When I took my career break to travel a couple years ago, volunteering was a big part of my plan. I saw volunteering abroad as a chance to give back to local communities, immerse myself in the local cultures and build some valuable skills that I could then list on my resume when it was eventually time to look for a job again.
I also spent a lot of time researching possible volunteer opportunities – A LOT! And when I look back, there are definitely things I wish I would have known and questions I wish I would have asked before I committed to anything. To that end, here are my tips for finding the right volunteer opportunity abroad for you.
Questions to ask yourself
Before you commit to volunteering abroad, ask yourself some serious questions to help shape your search for the right opportunity.
Why do you want to volunteer? Is it be immersed in the local culture? Is it to give back? Is it to build certain skills or have something to add to your resume? The answer may be a combination of the above, but it’s important to really understand your own motivations so you get the most out of your experience.
Where do you want to volunteer? Is there a particular region or country that really interests you? Or are you more concerned about the type of volunteering you will do rather than where you will do it. For me, I planned to travel around the former Soviet Union and focused my search on the 15 former Soviet republics, something that made my search more difficult because the most popular volunteering organizations and search engines don’t include those countries.
How much time do you have? If you only have a week or two, you will be more limited as to the types of activities you can engage in and have a meaningful impact. While some organizations may claim that volunteers can come in for a short time and teach English or care for children and make a difference, many would argue you are doing more harm than good. On the other hand, spending several months or more will give you a chance to undergo any necessary training and really adapt to your surroundings. You will develop closer relationships and likely have a longer-lasting impact on the people and place where you volunteer.
I admit, though, I was hesitant to commit myself to more than a month when I didn’t know how anything would go. At the same time, I found myself wishing I had more time in Armenia as my month there came to an end. In retrospect, I wish I would have given myself a cushion with no set plans in the month or two after Armenia so that I could have stayed longer.
What do you want to do? Do you want to use your professional skills and background while volunteering or do you want to try to develop new skills? Do you want to teach English or work with kids or animals? Most importantly, what do you enjoy doing and what are you good at? I am not a big kid person, so I did not pursue things like volunteering in an orphanage or teaching children. Instead, I focused on opportunities that I thought would utilize my skills and bolster my resume.
What opportunities are out there?
Large, international volunteer organizations
Volunteering through a large organization can be easier in that they are easier to find, it is easier to locate reviews by past volunteers and they can provide a good deal of support. On the other hand, they often just serve as middlemen, which can confuse communications, and most tend to work in about 20-40 popular countries, limiting your options if you wish to get off the beaten path. Large organizations often tend to incur more administrative costs and charge higher fees. They also usually require you to arrange volunteering in advance, so you will need to plan ahead rather than arrange something when you arrive in a country.
My volunteer experience with Geovisions, a large organization that offers opportunities to tutor conversational English around the world, was decidedly mixed. The price was right – just $1200 for 2 months in Russia – but the actual experience was pretty negative as my host family really had no interest in learning English and tended to ignore me altogether. I also ended up living far on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, more than an hour from the center, in a house that was under renovation and which looked nothing like pictures I had been sent. Because my month in St. Petersburg was so bad, I cut my scheduled time in Moscow back to two weeks. It ended up being better, but still a bit awkward as I was living with a couple younger than me who, while interested in practicing English, didn’t have much time to actually do so.
Small, local non-profits
On the other hand, when you volunteer through a small, local organization, you are likely working directly with local staff to make the arrangements. There is less overhead so fees are lower and are more likely to go to benefit the community where you are volunteering. On the down side, these opportunities can be more difficult to find as they usually won’t come up high in Google search results and may not even have a web presence at all. You will often need to find them by word of mouth or once you arrive on the ground.
My two opportunities with local organizations were quite positive. While the Armenian Volunteer Corps does serve as a placement organization, it is based in Yerevan, Armenia and places volunteers with organizations around the small country, most in Yerevan as well. It was also extremely affordable, requiring just a $150 donation plus $7 a night for my homestay with a local family. They focused on placing me with an organization that matched my background and interests and they offered free Armenian language classes, plus excursions around the country each weekend.
In Tajikistan, I volunteered for a month with the Zerafshan Tourism Development Association, based in Penjikent in western Tajikistan. As a community based tourism organization, they were looking for Russian or Tajik speaking volunteers to work with homestay hosts to teach them English so that they can better communicate with tourists. I split my time between two families, spending a few hours each day teaching English to the whole family. It was overall a positive experience, although I was fairly isolated and there was some confusion over what exactly I would be doing and for how long each day.
Questions to ask before you volunteer
What will you be doing? Understand what exactly you will be expected to do and for how long each day. Will you have weekends off? Who exactly will you be working with?
Where will you be living? Will you be in a homestay, a volunteer dorm or an apartment? Will you be living alone or with other volunteers? How close will you be to the city center and to where you will be working? What amenities will be available, like wi-fi, kitchen facilities, etc. What kind of transportation will be nearby?
Will there be other volunteers around? Of my three volunteer experiences, only in Armenia were there other volunteers around to socialize with and that made all the difference in my overall experience.
Are there any opportunities to complement your experience? Can you take language classes or go on organized excursions? How much time will you have to explore the city or country where you are volunteering?
What does your registration fee include? And where does the money go?
What kind of training or materials will be provided, if any? If you are teaching, will books or lesson plans be provided for you, or will you be expected to bring your own?
Are your services really needed? I ended up having a volunteer opportunity fall through after I arrived because they had another volunteer arriving for a longer time period a few weeks after me. They wanted to save work for him to do, so in the end didn’t have anything for me to do.
But even after you ask all these questions, it is worth doing your own research as well. I ended up deciding against two potential opportunities because of disturbing things I discovered in my own research about the organizations.
Finally, here are a few resources that I found useful as I searched for my volunteer opportunities:
Idealist.org – great advanced search options let you search for jobs, volunteer opportunities and organizations by location and type of opportunity. Also has a good volunteer resource center
GoOverseas.com – has a great collection of country profiles, as well as reviews of volunteer organizations by past participants.
GoAbroad.com – search by country, type and duration. Features nearly 1,000 organizations with more than 5,800 opportunities
TransitionsAbroad.com – a plethora of articles on volunteering, living and working abroad, as well as information about specific volunteer opportunities. Organized by region and country.