer programs can run between two weeks to one year
- Popular program: New Zealand Conservation Experience
- See all of GoEco’s volunteer programs | Visit their website
For volunteers on a budget, IVHQ offers inexpensive, safe, and responsible programs around the globe. No matter your skills, interests, or chosen field, there is a life-changing volunteer opportunity for you.
- Where? From Argentina to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between
- When? Year round, from one week to one year
- Popular program: Volunteer in Childcare in Ghana
- See all of IVHQ’s volunteer programs | Visit their website
Frontier is all about finding a perfect volunteer adventure for whatever you want to achieve. All programs focus on capacity building conservation, community and adventure projects, helping build a better biodiversity and livelihoods.
- Where? From Argentina to Zambia and everywhere in between
- When? Programs start weekly, year round, from a few weeks to a year or more
- Popular program: Conservation, Community, and Adventure worldwide
- See all of Frontier’s volunteer programs | Visit their website
5. Cross Cultural Solutions
As an organization, Cross Cultural Solutions seeks to solve critical issues around the world with meaningful and sustainable volunteer service to communities abroad. Taking care to invest in local economies and people.
- Where? Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Morocco, Peru, Tanzania
- When? Year round, programs can run from one week to one year.
- Popular program: Volunteer in Morocco
- See all of Cross Cultural Solutions’ volunteer programs | Visit their website
Now, you’re ready to make a difference as a volunteer in other countries
By now, you know all the ins and outs of how to volunteer in another country. You’ve answered some key questions about yourself, your volunteer project and organization, and you’re ready to go out into the world – like the changemaker you are – to make a real difference.