Before I embarked on my first volunteer trip abroad, I researched online and explored all my options for both international volunteer and paid work to see what types of opportunities were available out there. Most of the organizations and programs that I found were catered to professionals in the medical field, English teachers, or geared towards people in their 20’s and recent graduates looking for internships. I looked into working holiday visas, but was told, “you need to just go to the country first, look for work and hopefully find a company willing to sponsor you.” I even called abroad to job agencies in the prospective countries that I was interested in to see if I could get some advice, but they all gave me similar answers, “you have to be in the country with a local address, in order to be considered for any position.” I would also see lots of postings for various volunteer organizations as well, but was reluctant to apply for them as they were charging ridiculous program fees – what exactly was my money going towards?
I felt like there was a gap in information readily available for someone like me, with professional experience and looking to add value and give back to an organization by volunteering abroad. Were there any opportunities available for professionals with a few years of experience under their belts that weren’t medical doctors or looking to teach? And if so, how do I know the organizations are reputable? What options were out there for people like me, who were looking to make an impact internationally by giving back through our skills and experiences?
That’s when I stumbled upon “skill-based volunteering.”
More and more, non-profit and for-profit international organizations are looking to recruit both young professional volunteers, as well as more mature, specialized skill-based volunteers to fill in specific roles within organizations. Many non-profits don’t have the funding to pay for highly-skilled professionals (individuals with experience in specific areas), so in exchange for their specific skill-sets and knowledge, they offer international work experience and living expenses (accommodation, food, sightseeing compensations etc.) in return.
Whether you’re a fresh college graduate looking for a short-term volunteer placement or a established professional looking for more of a long-term skill-based placement; below is a step-by-step guide on how to choose the right volunteer placement abroad to help you get started:
Table of Contents
STEP 1: Where Can I Add value? Assess Your Skill-Sets.
Take a look at your resume and analyze it down to the detail. Figure out exactly where you feel your strongest skill-sets are and make a list of the areas in which you feel that you can add value to a volunteer organization (very much like the process of applying for a job). Skills can include everything from administration, cooking, teaching, writing, professional skill-based work (i.e. medical doctor, lawyer), digital social media management to general labour. Whatever you feel your best skills may be, make sure you’re ready to showcase them. What can you bring to the table to help contribute to the goals of your desired volunteer placement? Everyone has their own unique skill sets and talents, so be sure to fully assess yours.
STEP 2: What is Your Purpose? What Kind of Impact Do You Want to Make? Evaluate Why You Want to Volunteer.
People volunteer for all sorts of reasons, what is your purpose? Ask yourself about the impact you wish to make. What do you hope to gain through your volunteer work? Do you want to giveback because you feel passionate about a particular cause? Do you want to gain international work experience to add to your resume? Or maybe you just want to travel for a period of time and looking to save on costs by volunteering your skills. Determining the reason as to why you want to volunteer will help you in choosing the right type of volunteer placement that works best for you. Do you want more focused, skill-based work or are you looking to try something completely new? Figure out what your purpose is.
STEP 3: What Cause Do You Feel Passionate About?
It’s important to have genuine passion for the volunteer organization or cause you wish to volunteer for and choosing something that’s close to your heart will help you make a bigger impact through your work (read more: “5 Tips to Make a Real Impact on Your Volunteer Work Abroad.”). Choose a volunteer placement that you have a strong interest in and get involved with organizations that align with your personal values. This could be in the areas of conservation, healthcare and medicine, humanitarian relief, child care, education, fashion, animal rights, disaster relief, environmental sustainability, community outreach, NGO support, sports, arts, music, and so many more. Your options are virtually limitless!
STEP 4: Which Part of the World Do You Want to Travel to? Consider Costs.
Do you want to go somewhere warm? Can you afford the living expenses at your desired destination? Is it safe for solo travellers? Make sure to do your research and consider travel warnings before choosing your destination (read: “Top 11 Safety Tips from a Female Solo Traveller”). Consider your costs and calculate the standard of living costs (transportation, food, etc.) for your particular destination to see if it is within your budget. An excellent resource tool to help you determine this can be found on www.expatistan.com. The Expatistan, is a cost of living calculator that allows you to compare the cost of living between cities around the world.
STEP 5: How long can you volunteer abroad for?
However long you’re able to volunteer will ultimately be according to your own schedule. However, the level of impact and length of your work will have an effect on what may be the “right” volunteer placement for you. Generally, the longer you’re able to stay, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to make a greater impact and feel as though you’re making progress with your work.
- One-day Volunteering – Mainly booked through organized tours, you can ask local guides for recommendations, or do your own research online and join local forums. Ideal for when you want to do something for one day on a week or weekend getaway.
- Short-term (< 3 months) Volunteering – A great way to travel & experience local life. However, you may feel as though you’re not making any progress or impact because of the short length of time spent at your placement. If you need ideas on how to make the most out of your volunteer trip, read “5 Tips to Make a Real Impact on your Volunteer Work Abroad.”
- Long-term Volunteering – A great opportunity to become fully immersed in a new culture, develop trusting relationships with the locals and staff, and see some real results from your volunteer work.
STEP 6: What type of volunteering opportunities are there?
- Regular (non-specialized) Volunteer Work – No specific specialized skills are required
- Specialized/Skill-based Volunteer Work – Generally professionals with some experience under their belt who have acquired specific skills and developed an expertise in their respective field(s).
- Virtual Volunteer Work – This is designed for prospective volunteers who are unable to commit to going overseas for a long-period of time, but can provide virtual work instead.Sometimes, host countries will compensate their stay for a few days if they choose to visit the organization’s destination. This can be on both a short-term or long-term capacity.
Step 7: a) Different types of Volunteer Organizations to Choose From
- Non-profit – Dedicated to furthering a particular social cause or advocating for social welfare that generates some public benefit. Although revenue is generated, they do not gain profit from their activities. Ex. disaster relief organizations
- For profit – Opposite to non-profit organizations, this type of volunteer program is hosted by a business that operates to gain profit.
- Government-Affiliated Organizations – Organizations / programs that are well-funded by the government.
- International Organizations – Organizations with an international scope and presence. Ex. Red Cross
- Religious-Affiliated Organizations – Groups that should share the same religious faith.
b) Three categories of volunteer organizations to think about
According to “The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook” by Shannon O’Donnell, volunteer organizations can be broken down into 3 categories:
-The research into volunteer organizations and travel plans are handled solely by you. You are not relying on a company to help you find a placement.
-Ideal for long-term travellers or someone who is looking to make a long-term commitment.
-If you’re planning to stay with an organization for a longer period, you may be able to negotiate some living expenses and boarding, in exchange for your volunteering services.
-Organizations that have formed relationships with volunteer programs overseas and charge a fee to place you with specific organizations in various destinations around the world (similar to how an HR agency works).
-A good organization will be transparent and will breakdown all the fees associated with your service and it will identify exactly where the funds are being allocated. They help arrange all your pre-departure needs including security measures,lodging, pre-departure course training, etc.
3. Organized Tours
-Companies that cater to tourists seeking well-coordinated volunteer-oriented tours to various places in the world. They should meet sustainable tourism standards and typically use eco-friendly travel and accommodation where available.
-You may spend a small or large percentage of your trip volunteering depending on your chosen placement.
-Prices are relatively the same as what you would pay on a normal vacation (includes guides, accommodation, food, etc.)
-Ex. G Adventures
Still not sure about what volunteer organization to choose? Before committing to any volunteer placement, read “9 Important Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Volunteer Program” before making your decision!