From trail building in the Appalachian Mountains to rescuing sea turtles in Costa Rica, when looking for volunteer opportunities abroad, the options are seemingly endless. But before you get caught up in the excitement of planning your big adventure, take some time to ensure your good intentions turn into positive results.
Here's our guide to finding international volunteer placements where you can be sure you won't be doing more harm than good.
Volunteer or volontourist?
While "volunteer" is a general term for someone who dedicates their time to a cause or activity without financial gain, the word "voluntourist" is often used to refer to the growing group of individuals who travel to developing countries in order to carry out volunteer work, usually usually as part of a longer trip or holiday.
Most often it refers to people who donate their time - usually just a months, weeks or even days - to volunteering in a field where they have no prior experience or qualifications. All good intentions aside, these kind of transactions are deeply questionable. Voluntourism - and the organisations which promote it, who usually charge a fee for placing you - can reinforce dependency upon handouts, take jobs away from locals and lead to projects being undertaken (such as the construction of housing) by a roster of interchanging, short-term volunteers with no experience of the task at hand.
While not all volunteer organisations that charge a fee are necessarily doing anything wrong , it can sometimes be an indication of the superficiality of the experience on offer. Rather than a benevolent exchange of skills and time, it's a transaction, with the volunteer's money maybe being of more benefit to the organisation than their presence ever could be. It's a transaction, and the volunteer is paying for an unforgettable foreign experience, an enhanced CV and probably some much-liked Facebook photos with locals.
The best thing to do before embarking on a volunteering trip abroad is to ask yourself a short set of questions.
1) What is your primary motivation?
International volunteer experience is of course an asset to any CV, but are you doing it out of a desire to help others, or primarily to achieve a personal goal? If it's the latter, maybe think about volunteering closer to home, or finding another way to get the international experience you are after. Voluntourism tends to be primarily about the volunteer, not the people in the developing country.
2) What do you have to offer?
Take the time out to honestly assess your talents. If you have a clear set of skills that match well with a specific need in the field, then go ahead and apply. If you don't have any experience in a certain area than maybe find a way you can develop those skills - either through volunteering at home or taking a course - before sending in your application.
3) How much time can you give?
There are certain specific organisations and projects that can benefit from short-term volunteers, but just like with any job, the longer you have, the more effective and sustainable your impact can be. If you only have two weeks, you're probably better off focusing your energy on a project closer to home.
Volunteer Opportunities for Professionals
If you have technical and transferable skills, there are numerous volunteer opportunities out there for you that will allow you to travel, gain experience in a different country and apply your skills where they are needed. These opportunities often cover your travel and accommodation costs, but don't usually pay the equivalent of a salary. Placements are long-term, meaning anywhere from nine months up to around two years.
A few good starting points are:
- Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) coordinates international volunteer programmes and welcomes volunteers who have at least three years' experience in their chosen field.
- Register with the Global Talent Pool at United Nations Volunteers and the UN will match you up with one when a position becomes available. They offer around 2000 placements a year.
- Idealist lists global volunteering opportunities in sustainable development, as well as internships and paid professional opportunities.
International Work Exchanges
An easy way to combine work and travel, learn practical skills, and get a genuine grassroots mutually-beneficial experience, international work exchanges can be a great alternative to a more formal volunteering experience. Although they require more planning and organisation on the part of the volunteer than a fee-paying placement, because the experience is usually free, they're much more sustainable in the long term - for everyone involved.
Most placements require volunteers to stay for at least a few weeks, others specify at least a month - either way, you'll probably end up wanting to stay longer than you originally planned, so it's probably best to plan to be flexible. Hosts are usually individuals or small NGOs, and offer food and accommodation for 4-6 hours of work a day. Most websites charge a membership fee which subsidises their costs, but there is no charge for the volunteer work itself.
There are currently a few different options out there:
- Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF): started in England back in the 1970s, WWOOF is a legendary organisation now a worldwide network that facilitates work exchanges for volunteers who want to work on organic farms and learn about organic lifestyles. A great way to learn about sustainable farming practices or permaculture. However, because each country has its own WWOOF organisation, you need to pay a membership fee for each one, which can add up if your trip goes through multiple countries.
- Workaway and HelpX: Both of these sites are basically huge databases, listing thousands of hosts around the world that are looking for volunteers to come and help them with their projects. Placements are incredibly varied and there's enough on offer to suit everyone, ranging from helping care for horses in Argentina and helping kids with their homework on a remote Brazilian island to learning about permaculture at a farm in Kenya. Sometimes hosts request specific skills - like in construction, graphic design, or languages - but there are many who are just looking for an extra pair of hands and a whole lot of enthusiasm. Accommodation ranges from farmstays, to hostel rooms, to B&Bs and boats (!). Just set up a profile and you can start messaging hosts you are interested in. Both sites let you check out the full list of hosts before paying the membership fee.
- Volunteers Base: calling itself a "moneyless exchange network" unlike Workaway and HelpX, Volunteers Base doesn't even charge a user fee. That's right, it's completely free. The website looks a little less slick than the others, and unlike Workaway and HelpX there doesn't seem to be a way for past volunteers to leave feedback on their experiences with different hosts. This is a feature that really helps to build up trust and confidence in would-be hosts (pretty important in a situation where there is no official organising information to vet participants), as well as highlighting those placements that come most-highly recommended. It's not a dealbreaker by any means, but the lack of this feature might put off some first-time volunteers,
- Volunteersouthamerica.net is the ultimate place to find free and low-cost (sometimes there's a small fee for food and board) volunteering opportunities in South (and Central) America. The list is constantly updated, with feedback and recommendations from past volunteers.
You don’t even have to leave your bedroom for this one.
The United Nations runs an online volunteering program where potential volunteers can contribute their skills to organisations throughout the world via the web on a per-project basis. People wishing to volunteer their time sign up, log in and can access a global database which lists thousands of organisations looking for assistance for specific projects.
Projects usually go along the lines of grant or proposal writing, website building/maintenance, communications and online activism. It is a general requirement to see the project through to completion though the time requirements differ greatly between projects (assignments can last a couple of hours to several months) meaning you can select the task that bests suits your skills and availability.
And for those who are really strapped for time, making a small donation to a good cause can also have a positive impact. Check out RESET's funding projects here.
Author: Marisa Pettit (2017)