How to Volunteer Abroad

We call it Experteering

Why Volunteer Abroad?

People volunteer overseas for many reasons. A few of the leading reasons include going as part of a corporate-sponsored leadership development experience, participating in a school-sanctioned service-learning education program , pursuing individual experiences to develop new skills, and/or for more personal reasons, like cultural and/or language immersion. Regardless of your reason, volunteering overseas is a transformative and life-changing experience. 

A growing body of research shows that volunteering makes a positive impact on the world, and also helps the people doing the volunteering. As just a few examples:

Does Volunteering Actually Make an Impact

Absolutely... provided it's done right. Your experience must be approached with care to make sure it's a good experience for you, and the organization you volunteer with. There is a right and wrong way to volunteer overseas.

To help people be valuable volunteers, a group called Learning Service put together a great series of videos about volunteering overseas. These were created, in-large part, to expose questionable volunteering practices, especially in the orphanage industry and youth volunteering. The New York Times hosted a great Room For For Debate on this topic: Can Voluntourism Make a Difference.

Types of International Volunteering Projects

There are many types of volunteer projects. We suggest people only volunteer overseas if they are able to contribute their skills and experience to organizations not otherwise able to afford and/or access that expertise. We call it Experteering. The main types of projects are displayed in this table:

TRAINER 1 – 4 weeks. See sample projects here. Engage with an organization to help teach a specific skill or resource (like training Excel skills, accounting best practices, git methodology, HR best practices, or marketing analytics to name a few).
DOER 1 – 8 weeks. See samples here. Support a team with a specific task that has a clear deliverable, like designing a new website, setting up an accounting system, developing a marketing plan, creating an engineering schematic, or other skills-based project.
CONSULTANT 3 – 24 weeks. See samples here. Immerse yourself around a specific opportunity or challenge area. Give yourself enough time to learn community and cultural contexts, and then propose (and potentially implement) a plan to accelerate impact.
TEAM MEMBER 6+ months. See samples here. Become a core team member for a specific length of time, like a contractor.
MANUAL 0 - 4 weeks.  Doing manual tasks — like building, digging, farming, playing with animals, speaking English as a non-certified teacher — are most likely to charge you money, have ethical challenges, and erode local jobs. Proceed with caution.

Finding Volunteer Projects Abroad

There are almost an endless number of places to volunteer your skills - Go Experteering - overseas. However, before finding a specific project, it's important to first determine the type of volunteer project you're looking for.

Volunteer projects can vary greatly by region. Be sure to read our Region Guides  to learn more about find the best projects around the world.

When looking for projects, consider these critical factors:

  • Skills : Do your skills align with the organization’s needs?
  • Timing : Does your availability and duration match the organization's ability to host you, and not interfere with major holidays?
  • Sustainability : Can your project create a long-term impact?
  • Communication : Are you able to speak and write effectively with the organization's team members?
  • Ethics : Is it a legal, ethical organization?

Understanding the Costs of Volunteering Overseas

Many organizations charge you to volunteer. While not a definitely alarm, this is a flag that requires additional research to make sure you are not paying to do something that is unethical, unnecessary, and/or that erodes local jobs. Experteering trips tend to average about $1,750 person, whereas service learning and "voluntourism" programs tend to be over $3,500. The typical costs of an international volunteer project are:

AIRFARE $0 - $2,000 / trip For almost all international projects, the volunteer covers their own travel. Some projects through MovingWorldsCUSO InternationalVSO, and Peace Corps will cover this, but primarily for longer-term projects of at least 2 months.
LODGING $0 - $200 / day Often times, volunteers will be asked to help cover their costs. This can range widely depending on your standards and the organization's ability. On MovingWorlds, almost all projects include a free place to live.
PROGRAM MANAGEMENT $0 - $150 / day For most skills-based volunteering projects you will not see a program management fee. Program management fees are, however, common for service learning trips and manual volunteer projects.
APPLICATION & MATCHING $0 - $2,000 Finding a good project that aligns with your skills and is with an ethical organization takes work. A variety of organizations, like MovingWorlds, do this vetting for you.

Here are tips to offset the cost of your international volunteer project.

Ethics and Sustainability of Volunteering Overseas

There is no golden rule, program, or matching site that can guarantee your project is ethical and sustainable — you have to own this part yourself. A comprehensive planning process and this inspiring and informative training will prepare you thoroughly to do just that. It is important to remember that while there are ethical considerations in volunteering overseas, there is a big difference between "voluntourism" and volunteering your skills.

In addition, there are a number of guides related to ethical volunteering that we suggest everyone read before going:

Working through this checklist will also help ensure you make a sustainable impact:

  • Ensure that you, the volunteer, aren’t taking a local job
  • Assess the longevity of the impact you will make with your work
  • Ensure that goals are locally driven
  • Consider the sustainability of the work
  • Question child care organizations that accept unvetted volunteers
  • Research the organization’s management and transparency
  • Consider the implications of foreign volunteers
  • Question organizations that unqualified volunteers
  • Consider the burden on the host organization

How to Make a Real Impact While Volunteering Overseas

Our research shows that the more authentic the project, the better the project. This means that when the volunteer is working on a real project solving a real need of a locally-led organization, then it's a win-win for the hosting organization and the volunteer. To make a real impact to the hosting organization — and to you — remember these factors:

  • Humility : Be humble about your skills and experience. You are going as an equal partner, not a superior.
  • Focus : Do what is most important for the organization, not what you think is the most interesting or exciting
  • Partnership : Stand with the team you are supporting as equals, and focus on building an effective partnership.
  • Think long-term : Success is something that should be measured long-after you leave
  • Transfer knowledge : Share insights, best-practices, and useful tools to help the local team prosper after you leave

Words of Wisdom:

Go to the people.
Live with them.
Learn from them.
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build with what they have.
But with the best leaders,
when the work is done,
the task accomplished,
the people will say
'We have done this ourselves.'

Lao Tzu

Find Free Experteering Projects on MovingWorlds