Volunteering Abroad

Group of people abroad

Volunteering abroad can be a rich, life changing experience, but there are also many considerations.  This list of frequently asked questions has been designed to assist you with this process.  

How do I get started?
  • Begin this process as far in advance as possible. Starting a year before your departure date is not a bad idea.
  • Make a list of all your interests and needs for your volunteer experience. Think about financial limitations, what goals you hope to achieve during your experience, your preferred living situation, and any other special needs. [1]
  • Try using the “Choosing Your Volunteer Experience Worksheet.”
What should I be thinking about when choosing a volunteer opportunity abroad?
  • Consider and prioritize the criteria for evaluating the various volunteer opportunities. Some of these criteria might include affordability, the type of preparation you’ll need, cultural immersion, or language training to name a few. [1]
  • Remember that no organization is perfect and it is important to maintain realistic expectations. [2]
  • Talk with people who are familiar with your program so you can get a good idea of what the experience would be like and the issues you might face. You can plan ahead and think about how you would manage those issues.
  • Research how long the organization has been working in the community and their reputation in the region or country. [6]
  • Think about the skills you have to offer an organization. If you are unsure, try volunteering at home first. You will be surprised by how much you have to bring to the table. [6]
  • To get started on the evaluation process, try using the “Volunteer Opportunity Evaluation Criteria.” [1]
Why should I pay to volunteer with an organization?
  • People pay for the services of a volunteer organization because they may offer certain benefits like an orientation that includes important pre-departure information, language and technical training, clear expectations for volunteers, a support system for you emotionally and logistically, potential pre-arranged accommodations, and they can even be more affordable than planning a trip on your own. [4]
  • When considering various volunteer organizations, do your research; know where your money is going, and ask lots of questions. [4]
  • When evaluating an organization, research the relationship the organization has with the community you will be working with. [6]
  • Remember that a good volunteer organization will be happy to answer all your questions and will be patient with you during this process. [8]
What if I don’t want to use a Volunteer Organization and want to volunteer independently?
  • This is a successful option for many people.
  • First, decide on the specific city and country you want to volunteer in. [5]
  • Before you leave, make contacts with various organizations that might need your help. You can do this by asking friends and family for any hints and sometimes doing an online search for organizations can be helpful. [5]
  • Think about all the various costs you will be responsible for and how you might afford them. Sometimes a host organization can help with finding accommodations and might even pay for it in return for your work. [5]
  • As soon as you arrive in the country seek out your contacts. Talk with them about your goals, how you might be useful, and share with them your dedication and sincerity. [5] This can also be done before you leave.
  • If you decide to volunteer independently, keep in mind that more of your time will be spent on coordinating your time and volunteer opportunities, rather than solely on volunteering. [5]
How do I afford my volunteer experience?
  • Before you can afford your amazing volunteer experience abroad, you need to know how much it’s all going to cost.
  • When planning your budget you will need to consider a few things: plane tickets, food during your stay, lodging during your stay, participation costs (if the volunteer experience charges a fee), or spending money – to name a few.
  • Some volunteer experiences provide all-inclusive fees, which pay for transportation, food, lodging, and/or any excursions. Sometimes these fees are for profit, sometimes these fees go directly to the organization to pay for the actual cost of the trip plus the necessary administrative processing, or the fees could go to the organization and the community being served.
  • Before you pay an organization a fee you need to be comfortable with how your money is being used. More importantly, ask the organization about any hidden fees and what the total cost will actually look like.
  • Sometimes if a volunteer stays long enough and has proved their usefulness, the costs they are responsible for go down or are eliminated. [2]
  • Planning ahead could help you financially. You’ll have time to save money, research various grants, fundraise.
  • Contact the volunteer organization with whom you plan on volunteering, if you are going with an organization. They typically answer these types of questions all the time and will be able to help you brainstorm and think of solutions.
What should I think about before I leave for my volunteer experience?
  • Learn what you can about your co-workers and the people and places you will be visiting. [3]
  • Study the maps of the region. [3]
  • Know basic history of the country and the region. [3]
  • Learn about the dominant religion. [3]
  • Research what is appropriate to wear and appropriate body language. This is especially helpful for women in countries where the Western idea of feminism is not understood. [7]
  • Ask your sponsoring organization about any cultural tips and customs. [3]
  • If volunteering in a country that speaks another language, learn at least a few basic phrases. [3]
  • Take time before you leave to reflect on what you hope to learn, achieve, what you’re excited or nervous about, and consider journaling before and during the experience. [3]
  • Be prepared to work hard and think about how you will pace yourself to stay healthy. [7]
What are some helpful hints for me to keep in mind during my volunteer experience?
  • The first thing to do is let go of any expectations. Most volunteers say that the work they thought they would be doing is completely different than the work they actually did. [8]
  • Try to go with the flow and be flexible.
  • Think about keeping a record of your experience so you can share it with others in the future. It might also help you process the experience as you go through it. [3]
  • Remember to make the most of your experience. Remember that you worked hard to get there and now it’s time to enjoy the experience of a lifetime. [8]
What about after the volunteer experience? How can I transition back to my life in the states?
  • Give yourself the space to transition back. For some this may take a long time and for others it might be an easy transition back. Remember that volunteering abroad will change your life.
  • Take time to reflect on your experience: What did it mean? How did it impact you? Are you a different person? How will your life need to fit the new you? [3]
  • Think of ways in which you can continue to give back to your host organization. This may be in the form of volunteering again, serving as a reference to future participants, or writing a testimonial of your experience for your host organization. [3]
  • Try to pay attention to your host country or region when it is in the news. By knowing what’s going on, you can advocate for them and help educate those around you. [3]
What are options for people who don’t want to commit to a year of full-time volunteering?
  • There are many opportunities for people to volunteer for short periods of time.
  • You can arrange various opportunities yourself or through an organization that will host you.
  • When thinking about this option, consider where you want to go, what types of personal interactions you want to have, and the results you want to achieve. [3]

1. Zahara Heckscher, How to Evaluate Volunteer Sending Organizations, http://transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml (March 2010)

2. Susan Griffith, Coping with Potential Problems, http://transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml (March 2010)

3. Doug Cutchins and Anne Geissinger, Making the Most of a Volunteer Vacation, http://transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml (March 2010)

4. Le Ann Joy Adam, Why Pay Money to Volunteer?, http://transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml (March 2010)

5. Michael Don, Volunteer Abroad on Your Own, http://transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml (March 2010)

6. Christine Victorino, Selecting the Perfect Volunteering Opportunity, http://transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml (March 2010)

7. Clay Hubbs, The Ins and Outs of Volunteering: An Interview, http://transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml (March 2010

8. Katie Krueger, Arranging a Volunteer Experience Abroad, http://transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml (March 2010)