VOLUNTEERING ABROAD: An In-Depth Guide
Written by Marlina Moreno
So you’re interested in volunteering abroad but not sure where to start? Speaking from experience, I’ll be the first to admit that planning your first volunteer trip can be a bit overwhelming.
Believe it or not, but volunteer tourism (aka voluntourism, aka impact tourism, aka volunteer travel) is a multi-billion dollar a year industry — and when money like that is on the table, the smell of opportunity is strong.
Long gone are the days when “volunteering abroad” only referred to skilled medical professionals and Peace Corps workers spending a year or more in developing nations. Today, as more and more organizations and businesses jump on the volunteer tourism bandwagon, everyone from recent high school grads to Instagram models are now “volunteering abroad”.
But as the popularity of volunteer tourism continues to grow so does the debate as to whether or not this new generation of “do-gooders” are actually doing more harm than good. While I will touch on some of the drawbacks of volunteer tourism throughout this post, this guide is primarily focused on helping you find the right volunteer opportunity.
That being said, I strongly encourage anyone interested in volunteer tourism to first spend some time researching the negative impacts that it can perpetuate. Tourism Concern has a great Information Briefing PDF that’s worth reviewing. It covers everything from the questions you should be asking volunteer organizations to ethical volunteer practices and more.
When I was planning my first volunteer tourism experience I was certainly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “opportunities” that were out there. But I think what stressed me most was the thought of feeling “stuck” in a foreign country at a project that wasn’t right for me.
Luckily, my first volunteer tourism experience turned out to be a really positive one. In fact, it was so awesome that giving back to the places I visit, specifically to the communities and wildlife that call them home, became a big part my travel ethos early on — ultimately leading me to the career path that I’m on now. Had my initial volunteer tourism experience not been so positive I honestly believe that, today, my life would be a whole lot different.
So, as my way of paying it forward, I wanted to share my biggest takeaways from years of mixing travel and volunteering in this First-Timer’s Guide To Volunteering Abroad.
I know this might sound like a boring PowerPoint presentation, but before you commit to a specific project it’s a good idea to first identify your purpose. More specifically, you should ask yourself what you hope to give and what you hope to get out of the volunteer tourism experience.
To help yourself answer these questions, start by identifying two things: your passion(s) and your skills.
For example, are you passionate about things like animal rights and/or wildlife conservation? How about environmental issues? Perhaps you’re more interested in human-focused causes such as women’s rights, education, and/or social welfare?
Whatever cause or causes you’re passionate about, chances are there are plenty of related volunteer opportunities out there (I mean, what organization wouldn’t want free help, right?). But with so many to choose from it can be pretty overwhelming trying to choose the best option(s) for your volunteer purpose.
Honing in on what you’re passionate about before you start looking into volunteer opportunities is one way to ease the pre-planning process and ensure a more impactful experience for both you and the cause(s) you care about.
Once you’ve narrowed down the cause or causes that interest you, identify any skills you have that might be of value to an organization operating in your area of interest.
Whether you’re a carpenter or chef, medical professional or marketing guru, there’s a good chance that whatever your skills happen to be they could be helpful in a volunteer compacity.
Keeping both your interests and skills in mind when narrowing down volunteer opportunities will only increase your chances of matching with the right opportunity from the start — and that just might lead to a more longterm relationship with volunteer tourism like it did for me.
Identifying what you’re passionate about and what skills you can bring to the table are great starting points, but before you commit your time and money (more on the cost of volunteer tourism in #3 below) to a specific project it’s also a good idea to ask yourself what you hope to gain from the experience itself.
When I first started volunteering my main objective was to gain experience in primate conservation because, at the time, I thought I might want to pursue a career as a primatologist. Therefore, I specifically looked for volunteer tourism opportunities that would allow me to gain relevant experience.
For others, however, volunteering abroad might be about learning a new language through immersion, doing some soul-searching, or just simply beefing up their resume.
Whatever it is that you ultimately hope to gain from the volunteer tourism experience it’s important to be upfront about it — both with yourself and the project you’re interested in volunteering with. In doing so you’re a lot more likely to find an opportunity that aligns with your expectations.
In addition to your purpose, another important thing to consider before starting your search for volunteer tourism opportunities is time. Specifically, when and for how long can you commit to a project.
While most volunteer tourism programs do operate year-round, some are seasonal due to thing like weather, wildlife behavior, local customs, etc.
If when you can volunteer is not flexible then it might be a good idea to keep your search for a volunteer program to places that are known for being travel-friendly throughout the year.
In addition to when you can volunteer you’ll also need to consider how long you can volunteer for, as many projects have a minimum time commitment they require.
I’ve found that a one-week minimum is pretty standard for most volunteer tourism projects, except teaching programs which typically require at least a three-month commitment.
If you can’t spare a full week (plus travel days to and from the project’s location) don’t worry, there are a handful of projects that allow for shorter volunteer commitments. Just know that you’ll have to search a little harder and be a little more flexible with the type of volunteering you’ll get to do.
For anyone interested in volunteering with wildlife and even domestic animals, bear in mind that most hands-on opportunities are going to require longer minimum stays as they typically require more in-depth volunteer training.
In my opinion, two weeks is a solid amount of time to set aside for most volunteer tourism experiences. It’s just enough time to become immersed in a project’s mission, develop genuine connections, and gain valuable experience without feeling burnt out or homesick.
Volunteering with orphans in any compacity can be tricky to do right, and any such opportunity should be approached with extreme caution and due diligence (see #6 on this list for more insight). This is especially true for those that do not have long term availability to dedicate to volunteering abroad.
While I would never discourage anyone from volunteering with a proper organization, no matter their availability, research does suggest that short-term volunteers can do more harm than good for children in an orphanage setting.
Constant inflows of volunteers staying for short periods of time can perpetuate a cycle of attachment and abandonment, often counteracting the good behind a volunteer’s intentions. Therefore, if you can only spare a week or two then it might be best to rule out volunteering at an orphanage early in the trip planning process.
If for some reason this is an area of volunteer tourism you absolutely have your heart set on then consider doing day trips to a few different orphanages in your chosen destination. Day trips still give you the chance to bring new energy and excitement to the children without allowing them enough time to become too attached.
Some ideas for making the most of day trips to an orphanage include collecting donations (such as school supplies) prior to your visit and delivering them to the children, coming prepared with fun and educational game to play, and/or putting on an extracurricular activity like a dance class. If after that you’d still like to do more, offer to help out behind-the-scenes with things like preparing meals, administrative work, entertainment coordination, etc.
Most people I’ve spoken to about volunteer tourism seem shocked when they find out they’ll likely have to pay to volunteer abroad.
While some programs do offer free room and board, it’s rare, and typically reserved for long-term volunteers or volunteers with extra special/in-demand skills (e.g. doctors, nurses, TEFL qualified teachers, veterinarians, etc.).
Most volunteer tourism programs are relatively inexpensive to participate in. However, many first-time volunteers find themselves paying thousands of dollars (no joke) because they book through a third-party volunteer placement agencies (more on this in section #5).
Generally speaking, volunteers can expect to pay anywhere from $180 to $350 per week to participate in an international volunteer project. Fees typically include a volunteer’s accommodations, meals, transportation to and from meet-up points, and usually a small souvenir like a volunteer T-shirt.
When it comes to budgeting for your international volunteer trip, bear in mind that airfare is typically going to be your biggest expense.
If you’re working with a limited budget it’s probably best to look into volunteer tourism opportunities in countries that are the most affordable to reach from where you live.
For example, you’re based in the United States consider looking into projects in Southeast Asia and Central America before getting your heart set on one in Africa and Oceania.
At first, it might seem crazy that someone would have to pay to volunteer their time and skills. But as anyone with first-hand knowledge of what it takes to run a well-organized volunteer program (on top of a successful project or sanctuary) would tell you, in most cases, the cost of volunteering abroad is pretty justified.
Few NGOs actually bring in enough funding from donations, grants, and other fundraising efforts to sustain anything beyond their essential day-to-day operations. So imagine if they had the added expense of having to house, feed, train, and transport a bunch of volunteers. Frankly, most organizations wouldn’t be able to afford it.
As for those that could, I think most people would agree that hiring men and women from the local community to do the work would be the best way to spend that money, not paying international travelers to come and help out for a week or two.
Transparency should be a major factor when booking any volunteer tourism opportunity.
If an organization doesn’t clearly disclose where your money goes and how the rest of its funding is spent, chances are there’s a (shady) reason why and it’s probably not a place volunteers should be supporting.
Once you know your goals, timeline, and budget, you’re ready to start researching.
Obviously, the more specific you are about the type of volunteering you’re interested in (e.g. “volunteer with sea turtle conservation”) the quicker and easier it will be to narrow down volunteer opportunities.
If you’re still not sure what kind of volunteering you’d like to do and/or you’re just open to exploring all volunteer tourism opportunities then finding the right opportunity is going to take a little bit more work. But don’t worry, I know a shortcut. . .
A simple internet search such as “volunteer abroad” will likely direct you to the websites of volunteer placement agencies, which are a great way to get a sense of the volunteer tourism opportunities that are out there.
Bear in mind that on most volunteer placement agencies’ websites they don’t reveal the names of the organizations actually running the volunteer projects for fear that people (like me lol) will cut just out the middleman (more about booking through third-party placement agencies in section #6). Instead, they only provide descriptions of projects along and their general location. It’s only after you put down a deposit will they give you the actual name and location of the project
If you find an opportunity that sparks your interest then my advice is to use what information they do provide to try and figure out the actual name of the project and book directly with them.
For example, if you’re interested the volunteer opportunity at a “primate sanctuary” in “Tzaneen, South Africa” on the agency’s website, take that info straight to Google and search for “primate sanctuary in Tzaneen, South Africa”. Chances are that if the project has a website, Facebook page, or some other online presence, you’ll be able to find it, eventually.
If you can’t find a website or social media page with the organization’s contact information then try tracking down past volunteers (through blogs, hashtags on Instagram, forums, review sites, etc.) to see if they can help put you in direct contact with someone from the project (more on booking directly with projects in section #6).
VolunteerSouthAmerica.net is an awesome resource for anyone interested in volunteer tourism opportunities in Latin America. The website offers direct links to a bunch of free and low-cost volunteer programs throughout Central and South America and is 100% free to use (no middleman fee or registration required).
Once you’ve found a volunteer opportunity that interests you, it’s extremely important to vet the project before you even consider booking it.
One way to suss out a project’s legitimacy and reputation is to search for reviews, blogs, videos, and/or pictures from past volunteers. If you can’t find any of this stuff then chances are the project is worthy of being skeptical about.
Don’t forget that volunteer tourism is a lucrative industry, and because of that, it’s not uncommon for illegitimate organizations to run shady volunteer projects to make a profit.
Parents renting out their children to orphanages and big game hunting farms (i.e. where people can pay to hunt lions, leopards, elephants, etc.) posing as wildlife rescue centers are just two real-life examples of volunteer tourism gone wrong.
Having had most of my volunteer experience in the wildlife conservation arena, I thought I’d share the following for anyone interested in working with animals:
Proper wildlife conservation projects do not keep wild animals in captivity just to give volunteers a reason to “pay” a visit. While it isn’t always possible to release wild animals back into the wild, a legitimate conservation project will always promote wild animals living in the wild and it will do whatever it can to return animals that can be released back to their homes.
Moreover, any project that is doing a lot of captive breeding (and is not an accredited zoological institute) and/or operating like a petting zoo, allowing its volunteers to play and take selfies with wild animals (without any formal training or conservation education message attached), is probably not a credible organization.
Option 1: Book Through A Third-Party Placement Agency
Despite everything I said in the previous section, I’m not completely against going the whole volunteer placement agency-route, especially if it’s a person’s first time volunteering abroad.
What’s good about using a reputable third-party placement agency is that they’re typically a one-stop shop — covering everything from transportation logistics to travel insurance. On top of that, you’ll find that most are located in English speaking countries and offer reliable support 24/7 — a pretty invaluable asset should any issues arise during your volunteer trip.
However, as I briefly touched on in section #4, the downside of going through a volunteer placement agency is that it is going to be more expensive than if you just booked directly with a volunteer project, and sometimes by a considerable amount.
Here’s an example . . .
For my first volunteering trip, I almost booked the whole thing through a placement agency because I fell in love with a program they featured on their website.
The cost for two weeks was over $1,300.
But then after some online digging (which I shared in section #4), I found the volunteer project’s website and was able to book with them directly.
The cost for two weeks was $720, almost half the price that the agency quoted me.
(For anyone who wants to know, the agency was GVI).
Two “affordable” volunteer placement agencies that I know of are Volunteerhq.org ($249 agency fee on top of the program fee) and Ubelong.org ($200 on top of the program fee). Note that neither includes travel medical insurance, required vaccinations, or visa fees.
Option 2: Book Directly With The Volunteer Project Yourself
Booking directly with a volunteer project is the way to go for anyone looking to minimize the overall cost of volunteering abroad (you’ve just got to be willing to do a little extra legwork).
Most organizations that offer volunteer programs are set up to manage volunteers directly, it’s just a matter of finding them yourself.
If it offers any encouragement, for every single volunteer trip I’ve done, I’ve always managed to book directly with the organizations running the project.
Be sure you know the entry requirements for the country you’ll be traveling to (i.e. passport and visa requirements, vaccinations, etc.). And while it’s not usually required to travel internationally, I HIGHLY recommend getting travel medical insurance. I get mine through World Nomads** (it costs approximately $50 for single trip coverage).
Choosing the right volunteer tourism opportunity might seem daunting and full of responsibility, but I promise that the tradeoffs will be well worth the effort.
If you do it right, you’ll not gain valuable experience and lifelong friends, but you’ll get to witness the positive impact that giving back can have on the world around you. And if you’re anything like me, the experience will change you forever.