Updated July 21, 2012

 
Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

 
When I think of international volunteering, where a person from one country goes to another country to engage in humanitarian or development activities, here is how I break it down:

 

Type of Volunteer
People with much-needed education and/or experience going abroad for months, a year, even two years, to help with a specific project designed by the volunteer-sending organization and/or the local host organization.
  Type of Volunteer
People with much-needed education and/or experience going abroad for just a few weeks, to help with a specific project designed by the volunteer-sending organization and/or the local host organization. Short-term disaster-response volunteers fit here.
  Type of Volunteer
People that do not have specialized skills in high-demand in developing countries, that want to volunteer for a few weeks in a project that doesn't require any specialized skills.
  Type of Volunteer
Independent travelers who do not go through any volunteer-sending organization; instead, they make all arrangements directly with an NGO in a country where they want to help, and coordinate all activities themselves. Their skills vary. (transire benefaciendo)
             
Costs
These volunteers do not pay travel or accommodation expenses themselves, nor have to pay any placement fees; the host organization or the company they work for pays for their travel, housing and all in-country needs. The host organization provides insurance, will evacuate them if needed, etc. Volunteers work full-time on the assignment.
  Costs
These volunteers may be expected to at least pay for their travel to and from the country; the host organization may take care of their in-country needs, OR, the volunteer may be expected to pay all expenses himself or herself. The host organization will evacuate them if needed. Volunteers work full-time on the assignment.
  Costs
These volunteers are expected to pay for most or all expenses themselves: travel, accommodations, food, and fees to the host organization to cover work permits, security, training, evacuation if needed, etc. In addition to the work, they may also have language classes, attend trainings, attend "cultural" events, go on organized tours of the region, etc.
  Costs
These people pay all expenses themselves: all travel, accommodations and food. They also arrange for and pay for their own security, translation services, etc. They decide how much they will work, for how long, etc.
             
Application/Acceptance Process
People apply to participate as volunteers through the volunteer-sending organization and most are not accepted.
  Application/Acceptance Process
People are accepted as volunteers by the volunteer-sending organization both because of their skills and their ability to pay. Unqualified/low-skilled people are not accepted even if they can pay all expenses.
  Application/Acceptance Process
Most, even all, applicants are accepted as volunteers by the volunteer-sending organization if they have the ability to pay the fees and meet minimal interview and self-assessments. Level of skills or qualifications has little or no bearing on a person being accepted or not - soft skills are emphasized instead (desire to help others, self-reliant, etc.).
  Application/Acceptance Process
There is no volunteer-sending organization involved.
             
Web Site / Brochure Focus
Emphasizes the skills and qualifications volunteers must have, the kinds of projects volunteers engage in, profiles of projects rather than of volunteers. Not much talk about the importance of "inter-cultural exchanges" and how the experience will change/benefit the volunteer.
  Web Site / Brochure Focus
Emphasizes the skills and qualifications volunteers must have, the kinds of projects volunteers engage in, and profiles of projects rather than of volunteers, though talk about the importance of "inter-cultural exchanges" and how the experience will change/benefit the volunteer may also be present.
  Web Site / Brochure Focus
Emphasizes the volunteer experience and how the volunteers benefit from the experience. Talks a lot about the importance of "inter-cultural exchanges" and how the experience will change the volunteer.
  Web Site / Brochure Focus
There is no web site or brochure, because there is no volunteer-sending organization involved.
 
 
The borders on these definitions are quite porous - for instance, PeaceCorps fits the first column until you get to the "Web Site / Brochure Focus" category. And there's no judgement here - I'm not saying that one kind of program is better than another kind of program. But, for the most part, this is how international volunteering breaks down and this is how I find it easiest to talk about. And for many people, it's a disappointing reality, because it means you, as a person that wants to volunteer internationally, either need a great deal of highly-desired skills and experience or a LOT of money.

Times have changed drastically in the last 30 years regarding "Westerners" (North Americans, Europeans, Australians, etc.) volunteering in economically-disadvantaged countries. In contrast to 30 years ago, the emphasis now in relief and development efforts in poorer countries is to empower and employ the local people, whenever possible, to address their own issues, build their own capacities, improve their environments themselves and give them incomes. The priority now for sending volunteers to developing countries is to fill gaps in local skills and experience, not to give the volunteer an outlet for his or her desire to help or the donor country good PR. It's much more beneficial and economical to local communities to hire local people to serve food, build houses, educate young people, etc., than to use resources to bring in an outside volunteer to do these tasks.

That said, the days of international volunteers are NOT numbered: there will always be a need for international volunteers, not just paid consultants or international staff, either to fill gaps in knowledge and service in a local situation, because a more neutral observer/contributor is required, or because a priority in a particular situation is inter-cultural understanding.

 
Highly-Skilled Volunteers Sent Abroad - What it Takes

To volunteer overseas and not have to pay for it - or to find paid work as an aid worker or humanitarian worker, for that matter - you need to have skills and experience that are critically needed in a particular region, and that can be utilized by local institutions and local people quickly. To be able to train others in these skills increases your chances of placement as a volunteer abroad.

There is no way to list all of the skills needed in the developing world, and there's no way for one person to acquire them all. A listing of international volunteering opportunities will include calls for midwives, civil engineers, lawyers, financial managers, weavers, sanitation experts, police trainers, wine makers, cheese makers, nurses, car mechanics/trainers, photographers, solar energy experts, farmers, domestic/household engineers, tourism experts, computer repair experts, and various other specialists. Many volunteer postings, particularly those where the volunteer does NOT have to pay for placement, require people with a Master's degree in a specific area.

But there are certain qualities that are looked for in all volunteer abroad candidates, and certain areas of specialization that are in frequent demand, many of which can be acquired through volunteering in your own home city and country. These include:

Some of the experience I've listed above one would get only through a university degree and on-the-job. But much of the above can be gained locally, right in your own city, by volunteering, taking informal classes, or choosing a career with non-profit organizations. For instance: Get the idea? In short: your first experience with people living in poverty, people who are in need, people who are very different you, people working to build up local businesses and make local government more responsive, advocacy, etc., shouldn't happen in the Peace Corps or with another volunteering abroad agency for professionals to donate their services. Your first experience using a pit toilet, going for several hours not having electricity, getting around by walking, bicycle and mass transit, being in a room full of people who don't speak English and being around people who are not the same culture or religion as you shouldn't happen in the Peace Corps or with another volunteer-sending organization. Get that experience locally, through volunteering, through camping, through traveling, and through going to various events, so you are going to be at least somewhat prepared for what you will experience abroad.

As far as your skills-development in pursuit of becoming a great potential candidate for service, do not try to "do it all." Specialization is more valued by potential placement agencies than generalization.

Your curriculum vitae (CV) should detail your volunteer and professional experience that will be of particular value in-the-field. You might want to prepare a special CV or resume specifically for seeking volunteer assignments, that is focused on the skills and experience you think would be most valued by volunteer-placement agencies.

Use action-verbs and results-oriented-verbs to describe your volunteer and professional accomplishments. See this excellent, very long list of action verbs relevant to describing most middle to senior level management jobs.

One thing your CV won't always reflect, but which you will also need to volunteer internationally, is a very stable emotional and financial state. If you find yourself easily frustrated or having trouble dealing with stress, daily activities or people you view as uncooperative, if you are feeling overwhelmed or depressed, or if you are facing financial problems and debt, volunteering abroad is not something you should consider right now.

For an idea on what is looked for in international work, have a look at the job postings on ReliefWeb. Although most of these postings are for paid-placements, the listings give a good idea of what is being looked for in international volunteers as well.

Organizations that place volunteers in developing countries, mostly for long-term assignments, and that do NOT require the volunteer to undertake costs his or herself, include the following:

Note that many of these organizations receive thousands of applications (Peace Corps receives 10,000 applications annually; UNV receives more than 40,000 annually; both of those organizations have just 2000 - 4000 people abroad at any given time). In other words, the selection process is highly competitive.

When evaluating an applicant, these organizations consider the "whole person," including the applicant's life experiences, community involvement, volunteer work, motivations, and even hobbies.

If you want to understand what Peace Corps volunteers do in the field, "like" the Peace Corps Facebook page. You might also want to "like" the VSO UK Facebook page, to learn what VSO members do in the field. Reading these Facebook profiles regularly will help you understand what international volunteers really do in the field, and why applicants with an area of expertise and/or extensive local experience addressing various issues are preferred candidates.

 
Paying To Volunteer / Short-Term Volunteering

There are many, many organizations that place international volunteers but require that the volunteers pay the costs associated with the placement, which include: international travel, in-country travel, housing, security, staff time to train and supervise volunteers, and work permits. Some of these organizations even require at least a bit of experience or even a lot of expertise in a particular field, but, as noted in the chart at the top of the page, there are volunteer-sending organization will place people who are unskilled, have no area of specialization, have no higher education degree, etc. I'm not listing those anyone-that-can-pay-goes placement agencies because there are so many such agencies. Hundreds. Thousands.

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, however, note that many of these programs are not worthwhile and, in fact, harm local people -- especially those programs focused on orphans. 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.

Here are directories of short-term volunteering organizations, online and in print, that can help you identify credible programs:

I strongly recommend the book How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, by Joseph Collins, Stefano DeZerega, and Zehara Heckscher. It will give you details about what international volunteering really entails, why some organizations require that international volunteers pay, suggestions on how to raise funds for such, and an excellent overview of your options for fee-based overseas volunteering. But best of all, it provides tips and worksheets that can make your volunteering have real impact for the local people, and benefits for you long after the experience is over.

Here are FOUR endorsements of pay-to-volunteer programs or DIY programs that I will make, but only because:

These organizations would all fit in the second column of the chart that start this web page, IMO: I have more recommendations for specific programs on this page: Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip.

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.

For those who think it's wrong to have to pay to volunteer overseas: again, remember that it is much more beneficial to local communities to use funds to hire local people to serve food, build houses, educate young people, etc., than to use those resources to bring in an outside volunteer. The priority is not you and your desire to help -- the priority is local people being employed. 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. If you want a short-term volunteering assignment, be prepared to pay for at least your travel and accommodations.

Also see:


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