Choosing a Volunteer Experience Abroad
There are many factors to consider in choosing a program that is right for you. Motivation is a big one. Reflect on your motivations for volunteering abroad:
- Why do you want to become an international volunteer?
- What people, events, and experiences have led to your interest in volunteering abroad?
- What do you hope to get out of the experience?
- What do you hope to contribute?
- How do you see international volunteering affecting your life?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
While there is not just one ‘right’ reason to volunteer abroad, it is important to realize that different motivations can led to different types of service. Rhodes cautions against wanting to ‘solve other people’s problems’ or ‘fix things’, as too often this attitude, while good-intentioned, has had negative effects on communities and has disempowered local people.
Also consider these other variables when making your decision: Duration and Time of Year, Type of Volunteer Organization, Skills Needed, Host Language/Language Skills Needed, and Cost, among others.
Duration and Time of Year
For how long do you hope to be away? There are international volunteer projects lasting from one week to three years. Many of the programs have set dates, while others allow volunteers to determine their own start and end dates. The shorter-term (1 to 3 week) opportunities often entail a specific project such as building a medical clinic or repairing trails. In longer-term programs, volunteers live and work side-by-side with the local people, virtually becoming a part of the local community and its rhythms of daily life.
Type of Volunteer Organization
Find out if the program you are considering volunteering abroad with is a government agency, a for-profit tourist agency, or a non-profit or non-governmental organization (NGO). In some cases, governmental programs are intimately tied to a government’s foreign policy initiatives. In this case, you would need to decide whether you can stand behind these policies, and determine how these policies might impact the communities you help to serve.
A for-profit agency might or might not contribute part of their profits to the long-term sustainability of a community and its resources. It would be important to find out who the for-profit agency is benefiting most: the traveler, the local community, or its own staff. Rhodes cannot guarantee that the volunteer organization you are considering is reputable. Many of them are significantly influenced by the experience and interests of their founders.
Is the sending organization faith-based or secular? Determine what role, if any, religion or spirituality play in your motivation for volunteering abroad. Quite a few programs that place and receive volunteers are identified with a religious organization. Some of these seek volunteers that subscribe to a particular faith, while others don’t require any type of religious affiliation. Some have a specific evangelistic agenda, while others only emphasize peace and justice issues with no reference to religious beliefs. If you speak with returned volunteers and agency representatives, you can often get a clear picture of the type of work you will be doing and the nature of the organization you will be representing. Whether you are a religious person or not, you will want to ensure that your values and objectives are in line with those of the sending and host organizations.
Many of the opportunities you will find don’t require volunteers to have specific skills. A willing spirit and an open mind are often all that’s required to assist in the work initiated by local community members. However, if you have professional experience in a certain field (medical, technical, business, etc.), you may want to choose a program that will allow you to put your skills to use. On the other hand, if you are hoping to gain new skills or explore new career options, consider programs that provide the greatest opportunities for hands-on work in your area of interest. It is never too late to acquire new skills!
Host Language/Language Skills Needed
Some programs require conversational ability in the local language, but many don’t. Some offer language training before your volunteer work begins or as part of the program. Either way, volunteering abroad is an excellent way to practice or learn a new language. If one of your primary objectives is to practice a new language, look for a program that offers a home stay or a cultural immersion experience.
You might want to consider the following questions when determining which program is best for you:
- Would you prefer working in a rural or urban environment?
- Do you like the idea of traveling and volunteering independently or with a group?
- How much support or structure do you require of the agencies you’ll be working with?
- Are you willing to rough it in bare-bones accommodations, or are you looking for a program that will provide more comfortable lodging options?
What are your budget constraints? Would you be willing to fundraise if you were given some support from an organization? Does the sending organization offer scholarships? More importantly, what does the program fee cover? The costs of international volunteer programs vary widely. Some include airfare, room, board, and in-country support, while others only arrange your placement in a project abroad. Ask the program representative how your fee will be allocated. Will any of it go directly to the project or community being served? Are any other benefits included, such as language training, pre-departure and re-entry orientations, health and accident insurance, emergency evacuation, a living stipend, travel within the host country, special tourist excursions, or academic credit?
Why Pay to Volunteer?
This is a commonly-asked, but easily answered, question. Most of the programs that offer international volunteer opportunities charge volunteers a fee in order to cover their year-round coordinating and operational costs. Many also need to raise funds to contribute materials and other resources to the overseas project. A host community generally will not have the extra resources to house and feed you. If they had the funds to pay a stipend, they would probably hire a local person instead – someone who speaks the language, understands the community and culture, and is more inclined to stick around.
There are a few international volunteer programs – such as the Peace Corps, International Executive Service Corps, and a few others – that will cover the cost of your room, board, and airfare. In most other cases, part of volunteering abroad means a commitment to fundraising.
Volunteer Abroad Programs
- Alliance Abroad
- Child Family Health International
- Cross Cultural Solutions
- Earthwatch Institute
- International Executive Service Corps
- Global Volunteers
- Globe Aware
- Globe Med
- Peace Corps
- Unite for Sight
- World Endeavors
- World Teach
You may also use search engines such as http://www.volunteerinternational.org/
By no means is this an exhaustive list of available websites or volunteer opportunities. Rhodes has no specific knowledge of the positions listed within these links, nor are we endorsing these sites as the most appropriate for your individual search. Rhodes cannot guarantee the safety, risk level, quality or level of responsibility of the organizations listed, so it is important for students to research these programs independently. We suggest requesting the names and contact information of returned volunteers/alumni from the program(s) to learn about their experiences first-hand.