5 Key Factors to Consider When Choosing a Volunteer Abroad Program

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“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give” – Winston Churchill

Children at a school in Cambodia with text overlay Children at a school in Cambodia with text overlay

So you might be thinking to yourself, “I want to volunteer abroad, where do I start? Where can I volunteer?” With a wealth of different program options around the world, there are some important factors to consider as you conduct your research and due diligence. To find out how best to go about making this decision, I decided to ask one of my closest friends, Cherry Ng. Cherry and I have known each other since we were 11, and she has volunteered in South America, the Philippines and Cambodia so far. Over the past 5 years, Cherry has worked at Room to Read, an amazing non-profit organization driving literacy development and promoting girls’ education to ensure that girls complete secondary school in low-income countries. Read on for her practical advice and experience!

Getting started with volunteer opportunities

Volunteering abroad is truly rewarding and enriching in more ways than one, and can under the right circumstances help to make an impact and difference in the communities you work in. As an aside, it can also broaden your personal perspective on a whole new level, fuel your personal growth, deepen appreciation for a different culture, and force you to step out of your comfort zone and embrace a new lifestyle in a completely different environment.

One of the most common questions I am always asked is “I want to volunteer abroad, where do I start?” Perhaps you are drawn to working in a rhino conservation center in Africa or building houses for a community in India. With so many worthwhile projects out there it can be really exciting at first but without doing thorough research and planning there is a higher chance of you feeling let down since it may not always turn out how you expect.

In order to avoid being disappointed and having your experience do more harm than good, I have compiled 5 key factors you should be looking into before you make the jump.

1. What are your intentions, goals and expectations for volunteering abroad?

I have outlined a few important questions to ask yourself to help you to find a suitable program and location which addresses your goals:

How long am I willing to commit for?
What skills can I offer?
What am I hoping to achieve and get out of this experience?
What is my motivation and what are my goals for volunteering abroad?
What causes do I care about? Which project speaks to me on a personal and emotional level?
Am I planning to travel before/after/in-between my volunteer placement? If so, where?
Do I want to mix in some sightseeing with my volunteer placement program? Or do I want to only focus on volunteering during my placement program?

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Regardless of what skills or time you are able to offer, be realistic with your expectations during the period you are volunteering.

2. What is your financial commitment towards this?

Paying for volunteer work?! It may seem like a strange concept at first but chances are the organisation you are applying for will have very limited resources to be hosting you since most of the funds are usually contributed towards supporting the local social workers’ salaries rather than towards volunteers who come and go.

Depending on your financial budget there are two ways to go about with this:

  • Going through a volunteer placement organisation. This way is for you if:

You are willing to invest a high financial commitment
You are someone who prefers to have EVERYTHING organised for you
You have very limited time to research and find a suitable organisation
It is your first time volunteering abroad and you would prefer to have a support system throughout the program

I highly recommend to look into the following organisations: Bamboo-GVN, Cross-Cultural Solutions. For a low-cost program fee I would also recommend looking into: International Volunteer HQ.

The fees you pay usually cover coordination, accommodation, meals, airport pick-up, training and supervision throughout the program.

  • Contacting the organisation directly. This way is for you if:

You prefer to make minimum to very little financial commitment
You prefer to organize everything yourself
You have at least 1 to 2 month’s time to dedicate yourself towards researching a suitable organisation

Luckily other than Google we have a few search engines that are solely dedicated towards helping you find volunteer placements such as Idealist, GoAbroad and IVPA.

Some organisations will not require you to pay to volunteer, but you will still need to factor in accommodation, transport and food towards your budget. If you are REALLY tight on budget, a good way to support your fees is to do a fundraising through friends and family.

3. Questions to ask the organisation

Much like applying for a job, it is also equally important to directly ask the organisation about a few key things so you know what you are getting yourself into:

What is my volunteer position?
What tasks and responsibilities do I have?
How many hours am I required to work?
Can you give me an example of what I can expect from a typical day on site?
What does the volunteer placement fee go towards?
How much is contributed towards admin and program support?
What kind of training/orientation will I receive?
Are there any vaccinations or health precautions I should be aware of?

4. What do previous volunteers think about the experience?

If the contact of the organisation didn’t come from your friends or family it is always extremely helpful to ask for first-hand experience from previous volunteers. The best approach is to look through the organisation’s Facebook page and look for reviews or comments from people who have previously volunteered there and message them directly about their experience. Otherwise, some organisations will have a volunteer testimonial page as well.

5. Is it the best time to be volunteering abroad?

This may seem like a bizarre question but it is one of the most overlooked questions because it also factors in your budget and time spent. For example, if you are volunteering at a school perhaps the period you are volunteering will have a lot of public holidays during the month or it may be peak season for tourists which will directly impact the cost of your accommodation.

Other considerations when it comes to volunteering abroad

Aside from the practical and logistical considerations when it comes to volunteering abroad, there are several important issues to take into account before you get started. Here are some important reads concerning intentions for volunteering abroad, the potential impact of your help, whether you are properly qualified and have certain expertise to offer, and when there can be unintended consequences. I urge you to go through these resources and make a holistic, well-rounded decision on responsible volunteering.

While the criticisms of volunteer vacations are many, there are some positive aspects, if they are done right.

Voluntourism: the good and the bad

Volunteering abroad can be a wonderful experience, and hopefully this article will help you to better prepare yourself for your journey. What are some other important things to consider when researching a volunteer program? Share in the comments section below!

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20 Comments

  1. I like how you mentioned that we should be aware of what our financial commitment is. I can see how you can be really tight on a budget if you would have to pay for your study abroad program like you mentioned. I want to volunteer for some things and I would love to do it online where I can see all of the information.

  2. This is a really useful guide for those who want to volunteer and don’t know what it implies (for instance that you have to pay for accommodation, food, etc.). And another important thing: it’s important to be careful to choose a cause you can really believe in!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read, Lori! I absolutely agree with Cherry that it’s important to understand what your motivations are for a) volunteering and b) choosing a particular cause.

  3. Great tips on Volunteering, I would love to do this …if I could afford to just go..I prob would have to find a job, but doing both can be managed I’m sure , fabulous post!

    Valerie

  4. This is one of the best and most thorough posts I’ve seen on the subject. Most people think that they can go online and find a place that they can just sign up for, not thinking of the impact they want to make, or the what they want to learn as a result.

  5. You’ve compiled some really important aspects of volunteering that people should always consider when choosing somewhere to go. It’s something I’ve always thought about so maybe in the future I will. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great tips! I like how practical you are about this. I believe a lot of people have a bit of an idealized idea of what volunteering abroad means. Making sure they have their facts right and they know what they’re getting into might help. I also love that you advise anyone to seriously consider if the timing is right.

    1. Thanks Alina! I loved Cherry’s approach on this issue: practical and no BS! It’s so important to do your due diligence properly before committing time (and sometimes finances) to a cause.

  7. Such great information. It’s so wonderful that there are people out there that are committed to volunteering. If I consider volunteering, I definitely would want to reach out to those who have volunteered in the past.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read through! Absolutely – Cherry makes a good point that speaking privately with people who have volunteered previously is a good way to get honest feedback on their experience 🙂

    1. I think Cherry has a great point that you should treat it as you would any job! It’s for both parties’ benefit to be clear what the responsibilities and expectations are. Thanks for reading!

  8. I like your down-to-earth take on the experience! I’d recommend always asking any organisation for the name of a previous volunteer so that you can email or FB mesage them, ideally someone from your own country. This way you can ask what you should bring and also get a really good idea of what a typical day volunteering looks like.

    1. Thanks Danni! Credit really goes to Cherry, who’s a pro when it comes to researching various volunteer programs.

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