What if you are thinking of volunteering abroad?
It can be a life changing experience, providing an invaluable way of learning new skills and languages, experiencing new cultures, seeing new parts of the world, making friends and giving back to the country to which you are travelling.
Volunteering, when done with a reliable organisation, offers access to a different culture and an immersive way to encounter and learn about people. This can be an opportunity to grow intercultural competence to a level that almost no other experience abroad can offer.
However, there are lots of organisations advertising for volunteers abroad and we’d recommend you investigate what they offer to make sure it’s right for you and ethical. We want you to make the right choice to ensure you get the most out of your international volunteering, so this page covers some things you may wish to think about.
Choosing an organisation
Volunteering overseas can be expensive; you may need to consider the cost of flights, insurance, equipment and clothes, on top of any fee or donation to the organisation. A donation or need to fundraise may go directly to supporting the work of the charity, but check how they will use the money and ensure that you are happy with the response.
Some organisations are profit-making tourism businesses offering a holiday with ‘volunteering’ as part of an adventure holiday package. Check the information about the placement provided in order to gauge the quality – it should be thorough and comprehensive.
Some organisations offer bursaries to help volunteers meet the cost of volunteering overseas:
- The Department for International Development run an International Citizen Service with funded placements for 18 – 25 year olds
- VSO is also a trusted provider of overseas volunteering opportunities, which may be particular interest if you have skills which match their needs and are looking for a gap year or to volunteer after graduation
- University-run scheme Warwick in Africa
What are your motivations?
Think about what you want to gain from your experience of volunteering abroad.
- Are you looking for experience to gain new skills or personal development?
- Is the trip connected to your academic study or research?
- Do you want to experience another culture?
- Do you want to learn a new language or improve your language skills?
- Are you keen to make a difference to the people in the host country?
Understanding what you want to achieve will help you make your selection.
Questions to ask when selecting an opportunity:
- How was the project identified? Was it from a local perspective, either through a local organisation or via consultation with the local community?
- Is there a local partner organisation with responsibility for designing and managing the project?
- Is the project being sustained after the volunteers leave or has it been set up as a one-off opportunity that will only have short term benefits?
- What is the organisation's philosophy towards development? Whilst many organisations have deep rooted, sustainable links with communities and local people, others operate on a more commercial basis. In some cases, projects have been accused of taking employment opportunities from local people. Check online reviews of the organisation.
- Who will benefit from the project?
- How will the expectations of the local stakeholders be managed?
- Is there a genuine need for volunteers to do this or has the opportunity been created as an adventure holiday?
- How can I be sure that the opportunity is not taking away the chance of paid employment for a local person?
- Will anyone be adversely affected by the project? A good example of when volunteering adversely affects the people you are trying to help is orphanage volunteering, the child’s welfare is not always the central aim of the orphanage. In some countries, the children in the orphanage have parents and family but have been placed in the orphanage because of government intervention, whilst in other countries orphanages are run by corrupt organisations whose overarching aim is to attract charitable funding and support.
- Has the volunteer role been clearly defined? A good volunteering programme should be able to tell you exactly what you will be doing, the number of hours/days a week and the type of work, as well as who you will be reporting to and where you will be located for the placement.
- Will the volunteers be provided with training before the programme and support during and afterwards?
- What skills are required? For example, will you need to know the language of the host country?
- Who will you be volunteering with? Will you be on your own, is there a group of volunteers, or does the role involve working alongside local people?
- Does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office approve of travel to this country? What advice do they give?
- Is the organisation linked to other reputable companies? Does the organisation have travel or government endorsements?
- How and why has the organisation been set up and what sort of organisation is it (e.g. NGO, charity or profit making company)?
- How long has the organisation been running and how many people do they send overseas?
- Can I speak with volunteers who have returned from the project to find out about their experiences? Do they have feedback from previous volunteers on their website?
- What am I getting for my money? What proportion of the cost goes towards administration and marketing and what goes to the local project that is hosting me? (You can ask for more information from the organisation if this is not provided initially.)
- What support and training am I provided with, both before and after?
- What happens if something goes wrong - for example if I am very ill or have to get home unexpectedly? Is repatriation included?
- Does the organisation have contingency plans for a crisis? Is there an evacuation plan?
- Will I need my own travel insurance and does the organisation's insurance cover me for the kind of work that I will be doing? (Think about insurance cover for health, belongings and the failure of the volunteering organisation to deliver the placement, e.g. is the organisation covered by ABTA or similar?).
- Is there in-country support for the volunteers? This includes practical arrangements such as travel, accommodation and meals as well as support to do the job? Is the in-country support based near to your placement?
- What sort of accommodation and facilities are provided? Will you be housed with a local family? Do they receive support from the organisation? How are they vetted? Be prepared to ask questions about facilities and living standards so that you know before you go what to expect.
- Is there a programme of social activities, a cultural programme and/or language classes available during the volunteering placement? If so, what type?
- Consider the gender politics of the host country, are there gender norms that are different from what you are used to? Are you prepared to adapt? Does the host country have laws relating to sexual orientation and if so, what strategy is in place for this from the volunteering organisation, do they provide support?
Still not sure?
The Learning Service provide 6 videos which you may find helpful:
1. Finding a responsible volunteer placement
2. Being a valuable volunteer
3. Returning from your volunteering experience
4. Orphanage tourism
5. How can I do good in the world
6. Tips for the responsible traveller, South East Asia