There are many, many organizations that place international volunteers but that require that the volunteers pay the costs associated with the placement (see later on these page on where to find credible programs).
Why do many organizations charge people to volunteer for a few, or several, weeks? Because it is much more beneficial to local, poor or developing communities to use funds to hire local people to serve food, build houses, educate young people, provide medical care, etc., than to use those resources to bring in an outside volunteer. The priority is not you, the volunteer, and your desire to help for a few weeks. Instead, the priority is local people being employed and being in charge of their own community activities. Volunteers from outside of a community are needed to fill gaps in local skills and experience, but it's not cost-effective for most organizations to pay for someone to come only for a few weeks or months. Therefore, if you want a short-term volunteering assignment, be prepared to pay for at least your travel and accommodations.
Volunteering abroad in short-term assignments, also known as "voluntourism", costs at least a couple of thousand of dollars. The expenses include:
Someone has to pay these expenses. Would you prefer the organization pay these expenses, taking away local resources from local people?
How can you fund your volunteering experience abroad?
Depending on how aggressive and persistent you are, it will take anywhere from a few months to a few YEARS to raise the funds you need for your volunteering abroad experience.
Keep a notebook or a spreadsheet and write down the name of every person who donates, and how much they donate. Thank these people after their donation with a card or postcard, handed to them in-person or via postal mail. Keep them updated about your fundraising efforts and, if you get to go abroad, what happens during your experience. If you do not raise enough money for your trip, offer to return the gift to the person, or to donate the funds to a charity. Give the person the option of getting their money back if you don't get to go on your trip for whatever reason.
Scholarships and fellowships for experiences abroad have to be tied to a university experience. If you aren't receiving college credit for this volunteering experience abroad, searching for a scholarship or fellowship is futile.
If this experience isn't in conjunction with your university and therefore isn't an official study abroad experience, but you want it to be, talk with the appropriate professors at your university. One of them may be willing to help you work with the university in order to get college credit for the program, which means it becomes an academic endeavor, something there are a few scholarships for.
Once you have official notification from your university that your volunteering abroad experience will be considered an official study abroad experience, make an appointment with your university financial aid office about finding scholarships, fellowships and financial aid that you might be eligible for. Also see:
See if your local library or university library has the books Financial Aid for Study and Training Abroad and Financial Aid for Research and Creative Activities Abroad. If they don't, they may be able to order them. You could buy them as well, if you can afford such.
The Peace Corps Fellows/USA program offers returned Peace Corps volunteers financial benefits such as scholarships, reduced tuition and university credit in advanced degree programs at 54 participating colleges and universities. Returned Volunteers who have satisfactorily completed their Peace Corps service have lifetime eligibility for Fellows/USA. Volunteers may choose to participate immediately following their Peace Corps service, or any time thereafter.
Corporations, small businesses and foundations aren't interested in sponsoring volunteering abroad experiences of this kind. Most corporations and foundations are overwhelmed with such requests and have a blanket policy to always say no. There are thousands and thousands of people who are looking for funding for short-term volunteering abroad activities, so competition for funds can be fierce. Also, donations to fund your volunteering abroad experience are not tax-deductible; they are, rather, personal gifts to you. Therefore, most businesses or foundations aren't even going to call you back regarding your request, and if they do, they are going to say no.
Limit any business requests to small businesses that know you personally (you have worked there, or the owner knows you or your family very well). Approach them just as you would any of your friends and family. If you get even $100 towards your experiences, consider yourself VERY lucky.
Fundraising events are expensive. Even if you decide you will just have a cookout and invite friends and family to both attend and to donate to your trip, you will have to pay for all the food and drinks. If you want to have a event, keep it simple: just in your home or at a bar where you won't be charged to rent the facilities (which means the bar will be open to the general public, not just your invitees). Here is advice on Creating or Holding a Successful Fund Raising Event, but note just how expensive such an event can be, and how much work such an event requires, for very little return.
Before you pay to volunteer abroad, note that many of these programs are not worthwhile and, in fact, harm local people -- especially those programs focused on orphans. Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. For now, the campaign is focused on Cambodia, but don't be surprised if the campaign expands: an incendiary report by South African and British academics focuses on "orphan tourism" in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. There is also this May 16, 2016 report from The Guardian that volunteers from the west are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. And now there's this July 14 2017 article Charities and voluntourism fuelling 'orphanage crisis' in Haiti: at least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.
Research has suggested that voluntourism can often do more harm than good. Voluntourism has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children. It also can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the so-called “third world”, while also promoting neo-colonialistic attitudes. There's also this blog from a person who paid to volunteer in an orphanage, and realized just how unethical it was.
Medical volunteering / voluntourism isn't safe from unethical, even dangerous practices as well. Many medical voluntourism web sites invite volunteers with little or no medical training to do invasive procedures abroad, including providing vaccines, pulling teeth, providing male circumcisions, suturing and delivering babies. A researcher notes in this blog, "Most volunteers I’ve observed deliver at least one baby, despite being unlicensed to do so." Read more about the dangers of medical voluntourism here.
Unless a program is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children or engaged in medical procedures, certifications, references and criminal background checks, and unless the program places volunteers for several weeks (many months is better), stay away from the program.
Also beware of programs meant to help animals. Unless the program is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with exotic animals, experience running a program at a rescue organization or zoo, have certifications and references, and even an appropriate degree, the program is probably just a way for a nonprofit to make money - and that money is probably NOT going to help the animals. You might even be putting yourself in danger by paying to volunteer at such a place. If the program has photos of people cuddling exotic animals, like baby tigers, absolutely stay away: no responsible organization would allow animals to be handled by humans in this way. Same for if there are photos of people riding elephants - again, no responsible organization would allow animals to be handled by humans in this way.
Ask yourself these two questions: (1) would you volunteer abroad if you had no cameras with you? (2) would you trust yourself enough, or be trusted by others, to do this work in your own country, as a volunteer or paid employee?
There are some credible - or at least not-so-exploitative - fee-based/pay-expenses-yourself organizations, but they are hard to find. Here are directories of short-term volunteering organizations, online and in print, that can help you identify credible programs - these are somewhat curated databases (you have a better shot of finding credible volunteer sending orgs through these databases than others):
Here are a FEW endorsements of pay-to-volunteer programs that I will make, but only because I know the people involved in these organizations, these organizations have excellent reputations among professional aidworkers regarding the work they do, I know these programs do not take just anyone with the money to go (candidates must have at least some basic skills - and often much more), and I know what these organizations are focused primarily on having a positive impact on local people (not just how warm and fuzzy they make the participating volunteers feel):
Unite For Sight and its partner eye clinics and communities work to create eye disease-free communities. "While helping the community, volunteers are in a position to witness and draw their own conclusions about the failures and inequities of global health systems. It broadens their view of what works, and what role they can have to insure a health system that works for everyone..." This program was featured on CNN International. Volunteers, both skilled and unskilled, are 18 years and older, and there is no upper age limit. It is obligatory for accepted volunteers to purchase insurance coverage through Unite for Sight's recommended provider, and volunteers are responsible for all travel arrangements, visa vaccine requirements, lodging, airfare, food, and any additional expenses.
Global Xchange, a program of VSO UK, proclaims proudly, "Looking for a holiday? Look somewhere else." It's made up of two programs: Youth Xchange, which gives 18-25 year olds from the United Kingdom the chance to spend six months making a real difference to the lives of disadvantaged people; and Community Xchange, a six-week programme for community workers and practitioners to learn how to help young people become active global citizens, and how to get different cultures interacting with each other and exchanging ideas.
The Kiva Fellows Program requires a four-month commitment. It offers individuals from any country the opportunity to be officially associated with Kiva and to witness firsthand the impact and realities of microfinance, by working directly with a host microfinance institution (MFI). You do not pay a fee to Kiva, but you are required to undertake all travel and accommodation expenses yourself. A mandatory five-day training is provided (you must pay all expenses to attend). You must be at least 21 years old to apply. Here is the main page for the Kiva Fellows Program and here are the FAQS for the program.
GlobalGiving Foundation Field Visitor Internships. GlobalGiving connects organizations from all over the world with donors who can support their work. They are often looking for self-funded travelers who will be in a region for several months to act as representatives of the organization, conduct site visits of partner organizations and identifying organizations that would be a good match for the Global Giving fundraising site. Volunteers also organize informational workshops during these travels. Volunteers can weave these responsibilities into their tourism of a region. "You will work closely with GlobalGiving's DC staff in preparation for your trip, planning site visits, workshops, travel, and accommodations, while gaining skills in organization and cross-cultural understanding. Upon returning to the U.S., you will present your findings and experience to the GlobalGiving staff." This position is unpaid and program participants are expected to fund their entire trip including airfare, in-country travel and accommodations. GlobalGiving provides training, office support, travel medical insurance, a minimal stipend for communications costs and workshop funding.
Humanist Service Corps, part of Foundation Beyond Belief. Provides an avenue for humanists to engage in global cultural exchange while working to protect human rights and the environment. HSC partners with local organizations and individuals to encourage sustainable programs and practices in their communities. Beginning in the summer of 2015, the Humanist Service Corps will support Ghanaian human rights organizations working to restore dignity to women who have been accused of witchcraft and banished to "witch camps." Although the women are relatively safe from violence once they are in exile, the living conditions are deplorable. They do not have access to basic education and health care, and they are unaware of or are unable to exercise legal protections under Ghanaian and international laws. Humanist Service Corps volunteers will work alongside locals to design and implement projects with the short-term goal of improving the standard of living in the witch camps and the long-term goal of eliminating the dynamics that lead to death or forcible and violent exile of women from their communities. Applications for 2015 will be accepted through December 15, 2014.
World Heritage Volunteers (WHV) is a UNESCO (United Nations) initiative in collaboration with the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS). The WHV initiative mobilizes young people and youth organisations in World Heritage site preservation and promotion. Generally, participants are students between 18 and 30 years old, but the requirements can vary according to the country and the project. Volunteers acquire basic preservation and conservation skills, and to engage in intercultural exchanges with local communities. Many assignments are in remote locations, and volunteers are expected to respect local customs. To get involved in a project, click on the list of projects for the current or upcoming year on the WHV site, and then consult the brief descriptions of each of the WHV action camps for that year. When you find the one you want to participate in, contact the project organizer for that action camp (the email addresses are in the project profiles). To learn more about an action camp and the application requirements, you must contact the local organization in charge of that project (UNESCO does not accept applications). Note: YOU are responsible for funding your own trip! The cost of travel from your country to the site and insurance are YOUR responsibility. Food and lodging are usually provided by the host organization.
Conservation Volunteers International Program - nonprofit organization that provides volunteering opportunities "for ordinary people to perform extraordinary volunteer services." Projects include maintaining and building trails, restoring archaeological sites, and protecting and restoring critical habitats. "Most of the administrative work of ConservationVIP is done by volunteers, and our trips are led by volunteers." In partnership with REI and various nonprofits.
Bpeace recruits business experts willing to volunteer their time - online/remotely, in-person in the USA or onsite for a week in a developing country - to mentor start ups and growing businesses in the developing countries where Bpeace works. Traveling Mentors are volunteers that work with business in El Salvador via email and the phone for about three months, and travel to El Salvador for about five days to help onsite; volunteers pay for their airfare and Bpeace pays for their 4-star hotel. Volunteer expertise needed: process improvement experts, sales strategy experts, call center experts, and experts regarding food processing, technology and manufacturing.
While it's not a volunteer abroad program, HistoriCorps engages volunteers to work on historic preservation projects in USA. Individual projects might last from a week to more than two months. There is no fee to participate, but costs to travel to and from a project site is the responsibility of each volunteer. HistoriCorps provides all of the tools volunteers need for work, a kitchen, and camping equipment to provide shelter as they experience the great outdoors.
Also, check through your college or university, if you are currently enrolled. MANY universities have programs where university students in a particular academic field will go to a village or city in a poor part of the USA or in a developing country to work on a specific project, applying what they have learned in the classroom. For instance, students from the College of Engineering at Oregon State University have gone to Kenya to help a small village create a series of water projects that will give them sustainable, ongoing access to clean water. Such university projects are not just feel-good experiences for unskilled college students; rather, the local people that will benefit from the project define what they want, and expect to be trained in the course of the student's field visits, and to work alongside them.
If you have volunteered overseas and paid a fee for the experience, I strongly urge you to offer comments about that company on Yelp, another customer reviews web site, or your own blog. Some of the most frequently asked questions on online groups, such as Also see: YahooAnswers or The Thorn Tree, are regarding experiences with fee-based volunteering abroad programs. People ask, "Has anyone heard of such-and-such organization, and is it a good idea to use them to go to Africa to volunteer?" You could help others make the right choices by reviewing the company that sent you abroad, on Yelp or any other customer review site.
A WARNING: Several individuals and organizations have posted horror stories about volunteering through the Institute for International Cooperation and Development (IICD), also affiliated with California Campus TG (CCTG). Both organizations are part of a Danish network known as "Tvind." Its volunteering program also operates under the name "Humana People-to-People". See Zehara Heckscher"s warning about this very shady organization for more details and links to other sources. IICD/CCTG/Tvind/People-to-People is not an organization I recommend.
Want to volunteer abroad and not pay? See this detailed resource on volunteering abroad, focused on how to become a skilled person that organizations like the PeaceCorps or UN Volunteers might be interested in. The process takes years, not weeks or months.
Quality pay-to-volunteer programs do not let just anyone go abroad, even if they have the money to go. Quality programs will also ask to see in your application and, perhaps, in an interview, that you have these qualities:
You might try PAYAway. "Through our sites we provide suggestions for staying away for longer by taking a gap year or career break, traveling around the world on a RTW ticket and information and job vacancies for finding temporary and seasonal work abroad." Many of these work-abroad jobs are not in support of nonprofit organizations - some are work in "tourism" or catering, such as house keeping jobs at resorts, drivers, and cleaners, some are to work in low-paying jobs on private farms, and live-in nursing and live-in domestic work. There are teaching & TEFL jobs as well. Sites for volunteering are also listed. It's focused on residents of the UK, but at least some of the programs it links to aren't limited to UK citizens.
You can also see The Working Traveller, which focuses on travel and how to finance a trip or stay away for longer by working overseas. It's got a lot of information about both volunteering and working abroad.'
Are you getting ready for departure? Then see Packing Advice For First-Time Humanitarians & Aid Workers
How to Find Volunteering Opportunities, a resource for adults who want to volunteer
More than you ever wanted to know about Creating or Holding a Successful Fund Raising Event.
Crowdfunding for a Personal Cause: A Sick Family Member, Someone in Dire Financial Crisis, Etc.
Details on how to quickly fill a community service obligation from a court or school.
How to Get a Job with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organization
Volunteering Guidebook, available
for purchase as a paperback and an ebook from Energize,
Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering (The Culture and Politics of Health Care Work)
Credits & Copyright
© 2010-17 by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved. No part of this material can be reproduced in print or in electronic form without express written permission by Jayne Cravens.
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