Signing up for an overseas volunteer program is one of the best ways to see the world when you’re young: You can travel, learn new skills, and make a meaningful contribution to global society. But before you go running off to be the change you want to see, there are some important things to consider before taking part in a volunteering abroad program. Here’s a guide that will help you make sure you have all your boxes ticked before setting out.
- Figure out what kind of volunteer work you want to be involved in.
- Decide where you want to volunteer.
- Double-check the fine print.
- Consider your motives for volunteering abroad.
- Evaluate the costs.
- Know how to prepare and what to pack.
1. Figure out what kind of volunteer work you want to be involved in.
Volunteer abroad programs are a huge industry: More than 1.6 million people volunteer abroad every year, and that number is ever increasing. For young adults who want to both see the world and help others, an easy option is to take part in a “voluntourism” program, where in addition to their volunteering work, participants still get some free time for travel and cultural enrichment.
Luckily for all you do-gooders, there is an overload of programs out there, and you have your pick of an area of expertise. Teaching English, construction, disaster aid, agriculture and food work, childcare, and habitat or wildlife conservation are just some of the fields in need of volunteers. Mission programs, offered through community churches and organizations, are also very popular. If you have a more specialized background, like in the medical field, there are also many programs for that frequently in-demand skill set.
2. Decide where you want to volunteer.
Every year there are different countries that, for reasons ranging from the number of available programs, cost, and safety, become popular volunteer destinations. Last year’s top spot was Peru; India, the Philippines, and Cambodia are also frequently popular destinations. So if it’s about wanting to visit a specific country, you can tailor your search around that.
Or say you’re more attached to the “what” you want to do instead of the “where.” If you want to volunteer in wildlife conservation, countries like Thailand and Costa Rica continually top the list for conservation volunteer programs. If you like working with kids, countries like South Korea and Chile are always looking for native English speakers to volunteer in schools.
But there are other questions to bear in mind, such as how far outside your comfort zone you’re willing to push yourself. Volunteering abroad is all about cultural immersion, but it’s not always easy. You can struggle with culture shock or may have to learn to live without easy access to things we take for granted, like fresh water and electricity. But that is a key part of the experience, requiring you to take a step out of your bubble and experience an alternate way of living.
3. Double-check the fine print.
This point cannot be stressed enough: know what you’re getting yourself into. There are thousands of volunteer abroad programs around the world, and they run the gamut from huge corporations to small nonprofits. So it’s up to you to do the research and pick the best program that will have the most ethical and positive impact.
In general, you want a program that has a proven track record. It should be transparent and upfront about how the money is spent, it should be helping its volunteers through every step of the process, and it should have good feedback from past participants. It’s easy to find such feedback from an online search or reaching out to people who have participated in a certain program in the past. A great example is Global Volunteers, which has been operating since 1984, is run by the UN, and has a stellar record.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are many “volunteer programs” that are just in it for the money or the publicity, including many programs centered around orphanages. Do your due diligence, and steer clear of unvetted programs and programs that have had doubts raised about their legitimacy by outside organizations.
Also, know the particulars of the program you signed up for to fully understand what is included and what isn’t: the cost breakdowns, the schedule, what you need to bring, and what is provided. Otherwise, you may find yourself in a foreign country facing some unexpected surprises.
4. Consider your motives for volunteering abroad.
Apart from choosing the right program to volunteer with, doing some self-reflection to make sure you’re doing this for the right reasons is arguably the most important part of the process. There can be a lot of assumptions, unacknowledged privileges, and stereotypes hiding behind a desire to volunteer abroad. Asking ourselves key and perhaps uncomfortable questions can force us to examine our choices and perspectives, and make sure our decision to volunteer abroad is actually doing good for others.
5. Evaluate the costs.
Volunteering to help others is a worthy cause. But unfortunately, that means programs do not always come cheap. Most of the expenses, such as airfare, housing, and food will need to be covered by you.
Where your money goes really depends on the program. Some just charge an upfront fee to participate and then leave figuring out the logistics, like housing and transport, to you. Others have those costs built into the overall price and they arrange everything for you in advance. If it’s your first time living abroad on your own, it may be best to choose a program that makes those arrangements for you. But either way, since you’ll be volunteering and not working during the program, you’ll want to have a nest egg saved so you’ll have money while abroad, either from work, fundraising, or asking for donations from friends and family.
6. Know how to prepare and what to pack.
Most past participants and programs themselves recommend that you pack light. What exactly you pack depends on where you’re going, but in general, some good sturdy shoes, all-weather clothing, toiletries, and personal hygiene products (especially feminine hygiene products) should be included, as well as any medication you may need.
In terms of preparation, most organizations will send you literature prior to your trip that contains relevant information about culture, customs, language, dos and don’ts, and more. But you should do some of your own research before departure, especially learning some of the basics of the native language. You’ll likely be speaking English within your volunteer group and at your volunteer job, but speaking the native language with the locals can help you communicate better, as well as show respect and that you have an interest in their culture and language.