How do you volunteer Abroad?

An increasingly popular rite of passage for young people today, volunteering abroad is often seen as a way to extend service learning to low-income communities abroad. Young people are taught that volunteering and service learning is a high-quality experience that is important for college applications, job resumes and graduate school. Throughout high school and college, most students volunteer their time in some capacity, whether in their home community or abroad.

Types of Volunteer Programs

You’ve considered your motivations for volunteering abroad and looked at possible alternatives: now it’s time to learn more about the different types of volunteer organizations available to you.

Short-Term Volunteer Programs
In a short-term volunteer program, volunteers provide service to a community on a short-term basis and/or focus on the cultural learning experience. These programs can be for-profit or not-for-profit. These days, short-term/intercultural placements make up the vast majority of volunteer abroad programs.

Offer short-term volunteer positions (from one week to three months).
Generally do not require volunteers to have specific educational or professional qualifications.
Are the most common types of overseas volunteering programs available.

A great advantage of short-term volunteer placements in the chance to experience a country and work with local people in a short amount of time. However, a major disadvantage is that as a volunteer you may be ‘gap filling’ if there is no long-term plan, and sometimes the impact of your placement is questionable (so make sure to read up on how to supercharge your impact on a short-term volunteering placement).

Long-Term Volunteer Programs
The focus of most long-term volunteer placements work is on empowering local people. These programs often involve some kind of skills transfer and may require volunteers to have specific educational or professional qualifications. These can often take the form of fee-paying volunteering placements, but also free volunteering projects that you organize independently.

The primary advantage of long-term volunteer work is that volunteers usually work very closely with local people on long-term issues; this gives you the chance to potentially see your impact on big, difficult issues. A disadvantage is that, as the project is long-term, it can take a long time for the results of the program to become visible.

Conservation Volunteer Program
Conservation volunteer programs are primarily concerned with conservation and environmental work in the field. Organizations have been classified separately from intercultural exchanges, as their emphasis and goals are notably different.
Focus on environmental issues on a local or global scale.

Can involve working with endangered animals, threatened environments (on land or in the ocean) or even with organic or sustainable farming projects.

Are generally very hands-on and offer a real chance to learn about global conservation challenges and how they are being confronted.

One good advantage of conservation volunteer projects is that they are often results-orientated so it’s far easier for you to identify — and measure — your impact. Conversely, your impact may not always be welcome. A notable disadvantage is that volunteers may face hostility from local people or agencies is possible, particularly where there’s a tension between the destruction of environmental resources and the need for economic development.

Things to look for in reputable volunteer abroad programs

Just having an aesthetically pleasing website with bright pictures isn’t enough to prove reputable volunteer abroad programs. After completing the first step of assuring you’re being a responsible voluntourist, make sure your volunteer organization is doing the same! How do you find these upright institutions?

Local community involvement
One of the most important indicators of the best volunteer abroad programs is that the local community should always have some level of involvement. Are members of the local communities involved in the organization’s administration and on-site projects? Does the organization use local resources such as lodging and meals to provide for volunteers? Has the local community fully approved the volunteer projects going on? Find out if the volunteer organization has truly made a point out of serving the host community in every aspect. Sustainable voluntourism, people!

Proven impact through volunteer work
A picture may speak a thousand words, but numbers carry an indisputable weight. Statistics about volunteer abroad companies can highlight the number of years in operation, the impact of volunteer projects, and the long-term benefits that the organization has had since its inception. These are all important pieces of information to demonstrate the company doesn’t exist to exploit host communities for profit. The best volunteer abroad organizations are transparent about their metrics of success.

Adequate preparation before volunteering
Apart from your active effort in preparing to be a responsible volunteer during your time abroad, you should choose a reputable volunteer abroad programs that provide adequate preparation. This means distributing pre-departure information about your host community, goals, and details so you can best equip yourself to serve for once you actually hit the ground running.

Volunteering abroad is a great experience

Volunteering overseas can teach you to let go of preconceptions about what other people need. You have an opportunity to learn about and appreciate the ideas and resourcefulness of those in the host community.

International volunteering provides an invaluable opportunity to experience firsthand what you learn in the classroom, see in movies, and read in books and on blogs.

Gain insight into your own culturally-based perceptions of disability, through the lens provided by interactions and experiences in a different culture.

You gain unique skills and experiences that can open doors to employment in international and domestic fields, including international development, public health, education and more.

Living in another country and taking part in day-to-day activities and traditions provides an invaluable intercultural experience.

There is great value in studying and using another language to the best of your ability. Language provides rich clues about individuals, their worldview and the cultural context in which they live.

Make friends with people from many different countries: volunteer abroad programs often bring together many volunteers from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Journeying to an unknown country and culture can be a wondrous adventure, full of new sights, sounds and aromas.


It isn’t just about warm fuzzy feelings. Aggravation and frustration, give and take, bewilderment and enlightenment are all part of living and serving in another culture. Volunteering in a community elsewhere in the world provides ample opportunity to see other’s culture in a new light. Getting to know the local people and learning their language and culture is really enriching.