Many inveterate travelers have considered international volunteering - after all, it meshes with our desire to not only see the world but to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Volunteering usually comes from a good place within us, from a desire to do good and give something back
Sadly, though, it's not that simple.
By volunteering, you could actually be doing more harm than good, leaving a place and its community worse off than when you arrived. This isn't always the case, but it could happen, and that's certainly not the outcome you're looking for.
So what to do? In this article I’ll take a look at many volunteering options, questions and issues around volunteering abroad ethically, which you might find useful in planning your own volunteer experience.
why volunteer overseas? the benefits of volunteering
It's tempting to jump right in and say YES, volunteering is a wonderful thing. It can be, but not always.
There's no question, though, there are plenty of ways to volunteer and benefits to be had from spending time working to improve other people's lives.
Here are just a few reasons why a sensible woman might consider volunteering:
- Give back something to society in gratitude for what you have
- Learn valuable lessons from your host community
- It can stretch your mind, give you a new perspective on the world and make you more open
- You could develop a more active spiritual life
- Or help fight injustice and poverty
- Learn about new cultures from the inside
- Give your life additional purpose
- Get some valuable professional experience
- See places no tourist will ever see
- Meet people you would not normally meet and make new friends for life
- Declutter your life: shift from material abundance to soulful simplicity
- Or simply, get away from it all…
People choose to volunteer abroad for different reasons. You may have been traveling and visited a destination that you feel connected to and want to return to give back. You may have a cause that you feel strongly about and want to help support in any way you can. Perhaps you came across a specific organization or group and feel inspired by their mission. Whatever the reason, it’s important to identify your motivation, because it will get you through the tough days and keep you determined to work as hard as possible.
Volunteering, especially in developing communities overseas, is serious business. Long after the volunteers go home, the locals are left to deal with any damage that might have happened. Coming to terms with why you want to volunteer can also help you admit to yourself if you’re volunteering for some potentially trivial reasons, like getting free accommodation abroad or earning university credits. These may be perks of volunteering, but your number one motivation for volunteering should always be to have a positive impact on the local community or cause.
So yes, there are plenty of benefits to be reaped from volunteering. But this is also where it gets complicated.
These are benefits to YOU - but what about to those you are meant to be helping?
ethical volunteering abroad
Wanting to do good is (happily) a natural inclination for many of us. But how we go about it can help or harm.
ethical considerations about volunteer opportunities overseas
You may have heard it called the "Barbie Savior" complex... the phenomenon is everywhere.
Basically, this is when volunteers from developed countries display a major heroine syndrome, arriving at their destination in the developing world with a 'save the world' mindset to ‘rescue helpless people’.
This creates an imbalance and a problematic dynamic right from the start.
Remember that volunteering is always an exchange. You may be helping build a school, but in return you have been granted access to a new culture, a learning opportunity, and you may even have been hosted in a local family’s home.
This attitude is also condescending and often racist. It presupposes you know more and that your ways are better. This is sometimes true. Most often, it is not. In my many years of international development work, I've met people convinced that "their way" was not just the best, but the only way to approach a problem.
This can create situations that could take years to fix.
Another potential side effect of your volunteer assignment might be how you portray your host country or culture. One of the biggest long-term negative impacts you can have as a volunteer is to perpetuate harmful or simplistic views about what life is like in developing countries. This means you should think about whether the pictures you post on social media reinforce or dispel stereotypes.
The way you talk about your volunteering experience when you return home is also important. It is all too easy to accidentally turn the people you worked with into exotic tokens.
Treat those around you with the same respect you would extend to anyone back home: ask for permission before uploading a photo of them, or writing/talking about them and their lives.
As an idealistic young traveler, I spent a summer volunteering as an English teacher in Nepal. At the time I had the best of intentions, but knowing what I know now - after 15 years of working in nonprofit management - I would have done things very differently.
Today I encourage others who wish to embark on similar journeys to ask themselves these five questions when getting started:
- Am I qualified? For example, if someone doesn’t have the credentials to teach in their own country - like me - then they shouldn’t do it overseas.
- Who is in charge? For an organization to be sustainable, local residents need to be taking the lead.
- Where the volunteer fee is going? International volunteer organizations should be transparent about how funds are being used.
- How would this work be getting done without me? Sometimes, volunteers can unknowingly take jobs away from people who need them.
- Am I legally allowed to work? Some countries don’t allow volunteering while on a tourist visa.
By putting some time and energy into research, it is possible to find international volunteer opportunities that are responsible and beneficial not only to the volunteer but also to the organization and community.
an interview with kirsty henderson, serial volunteer
Kirsty Henderson, a Canadian who has lived in Africa for years, wrote the Underground Guide to International Volunteering a few years ago and now runs the website Living in Kigali. She has been on a number of volunteering missions and has taken the time to ask herself some of the tough questions around ethical travel, international development and disaster relief, along with our place in that firmament. I interviewed Kirsty about her own experience and here's what she had to say.
Is the work even something that the community needs? This should be your first question...
Does the community support the project or is it something that has been imposed on them by people who 'know better'? This is an issue that the world’s major humanitarian organizations staffed with highly trained professionals have yet to figure out, and any volunteer placement you come across should be scrutinized closely.
In addition, it's not crazy to believe that some projects or volunteer activities have been created by unscrupulous people to keep middlemen companies and homestays in business, or to generate income for themselves in some other way.
Let's take it even further: can volunteer work actually do some harm?
Yes, this can happen. Volunteers can harm a community in a variety of ways, though this is more due to the existence of an irresponsible volunteer program, so focus on the organization as a whole as well as the specific program you’re hoping to work on when you do your research.
You should also do your best to ensure that you’re not taking a paying job away from a local person. Using volunteer labor might mean that a local might be put out of work. Be straightforward: don’t be shy about asking why the organization is not hiring a local for your position.
You should also concern yourself with the quality of work being done. Volunteers who are part of a shabby program could affect the community in a terrible way if you're helping to build unsafe things without the guidance of an experienced tradesman, architect and engineer.
Most volunteer assignments are short-term volunteer opportunities. Can you still make a difference?
It’s hard to imagine what sort of impact a volunteer can have in only a week, as it will take some time to adjust to their surroundings, not to mention to learn how to do their job.
Manual labor might be an exception (although this type of work does require some physical adjustment) but it can take some time to get the hang of more complicated and involved jobs. If actually making a contribution is important to you as a volunteer, consider placements of several months or more. If you’re short on time, be realistic about what you’ll be able to accomplish and you might want to consider making a donation to the organization instead.
Volunteer vacations and Voluntourism: Should you pay to volunteer?
The most common way of volunteering overseas is to pay an organization that specializes in volunteer placements.
If your vacation time is limited or if you don't have the knowledge or time to do your own research, volunteeer tourism, or voluntourism (as it's called) can be a welcome aid to your efforts. A company (which can be for profit or not) will help you use your vacation time to do something worthwhile.
But this type of paid volunteering abroad has attracted much criticism, and we'll try to unravel some of the myths and realities below.
Voluntourism can be a fantastic experience and can really have a positive impact on the local community, but only if you go about it the right way.
Back in 2011 I paid an extortionate amount to volunteer in Peru as an English language assistant and also in an eco-lodge in the Amazon.
The latter experience was INCREDIBLE and I found that the local people we were helping genuinely appreciated and welcomed our assistance.
But teaching English? As a short-term volunteer, I was definitely more of a hindrance than a help.
If you’re planning on paying to volunteer somewhere, think long and hard about what you intend to do and the long-term implications of it. Will you actually make a difference? Do they even need your help? Or will it just be a case of the Western do-gooder popping in to take a few selfies and get a warm fuzzy feeling inside?
If you can’t commit to longer than a few weeks/months, stick to projects that won’t be negatively impacted by lots of short-term volunteers in place of one long-term. Think eco-lodges, farming, community projects, building housing, summer schools etc. and whatever you do, learn from my mistakes and avoid working with children or vulnerable people who can easily form connections. This only leads to more disruption in their lives and that internal image you created of yourself as some 21st-century saint will be nothing but a pipe dream.
so is voluntourism a good thing or a bad thing?
This is a hotly debated subject with supporters on both sides, so to save you a bit of time I'll quickly outline the pros and cons of voluntourism.
Voluntourism is a GOOD idea because...
- You can help people worse off than yourself.
- You can make use of your skills.
- You can pass your skills on to others.
- You can learn about local communities.
- You could make meaningful friendships.
- You can help bridge a cultural gap.
- You can alert the world of existing needs when you return.
- You could return a changed person.
- You can contribute to your own career or growth.
Voluntourism is a BAD idea because...
- You might be unsuitable for the job at hand.
- You may be taking jobs away from locals.
- You may be touching a community in the most superficial way.
- You may be damaging local culture without realizing it.
- If you're working with children, your departure may be traumatic.
- Your money may not be helping the community at all but making a company rich.
- You may be making people less self-sufficient and more dependent on assistance.
- Projects can exacerbate disharmony in a community when not everyone benefits.
- You may be falsely deluded into thinking you're doing good.
- You may have an unpleasant experience
Here's an example of how things can go wrong.
Volunteering is common among long-term travelers who sometimes support their journey by exchanging their skills for a bed and a meal. This would hardly be an issue, except that in most cases they end up offering their services to private businesses that should be employing (and paying) members of the local community. To be truly considered volunteering, time has to be devoted to a cause. Cleaning toilets and dorms in a filthy hostel in exchange of a bed is not volunteering - it's equivalent to slave labor.
Costa Rica is very expensive by Central American standards, so I thought I'd volunteer during my visit to save money and get to know local life a bit better. I'm attracted to volunteer work with animals so I decided to on a farm that appeared to be doing a good job at rescuing stray animals and in growing fruits and vegetables with permaculture. I was keen, as I love animals, I am interested in permaculture, and I thought this way I'd get in touch with a rural community.
It didn't take me long to realize that no farm work was going to be done, and very little animal care was included in my duties. I had been hired to help bring back to life a small restaurant, and my job involved hours of scraping the floors and cleaning a filthy kitchen in exchange for a very meager meal of raw fruits and vegetables. Three days later, I packed my bags and left, swearing to never commit my time and efforts to a profit-making business and to only volunteer for reputable charities and NGOs.
how is voluntourism different from traditional volunteer work?
The difference between this type of travel and the more traditional international volunteer programs tends to be duration and money.
Duration: a voluntourist volunteers while on holiday, for as little as half a day or as long as several weeks. Traditional volunteering may involve a commitment of several months or more.
Money: a voluntourist usually pays all expenses for her volunteer vacation, including transport, accommodations, and the agency's fee. A long-term volunteer's expenses are sometimes covered by the sending organization and no agent will be involved.
Of course none of this is etched in stone.
Some traditional volunteering stints can be short and expensive, and voluntourism programs longer and cheaper. Each is different and specific, and it'll be up to you to choose the one that suits you best.
how do you choose the right volunteer vacation?
Voluntourism isn't necessarily unethical, nor is it something to always be avoided.
There are plenty of organizations with highly ethical approaches to volunteering and who really care about and invest in the communities with which they interact. The challenge lies in finding the right outfit with the right project and to sift through the thousands of offerings and weed out the ones that will contribute both to your own growth and commitment and to the people you are trying to help. In a nutshell, do your research before sending off that volunteer application.
Very against experiences such as voluntourism, I spent my young years scrutinizing opportunities to volunteer abroad. It was difficult to find something suitable, because as I had no specific training or experience in social issues, and on the contrary a great awareness in sustainability; rather than being a social work volunteer, I wanted my volunteering to be related to the environment. In short, not cause more damage and leave things the same or, if possible, better than I had found them.
Luckily, I was selected to participate in one of the Youth in Action programs funded by the EU and flew to Iceland just before turning for my European Volunteer Service in the environmental field. What a mindblowing experience!
That was me but whatever your age or experience, I'd like to share some of my thoughts as you make your mind up about volunteering:
- Start by volunteering close to home. You don't have to travel halfway around the world and any action, however small, can help.
- Know yourself and use your previous experience and skills in the field of your choice. The options are many!
- Keep training and keep an attitude of wanting to learn. And teach.
- Arm yourself with patience, the beginnings can be hard.
- Never stop helping. Although after long-term volunteering you might not have time to go back again, you can look for nearby projects that require people like you.
- Enjoy yourself. Volunteering can change your life.
There is no magical formula to finding the perfect placement, but a good place to start is by asking the right questions. Like these...
1. What is the organization’s philosophy?
Again, you'll have to do your own research. A company will usually tell you what they want you to hear. "Of course all our money goes to the local community." "Of course you'll be matched to your skills."
The best way to check is obviously online, where plenty of blogs document people's experiences in various groups, but also on social media. If people have complained about a certain organization, try to contact them and find out more. If several people have complained, that's a pretty big red flag.
2. Where does your fee go?
While voluntourism costs money to organize, it's nice to know when overheads are kept low and as much money as possible goes to those who need it: the recipients. So check the organization's track record - how long it's been around, how many volunteers it has recruited and how many projects it has successfully concluded.
An annual report is an audited document and will tell you the truth, even if you may have to read a bit between the lines. Beware of terms that are fuzzy - 'project fees' and 'management fees' and the like.
Most important of all: is this a for-profit company, with money being sent off to shareholders or a wealthy owner, or is it not-for-profit, with any excess shared with recipients?
It's a simple question and can make a world of difference.
3. How valid are the projects on offer?
Find out whether the projects actually fill a need or whether they've just been put together to attract paying volunteers. Will you actually be able to accomplish anything worthwhile in such a short time? Or is the program merely designed to make YOU feel good - without doing any good?
In other words, does the community need this project? If hygiene is the main issue but housing is plentiful, a project focused on building houses might not be the most appropriate.
4. How much preparation does the agency provide?
Because your volunteer stint will be relatively short, you'll need as much preparation and orientation as possible.
Whatever an agency does provide, bear in mind that descriptions will be slanted towards getting you to sign up. So do your own research online about what your destination is like, its politics, and what is socially acceptable where you're going. Don't just rely on what a company tells you.
5. Are the projects sustainable?
What happens if a project can't attract volunteers anymore or funding dries up? Will the organizers just leave the work undone and move on, or are they committed to finishing the project? What happens once they pull out?
To me, sustainability a key question. If a project is truly designed to fill a community's needs, long-term plans are essential.
6. How good is the organization’s reputation?
The best recommendation for voluntourism will come from former participants. Ask the organization to put you in touch with returnees, and don't be shy with your questions.
I would go further because chances are the organization will put you in touch with satisfied volunteers, not with those who have complained loudly about poor living conditions and insufficient training. You'll have to find those for yourself, usually online from former volunteers.
how do you make sure your voluntourism experience is mutually beneficial?
Once you've done your due diligence about the volunteer organization, how do you balance things out and make sure you don't take more than you give, and that your trip provides a true benefit to others rather than just a feel-good vacation?
Here are a few ways to make that happen:
- Read about the country to get a better understanding of where you're going.
- Find out about its problems - try to understand the reason behind the poverty or ill-health you're working to fight.
- If you're part of a group, don't just stick with your colleagues - mingle with local people and reach out.
- Better yet, if the option exists, stay with a local family.
- Be clear about what you can and cannot do. Don't raise expectations beyond what you can deliver. But if you do have an extra skill, like trading a bit of English conversation perhaps, by all means offer to share it.
- Look at your trip as the beginning of a long-term relationship with the people you are helping. Don't forget them when you get home. If you have an opportunity, contact a politician - tell them where you've been, what you've seen, and what you expect them to do about it. Or join an organization that fights for the things you believe in.
I have volunteered twice. The first time was an after-school assistance project and it worked out so well I went on a second stint, to Tanzania with a for-profit company. Most of the other volunteers were “I-want-to-save-the-world-enthusiasts” like me, although younger.
I was assigned to an "unofficial school" created by the community to teach children who couldn't afford real school. There was a School Master and a teacher, for three classes, so they relied on volunteers both to teach and for income from the fees we paid.
Despite my initial enthusiasm, I wasn’t happy. I was expected to teach English, Math, Geography and History for four weeks that became three because of Christmas holidays. I realized my contribution was useless, even disruptive. And yes, I am guilty of taking selfies with those adorable kids, which I loved and truly cared for. But what could I do for them in three weeks? They didn't speak English and couldn't understand me, and the next volunteer would teach them differently. I'm not sure they learned anything.
Fast forward five years and I was housesitting in Guatemala. The owner was the founder of a small charity and we spoke about my negative feelings. She confirmed a real charity wouldn't need an inexperienced 19-year old: they needed money to pay professionals, and help in training local people to become self-sufficient. That would have been a sustainable approach.
You can volunteer near home - you don't need to go to the ends of the earth to change the world. If you have money, give it to the best volunteer organizations you or your friends know personally. And if you're a professional, offer your time and skills.
And beware of volunteering in orphanages - it might make you feel good but will only break those children's hearts when you move on.
do you have what it takes?
Volunteering abroad isn't made for everyone... but any woman can volunteer if she wants to!
Married, single, mother, daughter, grandmother, gay, old, young, disabled... Charity and NGO programs are for absolutely everyone - it's usually a question of the right fit.
Volunteering can be hard work - that's the point, after all. Whether sweeping the ground on an archeological dig or counselling out-of-school youth, you're not expected to be 'on holiday' during your stay.
Here are some things you should consider when deciding whether or how to become a volunteer.
your volunteering objectives
Be honest with yourself. There's nothing wrong with volunteering in South America to practice your Spanish as long as it is a secondary goal to helping a community and being of service. If all you want is a language brush-up, take a course.
Read the fine print - and make sure you end up doing what you want to do. If your intention is to volunteer in a city, don't sign up for a rural agricultural project. It's obvious, but it happens.
Your personality, lifestyle, culture, marital status, age: everything matters
Think of who you are... A teen? A grandmother? (Don't worry - senior volunteers are on the rise). A single girl? A lesbian? These could be important cultural considerations in some countries... a single girl may be considered 'loose'; a lesbian could face harassment and discrimination, even violence. Keep these things in mind when choosing a country or a region to join any overseas volunteer programs and make sure you end up somewhere you will feel comfortable.
The type of international volunteering work you choose will also depend on your personality. If you're a calm and patient person, you might enjoy a rural teaching post. If you love the unknown and change is your middle name, something more adventurous might be for you, perhaps out in nature, with environmental volunteer opportunities. If you like working with your hands, a building project might be more up your street.
The same goes for accommodation. If you need to sleep in a room by yourself and have instant access to a bathroom, choose a plan that provides these amenities. Otherwise be prepared to share and live rustically, since you may well be living with a local family whose means are modest.
Physical shape is also a factor. If you've been a couch potato for years, this isn't the time to do an environmental survey that'll have you tramping through rainforest eight hours a day. On the other hand, if you're super-fit there's nothing stopping you from helping out on a farm or cleaning up a mountain hiking path.
Beware that in many locations, health care may be rudimentary at best, so if you have health problems, come prepared and think things through (and make sure you buy solid health insurance that could save your life).
Doing good and helping others is only part of the equation.
If you hate every minute of your volunteering experience, your entire attitude will have some underlying negativity - and that never goes unnoticed.
Your skills and language ability
Many opportunities for volunteer work overseas don't require any special skills at all - they involve digging, counting, watching...
If you do have a special skill - if you're a doctor or nurse or electrician or accountant - you might opt for one of the more professional global volunteer programs that let you use those skills to benefit others (you'll find plenty of suggestions in the volunteer resources section at the bottom of this page).
And if you have few skills but want to learn new ones, you could choose a program that will teach you something while you work.
Though not necessarily the defining factor, language should be a consideration when choosing volunteer work overseas. Most programs mentioned here require English but there are many others, managed by non-English groups.
Living in a community is a great opportunity to brush up on a rusty language skill, or learn a new one altogether. I owe my ability to speak Portuguese to six months in Brazil (not to mention the most amazing trip through the Amazon rainforest ever!)
How much time you have
There's no limit to the amount of time you can volunteer, although each program has a different offer. Some have set dates, others let you come and leave when you please.
You can even share your knowledge or skills for an hour or two if that's all you have - I'm not particularly good at physical work (translation: slightly lazy) but on the road, I've found plenty of ways to make a contribution, however small - by giving a few lectures in rural areas, coaching inner-city youth in English, or editing proposals to help raise funds for poor communities.
Choosing the right program for volunteer work overseas is as important as choosing the right country or region. If you have an organization in mind, look at their website carefully. Does it sound like the kind of volunteer program you'd feel comfortable with? Does it share your philosophy and way of life?
Drop them an email, ask some questions, get to know one another. When you talk to returnees, ask them what their experience was like. Is the organization responsive in times of trouble? Is it flexible, knowledgeable and caring? It is in everyone's interest to get the match right.
Above all, be committed. If you sign up for a project, please try to see it through. Your inconvenience may be someone else's lifeline. You may find conditions slightly unpleasant and want to leave. Your departure could be life-threatening to your host community so please try to complete your assignment and don't cut it short without a serious reason.
Great volunteers possess a set of characteristics that allow them and the mission for which they are working to succeed. Having passionate volunteers can make a big difference on a project, as passion fuels drive, even in difficult times. Having the drive to go above and beyond, especially without requiring constant guidance, can be invaluable to already busy program organizers.
Maintaining good communication with project colleagues and with those leading the volunteer coordination is essential. Through this communication, volunteers build expectation management and, thereby, reliability in their timeliness and work ethic, instilling confidence in those with whom they are working. Remaining patient and positive during stressful or slow times can say a great deal about someone’s ability to handle anything being thrown at them. Being a team-player and exercising humility and open-mindedness are also critical components of being a volunteer - always consider what you can learn from those working around you and in the community you are working in.
best volunteer abroad programs: the best places to volunteer
There is a need for volunteers around the world, on all continents, mostly in the developing world but also in many parts of wealthier countries. Finding good places to volunteer will depend on a range of issues - your personality, your hopes and dreams, your skills - the same things you had to consider above when deciding how to volunteer abroad.
The following are the three most popular regions for volunteers and the ones with the greatest number of international volunteer opportunities.
volunteer in africa
Thousands of people, young and old, end up on Africa volunteer programs - whether teaching jobs in Tanzania, medical missions in Malawi or conservation projects in Cameroon. The need for assistance is huge and there seems to be a spot for everyone.
In Africa, many reputable organizations will charge you for the privilege of volunteering, in part to cover the costs of your food and lodging but also to put back into the program or project.
Joining volunteer projects in Africa may mean living under the most rudimentary of rural conditions, with frequent electricity blackouts, no or little connectivity, and scarcity of essentials like water. Of course it isn't always like this but conditions in Africa may well be among the more challenging you'll find in your volunteering search - and attitude can be everything.
More and more well-meaning volunteers are hopping on planes to help "save Africa", but it's not as simple as it may seem. As a Registered Nurse, I have spent over a year in total volunteering in various African countries, and my experiences have drastically altered how I see my role as a volunteer.
My time spent on the continent has taught me one lesson above all: I can't "save Africa" myself. Living with my beloved host family in Kenya shattered all the stereotypes I'd learned about Africa's helplessness. Volunteering with Ugandan midwives showed me that visitors must be open to learning from locals as well as teaching. Working alongside skilled Sierra Leonean nurses as a volunteer nurse proved to me that Africans play a central role in their own development which foreigners can never effectively replace.
I do believe that international volunteers can make a positive impact in Africa, but only if we approach our work with humility, eagerness to learn, and commitment to true partnership with local leaders. In the best-case scenario, volunteer work in Africa can be life-changing for both the volunteer and the communities in which we work. I, for one, know that my time in Africa has had a permanent impact on how I see the world and my role in it; I only hope I've been able to give back half as much as I've gained.
volunteer latin america
That said, many people wrongly assume that Africa ‘needs’ volunteers more than any other region, and as a result, don’t consider working in other parts of the world. They couldn't be more wrong! The needs may be different but they're as acute.
Many of the best volunteer opportunities abroad are in Latin America and Claire's experience is only one example.
If you happen to speak Spanish or Portuguese, you'll have even more choice.
Guatemala is a complex country of outstanding natural beauty but its frequent natural disasters and political instability have made it one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest. Poverty and high unemployment have boosted drugs and crime, especially in the capital.
Caras Alegres is an organization based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city. It gives women jobs, teaching them seamstress skills and providing a space where they can create textiles that are then sold in the city. At the same time it offers children an after-school club that keeps them off the streets and an experience they clearly value.
As well as the organizers, there are generally two volunteers for around 40 kids, so there was always something to do. Whether that involved refereeing sports games, volunteer tutoring English or just being a friendly face, the work was varied and very worthwhile, as it was clear to see that the children really valued their time there.
While many volunteers head to Asia to work on conservation or humanitarian projects, there are plenty of other things you can do. Marie found an original way to volunteer in Asia.
The difference between North and South Korea is huge, with South Korea far more developed. Since the Korean War many North Koreans have tried to flee and over 30,000 have succeeded. Many go through China but may be captured and sent back, a risk many are willing to take. Once in China, refugees try to make their way to India or Thailand, where they can apply for a South Korean passport and finally be safe. But South Korea is competitive and English or a degree from a good university are key to finding a job.
TNKR is a non-profit that helps North Korean refugees and teaches them English. I worked for them for two semesters, teaching English on Skype to North Korean moms who had young children and couldn't leave their homes. My two students had limited English but worked hard to improve. It was a huge challenge because the organisation had strict rules to protect the students. Teachers were not allowed to ask personal questions about their past, family, situation, and so on. Teaching these mothers was enriching - they were so grateful for my classes and in turn this taught me to be more grateful of what I have.
types of volunteer work
Assuming you conclude that YES, volunteering is definitely for you, and that you now have a vague idea of where you might want to go, the next step is... what kind of volunteer work abroad should you be looking for? Here are some popular volunteer ideas.
volunteer teaching abroad
Teaching is one of the favorite volunteer placement requests and given the global thirst for education, it's not surprising the opportunities are plentiful - like Marie's above. A lot will depend on how much time you have.
Very short stints will probably do little good - a revolving door of volunteer teachers will rarely teach anyone anything unless the skills can be taught in a short-ish time, like using simple video editing software, for example, for which the basics can be learned in a few hours. But if you're teaching a language or a more traditional subject, there's little chance you'll be truly helping if you're only around for a week.
disaster relief volunteer or humanitarian volunteer
This is one area where we rush to help and that's when a disaster occurs - earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, we're all ready to dash in and give a hand. Certain organizations specialize in humanitarian trips or disaster assistance and yes, sometimes they do need help. But, not always. (One organization that does is listed in the resources below.)
In the wake of a natural disaster, many people feel compelled to help out in the immediate aftermath. For some this may mean gathering up supplies to send to a foreign country and others may go so far as flying straight into a disaster zone to lend a helping hand. While no one can fault these people for having good intentions, the responsible thing to do in many instances is to simply stay home and send money. Societies that are reeling from the effects of a natural disaster are at their most vulnerable so unless a person has a specialized skill set and training to deal with these complex emergencies, they may be of little use to the aid professionals already on the ground. Likewise for people who gather gifts in kind to send abroad. These are often labeled as “SWEDOW” (aka "stuff we don't want") by professional aid workers; arranging the logistics for their storage and distribution is often more time-consuming than the benefits they provide and also distracts them from their life-saving work.
So what is a caring person to do? The first and most important thing when considering how to help out people surviving a disaster situation is to remember that cash is king. Survivors know best how to help their own families and communities heal, so providing them with the funds to do so in the wake of an emergency can go farther than any used donated yoga mat might. Erstwhile, there are organizations that put both trained and untrained volunteers to work in the response and recovery phases in disaster zones.
Another perennial favorite is volunteering with animals although here, much care must be taken. Wildlife conservation volunteering is not about cuddling animals. Anything that places wildlife in contact with humans should be vetted seriously.
Few conservation volunteer schemes cover your costs - most of them charge a program fee. Environmental projects are expensive to run and unless you are skilled in a specific area of conservation and get an actual paying job, opportunities as conservation volunteers will usually have to be paid for.
Just be aware that a reputable conservation project will plow much of your payments right back into their project.
Given the poverty and poor social systems in large parts of the developing world (and not so developing), there are simply not enough local staff to fill all positions in orphanages. Since most cannot afford to pay for staff, many of these establishments rely at least in part on foreign volunteers.
However, the kind of volunteering in which individuals drop into orphanages for a few hours or days, play with the children and then leave can be hugely destructive for the children, who rapidly form attachments, so think carefully before volunteering for kids: make sure what you're doing is sustainable and will make a lasting contribution to their wellbeing. Find out more here about the dangers of volunteer work with children.
In 2009 I spent six months volunteering as an English teacher at an orphanage center in the Cambodian countryside. I had no prior teaching experience and it turned out that most of the kids there still had living family members. As it was explained to me, their families were too poor to afford to raise them, and if they stayed with their families they wouldn’t be able to attend school. The more I stayed there the more complicated the situation seemed, and I realized that money was at play. It made me question everything I thought I knew about orphanages and the merits of volunteering.
I’ve spent several years in Cambodia since that time. I now know that if you want to help, volunteering with children is one of the worst things you can do. The better solution is to support organizations that support the whole family. Friends International is one of the best NGOs doing this in Cambodia. They have skills training facilities, job placement services, and many other programs that keep families together. If you still want to volunteer it should be to share your transferable skills with adults who are on the ground working on long term on solutions to these complex issues. Better yet, research organizations that are doing sustainable, responsible work and support them with your money. As difficult as it is to realize, when we contribute to the system of volunteering we may end up doing more harm than good for the people we intended to help.
wwoofing for those who want to work on a farm
The growing interest in organic farming from those of us fed up with chemicals in our diet and environment means organic farms are proliferating. Avoiding pesticides and hormones is labor-intensive so organic farms are in constant need of help.
If you're thinking of volunteering on an organic farm, the WWOOF network (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) might be worth looking into but a word of warning - the work is hard and physical and not for everyone.
Here's how it works: farms that want to join the network get themselves listed, and potential volunteers buy that list, becoming members for an annual fee. Once you're a member, you can start getting in touch with farms directly. Some countries have a national organization, others are independent, but information on both is equally available.
Like with any volunteer trips, choose carefully. The lifestyle will probably be simple, and you can end up doing all sorts of jobs (including some you might not like), so make sure you agree your tasks with your hosts before you arrive.
This is a purely volunteer opportunity - you don't get paid, but you get your room and board in exchange for working on the farm. The good thing about WWOOFING is that it’s global; whether you want to volunteer Vietnam or try volunteering in Europe, you’re likely to find a viable option.
While the above types of volunteering are the most common, they're by no means the only things you can do.
As mentioned earlier, professionals can of course find volunteering work in the health sciences, but so can individuals interested in such things as archaeology, women's issues, graphic design or IT. Where there's a skill, there will be a comparable need for it.
Some of you may prefer volunteering with a faith group, many of which do good work in development and humanitarian situations and provide volunteering opportunities.
Service is longer term, often several years at a time, and many groups place you in a local home, which allows you to live in a community of like-minded people so you're not as lonely when you first travel overseas.
Faith groups often cover expenses, including flights, room and board, and health insurance. Some may even add in a few extras, such as help with modest living expenses. Sometimes - not always.
Read their websites carefully (you'll find plenty of information in the Resources section below) and talk to returnees - it's the best way to find out what it's really like helping others in a faith group abroad.
long-term volunteer opportunities
Long-term volunteer charity work abroad exists but often require a major time commitment. These can be linked in some way to a national government, such as the US-based Peace Corps, but this is not always the case. Many of these organizations will pay your way and provide a (modest) stipend so you can survive on site, but expect stringent criteria, interviews and all. Here are some possibilities:
- If you have a medical specialty and want to be a medical volunteer abroad, you could try IMVA, the International Medical Volunteers Association
- In the UK, the main organization is VSO, or Voluntary Services Overseas
- My all-time favorite is the United Nations Volunteers, for professionals with degrees - and with great volunteer opportunities for seniors
At the airport in Malawi recently, I met a Peace Corps volunteer who was teaching history in a small town in the country's north. She was 68, a former university professor from a prestigious Texan college, and her life had certainly become different: she sometimes went weeks without electricity, water was hard to come by and most people's mother tongue was a local language she was struggling to learn.
I asked how she had been received and she said her experience was extremely positive, that by living in the community with the community she was demonstrating an equality and humility that built bridges instead of emphasizing differences. Her life in Malawi was far removed from the sophistication of an American college campus but halfway through her two-year commitment, she had nothing but positive things to say.
Michelle, too, had a positive experience.
Despite many challenges, my service with Peace Corps (two years in Jamaica) was a positive experience. The training and support (healthcare, housing, staff) offset the bureaucracy that comes with a government program.
To be truly helpful and make a positive impact, we must be intentional. A handout may be an ego boost but in most cases, it is the opposite of empowering.
For example, instead of carrying paintbrushes and supplies from home, purchase them when you arrive in country and support the local economy. Rather than paint the school for the villagers while they stand by (perpetuating your power and their "helplessness"), work together. Give preference to local expertise and leadership. Is painting the school even something they want, or are other needs like teacher training more important to them?
Gaining trust and assessing a community's true needs takes time, which is why a longer-term volunteer program like Peace Corps can be a wise choice for anyone who wants to make a lasting impact.
One resource that should be required reading is When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor... And Yourself. The book addresses two factors at play when a service project undermines the people it is intended to help: treating symptoms instead of the underlying illness, and misdiagnosing the underlying illness and prescribing the wrong medicine.
As always, don’t just take anyone’s word, including mine. Do your own research, make your own decisions, and above all, enjoy your adventure.
best volunteer websites and volunteering resources
Here are some resources you might find useful. They're in no particular order, and the list is far from complete. But it'll help you get started on your volunteering quest.
General volunteering resources
- Grassroots Volunteering is an organization that provides volunteer information and lists ethically sound projects you can apply for. It has a solid volunteer database as well as the world's largest database of social enterprises.
- If you're looking for a professional position or if you're retired, consider the longer-term United Nations Volunteers program, for two-year UN volunteer jobs abroad.
- A good place to start looking for health volunteer opportunities is the database of the International Medical Volunteers Association. It is quite old but you may find gems you won't find elsewhere. If you are a medical doctor with two or more years of professional experience, head for your national chapter of Doctors without Borders (you'll find the list on the global site) or the medical listings on Médecins du Monde to find medical volunteer opportunities.
- To volunteer for disaster relief, a highly regarded organization is All Hands and Hearts, formerly known as Hands On.
- If environmental volunteer work is your thing and you want to become a wildlife volunteer, I'd try Earthwatch, whose conservation volunteers actually do much needed work in reserves or in the wild.
- You're a vet or want to work with injured animals? Have a look at World Vets to become an animal volunteer abroad.
- I can't even begin to list the thousands of organizations that offer volunteer trips abroad in Africa. Superb directories on the web will link you to many available sites. For a database of Africa volunteer opportunities, check out The Idealist. For more specific volunteering opportunities, visit Advance Africa.
- Volunteer South America is an incredible database free or low-cost volunteering projects in South and Central America.
- True Travellers also lists many free volunteer programs in Asia by country. Grassroots Volunteers (already listed above) offers comprehensive guides to volunteering in a variety of Asian countries.
- Voluntourism.org is a one-stop resource on voluntourism that delves deeply into the various aspects of voluntourism. Perfect for the serious researcher.
- POD (stands for Personal Overseas Development) is a UK-based charity that promotes sustainability, finds volunteers for projects and also helps fund projects on the ground.
- If you are a fan of literary essays, the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s tongue-in-cheek piece ‘How to write about Africa’, explores some of the most common tropes existing in conversations about Africa, which volunteers often accidentally reinforce.
If you're looking for faith-based voluntary work abroad, these organizations might help
- Catholic Network of Volunteer Service, or CNVS
- Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC, which which has both development and humanitarian assignments
- Habitat for Humanity, which helps build houses for needy families
- Quakers, or Friends, are committed to social justice, peace, and humanitarian service (including Peace Brigades International)
- Brethren Volunteer Service, or BVS, works with children, refugees, disabled persons, farmers, the homeless, and more.
- Jesuit Volunteers Corps
- American Jewish World Service, or AJWS or in the UK, the Jewish Volunteering Network, or JVN
- Potential Muslim volunteers should look into Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief USA or in the UK, Muslim Hands
- Volunteering for Buddhist groups and monasteries is quite common and there are many opportunities online - just Search for "Buddhist volunteering"
And a few final suggestions for your research
And if you decide to volunteer abroad, you won't forget your travel insurance, right? I use World Nomads whenever I travel and recommend it if you're under 66 (70 in some countries). If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance recommendations that cover you at any age.
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