This is a good question and one you need to think very carefully about. The most common reason to volunteer is the desire to “give something back”.
Wanting to help others, wishing to do good and hoping to make a difference are all important reasons to volunteer, but nine times out of ten they’re not enough to make you to feel that your time was well spent. There need to be other reasons. And, as you imagine, there are plenty to choose from.
Volunteering is an excellent way to get under the skin of a country and come to grips with a different culture. The culture exchange element of international volunteering is a key part of what both you and your hosts will get out of the whole experience. Plus, you can build volunteering into almost any segment of your travels, whether you decide to arrange it formally or just turn up and find a placement yourself.
The educational aspect of volunteering is equally crucial. In almost every placement you’ll have the opportunity to learn a foreign language or to brush up on one. And many of the new skills you’ll acquire of develop can be used back home in your profession. Recognizing that transferable skills can be gained while volunteering.
Many volunteers have found that international volunteering has either helped their career or given them the necessary experience to change careers.
Area of Work
There are thousands of volunteer opportunities around the world and a number of different approaches to getting involved.
What tasks you perform as an international volunteer depends both on what you want to do, and on what is needed by the community or environment where you’re going. Within this framework you’ve got a number of broad choices. The first choice is whether you want to work with people (usually called development volunteering) or with the environment and animals (referred to as conservation and wildlife volunteering).
Once you’ve made that basic choice, decide whether you consider yourself a skilled or unskilled volunteer. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. Skilled volunteers are often people such as teachers, accountants, civil engineers or nurses who work in their professions abroad. However, everyone has skills to offer: a parent might be skilled in conflict resolution, or a university graduate in acting and drama. In the final analysis, being skilled or unskilled will not necessarily dictate what area you work in, but it will impact on the level of responsibility you’re given.
Whatever you decide, it’s wise to be prepared for your role to change or develop. You might apply to do something, then find that something rather different is required of you once you reach your placement.
There are nine main areas within the development volunteering sector:
Emergency and relief: An option for highly skilled and experienced volunteers only, this is where doctors, nurses, midwives, psychologists and so on, respond to humanitarian crises, conflicts, wars and natural disasters abroad. Some volunteers are on 72-hour standby to go anywhere in the world. Many of the organizations working in this sector have longer-term volunteer opportunities for skilled non-medical staff, such as logisticians or administrators.
Working with children: Typically, work in this area might include volunteering as a sports coach, working in an orphanage or with street children.
Education and training: Most volunteer placements in this category are teaching English (with or without qualifications) in preschools and primary or secondary schools, although teaching adults is also common. Depending on your talents or qualifications, however, you could end up teaching almost anything.
Business administration and office work: Depending on your experience, you might work for local Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) writing fundraising proposals, managing a project or volunteering in their marketing, PR or finance departments. The aim of these placements is usually to train local people in the skills you possess so that they can become self-sufficient (such work is referred to as capacity-building).
Building and construction: Good old-fashioned manual labour often plays a big part in volunteering overseas. You are usually sent as part of a team to help build schools, community centres, houses, bridges, dams or latrines. There is also a need for skilled volunteers in this area to work as civil or structural engineers and construction or site supervisors.
Health and nutrition: Health professionals are required in this area, but you don’t have to be a fully trained nurse, doctor, speech therapist, nutritionist or physiotherapist to contribute. Non-medical volunteers can often help in other areas, like the promotion of health and hygiene issues in a local community.
Community development: This covers a wide variety of community and social programmes. You might help women’s groups set up income-generating schemes (eg selling handicrafts), work with a local village on empowerment issues or help establish a system for disposing of rubbish in a village or region.
Staff volunteering: some volunteer organizations, particularly those aimed at eh youth market, need in-country volunteer staff to help manage and run their overseas programmes. You might be a medic on an expedition, an interpreter at a field base or a project manager working a group of 17 to 24 year-olds.
Agriculture and farming: This one is almost exclusively for skilled volunteers. Communities often need horticulturalists, foresters, agronomists and agriculturist.
Conservation and Wildlife Volunteering
The words “conservation” and “wildlife” sum up most of the options for volunteering in this area. The majority of opportunities involve short-term stints working on long-term projects alongside scientist or other experts. Sometimes you’re based in one location but often you join an expedition through a particular region.
Volunteering in conservation could involve clearing or constructing trails in African national parks, studying flora and fauna in a cloud-forest reserve in Ecuador or monitoring climate change in the Arctic. There are countless, wide-ranging options available.
Archaeology and palaeontology also come under the conservation banner and are two fields that rely heavily on international volunteers.
If you choose to work with animals you might do anything from helping monitor sea turtle populations in Costa Rica to analyzing the migration of grey whales in Canada to working in a home for neglected or orphaned wild animals in Namibia.
Marine conservation straddles both the conservation and wildlife camps. Tasks for volunteers may include underwater surveys of coral reefs in the Philippines, diving with whale sharks in Honduras or helping with dolphin conservation in Florida.
Most volunteer organizations have detailed websites where you can learn a lot more about them and about volunteering in general.
Australian Council for International Development (ACFID)
Broad-based volunteering information for Australians
International volunteering links plus the latest development research and jobs
Council for International Development (CID)
A New Zealand site representing the non-government aid and development sector
Global Focus Aotearoa
A New Zealand site covering development issues in the region, with a directory of 1200 agencies and organizations working in the Pacific.
Guide to Development Speak
Some jargon-busting from the BBC
Offering free registration, this site has lots of information on international volunteering. You can search for opportunities and there’s also an “Ask the Expert” section.
New, views, campaigns and information from an international network of people interested in global justice.
Serve your World
This well-organized guide to international volunteering addresses a variety of relevant topics, from the philosophical to the practical.
An excellent general resource on living, working and volunteering abroad, with lots of articles and links.
The site of Australia’s governing body on volunteering, with links to not-for-profit organizations
Volunteering New Zealand
The New Zealand volunteering world’s resource centre
Organized Volunteer Programmes
AFS intercultural Programmes
BUNAC (British Universities North America Club)
Brathay Exploration Group
British Schools Exploring Society
International Citizen Service
Inter-Cultural Youth Exchange UK
Lattitude Global Volunteering
Link Overseas Exchange
Youth for Development
North American Organizations
Amigos de las Americas
Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development
Volunteer in Africa
These listings are mostly aimed at people under 30. They combine service opportunities with structured classes in a wide variety of subject areas, including language and culture.
North American Organizations
AFS Intercultural Programmes Community Service Programme
Asociacion Pop Wuj
Institute for Central American Development Studies
Cuba Solidarity Campaign
IVS GB (International Voluntary Service)
Village Education Project (Kilimanjaro)
Winant Clayton Volunteer Association
Australian Volunteers International
Volunteer service Abroad (VSA), Te Tuao tawahi
Volunteering for International Development from Australia
Conservation & Wildlife Placements
African Conservation Experience
TCV (The Conversation Volunteers)
Centre for Alternative Technology
Coral Cay Conservation
Scientific Exploration Society
Cape Tribulation Tropical Research Station
Archelon, The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece
Voluntary Service Overseas
Challenges Worldwide (CWW)
North American Organisations
Lawyers Without Borders
Operation Smile, Inc.
Emergency & Relief
Doctors of the World
International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
International Medical Corps
Doctors Without Borders
Association IKO Poran
Himalayan Light Foundation
Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP)
Mango Tree Goa
Rural Community Development Programme - Nepal
Volunthai: Volunteers for Thailand
Volunteer Action for Peace
Building and Construction
Development in Action
Experiment in International Living
Independent Living Alternatives
Personal Overseas Development
Volunteers for Rural India (VRI)
Education and Training
Ecologia Youth Trust
Karen Hilltribes Trust
Sudan Volunteer Programme
Conservation and Wildlife Placements
Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF)
North American Organizations
Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions
Conservation Volunteers Australia
Fundacion Jatun Sacha
Golondrinas Foundation – Ibarra Ecuador
Millennium Elephant Foundation
Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand
Junior Art Club
Karmi Farm Clinic
Rokpa UK Overseas Projects
North American organizations
Ecuador Volunteer Foundation
Health Volunteers Overseas
Australasian Business Volunteers
Engineers Without Borders Australia
North American Organizations
Youth Challenge International
World Youth International