The Who, What, Where, When & Why of Voluntary Work Abroad

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Voluntary work is about helping others. It’s not about you. But, that doesn’t mean you’re going to ignore what makes you, well, you – your skills, passions, and dreams are important, not to mention all the vital logistics stuff, like timing and finances. There are so many options when it comes to volunteering abroad, and finding the best fit will help you help others. Make sure that you’ve thought through the many questions on voluntary work abroad. Don’t worry, we’re here to help break down the big ones! 

The who

Volunteer abroad is for everyone, as long as you have skills to share! What can you bring to the table to help a community in need? Perhaps you’re a stellar gardner, a fine artist, or great at fixing roofs. Don’t dismiss the less “flashy” skills too— we can’t all be building a house or providing vaccines. Nonprofits also often need accounting help, for example! Help balance the books. Or redesign their website.

Don’t forget that supporting the local staff so that they can do their job even better is just as important as working directly with communities. They need some appreciation too! Maybe you’re a great cook who can take over meal time for the hard working staff for the week. 

[If you’re new to volunteering abroad, check out our free ebook for first time volunteers!]

The what

What kind of voluntary work is out there? All sorts! A few popular projects are: 

Environmental Volunteer Projects

vinales, Cuba, mountains and jungle

If you’re all about going green and protecting this big ball of dirt we call home, environmental conservation volunteer projects are the way to go.

If you care about the environment and love getting your hands dirty, environmental volunteering could be for you! From planting trees to cleaning rivers, there are so many places in our earth that are under attack and need our help. You could research environmental damage, create advocacy campaigns against littering, or set up a recycling station.

Pros: Lots of opportunities for fresh air and exercise! Vital and important work. You could learn so much about biology, conservation, and best practices for our planet.

Cons: That fresh air might sometimes be filled with bugs or stinky trash. That exercise might be less fun after four hours of it. Nature that needs help isn’t always pretty.

Recommended programs:

Education Voluntary Work Projects 

Children walking to school

Those who can’t do, are literal angels with so much passion and joy to give, volunteer with education projects abroad.. 

Are you great at guiding activities, have a lot of patience, and don’t mind speaking in front of a group? Then try some education projects! Teaching English is a super popular volunteer opportunity that can have a real impact in opening up career opportunities for people.

Pros: You get to interact with local people and get to know them. You can sing songs and play games all day! You can let your creative and intellectual side really flex its muscles.

Cons: It’s a lot of brain work, and standing in front of a class can be exhausting. If you’re working with kids, it’s just exhausting period. Not to mention there are a lot of cultural differences that can be difficult to navigate in the classroom.

Recommended programs:

Public Health Volunteer Projects 

close up of blue and silver stethoscope

Whether you’re working directly in clinics or helping out with information and education campaigns, you’ll make a huge impact on local communities as a public health volunteer.

There are so many threats to public health that break into the news – zika, ebola, malaria. But, there are also issues like smoking, toilet sanitation, and menstruation hygiene that need tackling all over the world! Volunteering abroad with public health projects could be as diverse as an anti-smoking campaign, to assisting in a clinic (if you have some medical training of course!).

Pros: Public health is the field in international development that has demonstrated the most success in saving lives, and you could be a part of that! You could learn from the forefront of cutting edge science research. You would gain skills applicable in many contexts!

Cons: This is a volunteer area that definitely needs you to have a bit of practical, technical background before jumping in: you don’t want to be giving out any false health information accidentally. You also have to be very careful to not expose yourself to any health risks while helping others.

Recommended programs:

Economic Empowerment/Engagement Volunteer Projects 

making bracelets, Indonesia

Working with economic empowerment volunteer programs can involve providing marketing help to local businesses, teaching new skills and financial advising, or helping local craftsmen start their businesses.

Economic empowerment is a key to so many other facets of quality of life improvement, especially health and education. With a raised income, families can send their kids to school and afford medicines. Working in programs such as job training or microfinance can have a ripple effect across communities for decades!

Pros: You can feel good knowing that economic empowerment is connected to so many other sustainable benefits. You’ll learn a lot - talk about a real life economics course! Better than any classroom.

Cons: Unless your volunteer placement is long-term, you might not be able to see your impact right away. You definitely have to do your research to make sure that the project is a viable one — economic empowerment projects are highly context specific and depend on many factors such as culture, gender roles, and the legal environment.

Recommended programs:

Computer Training Voluntary Work

two men at conference table working on laptops

Teaching computer skills can really change lives, no matter the OS.

The internet has vastly changed the world we live in and having computer skills is vital to many jobs. Help others open up their career opportunities by imparting a little technology wisdom!

Pros: If you’re reading this article on the internet, you probably already have some computer skills, so that’s taken care of! You’ll be able to see your impact quickly as students progress. You’ll be able to meet local people as you show them your tech wizardry.

Cons: If you’re like many people, you already work or study with computers every day – from social media to writing assignments, sometimes it feels like we never leave our screens. Maybe you want a break from computers! You’ll also be restricted on volunteer locations to a place that can support electricity and internet.

Recommended programs:

Historic Preservation 

Pyramids of giza

Alright, you probably won’t be going all Indy Jones on the Great Pyramids, but you’ll still find great ways to play an important role in historic preservation.

Part of the fun of voluntary work abroad is seeing ancient ruins and beautiful buildings. What if you could also help keep those ruins and buildings around for everyone else to see? Historic preservation is a way to not only be a tourist of wonderful sites, but to be a part of their very existence!

Pros: Really get to know amazing historical sites in a way few tourists can. Fulfill all our history channel nerdiness in a way more hands on manner than Netflix documentaries!

Cons: Many sites require some specific/relevant experience or qualifications before letting someone handle their precious history. Caution required!

Recommended programs:

Let us do the work for you — get matched with volunteer abroad programs today!

The where

Where can you find voluntary work?  It’s not only in what we consider “developing countries” (now countries are usually defined by their income level, so we would use the phrase “low income countries” instead). It’s not all stereotypes of dusty African roads and small villages. Volunteers are needed in many places, such as: 

Australia

Jarvis bay territory, Australia, pathway to the beach and ocean

Help keep these beautiful beaches clean in Oz.

Australia might sound more like a vacation site for some people, but you can also volunteer there! Enjoy the beach by helping to keep it clean or get to know people by working in local community centers.

Pros: Gorgeous landscapes, friendly people!

Cons: If you’re from North America or Europe, it’s quite a long leap across the ocean to get here, so the ticket alone could be out of many people’s budgets. 

Croatia 

Mlini, Croatia, castle and city rising up from the sea

Volunteering abroad in Croatia gives us mad heart eyes.

Croatia probably isn’t a country you hear about much, but have you heard about it’s lovely historical towns and gorgeous beaches? One of the more popular volunteer opportunities in Croatia is working with bottlenose dolphins! Who knew??

Pros: It’s a great place to explore the rest of Europe from. The exchange rate is good if you’re on a budget.

Cons: Limited volunteer projects to pick from. 

United States of America 

American Fork, United states, small town in the fog with snowy mountains

There are still plenty of ways to volunteer in the U.S., especially in rural communities.

The United States might be one of the wealthiest countries, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people and projects here that need help. From environmental problems like contaminated water or challenges of affordable housing, there are many communities in the U.S. that need caring people to lend a hand. In a country as vast and diverse as the States, you won’t be short on options in terms of landscape and culture!

Pros: From the desert to the mountains to the sea, you can find a region of the U.S. you want to explore by volunteering. There is a huge culture of nonprofits and an active civic society, so your choices are unlimited!

Cons: It can be difficult to get a visa to the U.S.  

Ireland 

Sheep grazing, Ireland

No such thing as a ba-a-a-ad volunteer placement in Ireland.

Who doesn’t sometimes dream of the green hills of Ireland? You can volunteer in Ireland with unique “HelpStay” programs where you stay for free while helping on a project! There’s also an opportunity to work with horses, for the equestrian minded among you. Ireland probably doesn’t come to mind when you think of volunteering, but there are always projects to be a part of.

Pros: Beautiful landscape, and near the rest of Europe!

Cons: It may cost you a pretty penny. 

Armenia

swing in the middle of a field, Chkalovka, Armenia

Armenia wasn’t at the top of our travel bucket list...until now.

Armenia might seem oddly off the beaten path, but they have had long running and successful volunteer programs for years! They are a country of great history and kind people, in a region that has known the rise and fall of many civilizations.

Pros: Amazing museums in Yerevan and a stepping stone to Eurasia.

Cons: You’ll need to keep your wits about you, and check on conflicts in the region and nearby, but an organization will always prioritize your safety.

But, if none of those float your boat, here are The Best Places to Volunteer Abroad in 2018 

The when

When should you look for voluntary work? Depending on the projects, WHENEVER! If you have breaks between semesters to spare, a summer vacation that looks a little empty and aimless, or you’d really rather spend your semester making a difference instead of cramming for midterms, volunteering abroad as a college student is a great way to travel, beef up your resume, and really give back. But, don’t think that voluntary work abroad is just for those youngins’. If you’re mid-career and looking to take sabbatical, looking for a new experience to make a big career shift, or if you’re ready to pack it in and retire, volunteering is great at any age!

How long should you volunteer abroad? As long as possible, of course! You should always aim for a longer-term placement in order to really have a positive impact, and avoid being a volunteer vacationer— remember, it’s not about you! Volunteering abroad for one month or more is a good goal to aim for. This will allow you to make a sustainable impact and connect more deeply with the local community.

Think about the logistics too— do you really want to head to Nepal to volunteer during monsoon season? Probably not. You can’t help many people if you can’t even make it out the door due to torrential rain. And, you probably don’t want to be doing environmental volunteering during a hemisphere’s winter, or education volunteering when a country is celebrating time off. 

The most important part: the why

Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time." - Marian Wright Edelman

Why should you look for voluntary work? You’re dedicated to making the world a better place and to strengthening and improving local communities. You have unique skills that fill an important need and help create sustainable development. You live life just outside your comfort zone— bring on the bucket showers and hot nights under a mosquito net. You know the joy that hard work in service of others brings.

You’ve set and established personal goals in addition to the goals of your international volunteer project. You want to continue to develop your own skills and competencies while helping others. You want to collaborate with influencers in local communities in order to implement lasting, positive change.

Ultimately, whether you’re working in relief work around the globe, going wherever you’re needed most, or really putting in years, blood, sweat, and tears into a singular project, you do it to make change and change yourself. Most importantly, though, you know that while you will learn and grow and change from volunteering, it’s not really about you. That’s why we volunteer abroad. We do it for others— to be part of something bigger, something more important. 

Ready to take on voluntary work? 

Now that you’ve gotten those big questions out of the way, you can start breaking them down further and getting into the nitty gritty as you choose a program and make your plans. Ask the programs about the project you would be working on— is it sustainable, is it locally led?

Ask yourself if you’re ready to find voluntary work abroad right now. Start planning the finances and the scheduling but don’t get lost entirely in the To-Do lists. Voluntary work is an amazing opportunity! Get excited! 

Find voluntary work — abroad — today