Complete Guide to Volunteering Your Real Skills Overseas

Everything you need to know to find, plan, and have a life-transformational experience overseas.


1. Why You Should Volunteer Your Skills Overseas

The United Nations has published research showing that skills-based volunteers, have an important role in global development. In fact, by volunteering your skills, you can help address one of the leading barriers to progress, which is called the "Talent Gap." This article on NextBillion.org helps explain the role of skills volunteers in global development and here are 9 statistics you probably didn’t know about international volunteering.

In addition to working on specific projects, you can also help transfer knowledge and skills to students, entrepreneurs, and leaders to help them continue to make a bigger impact after you finish.

By volunteering, you can empower locally-led projects that have the greatest potential to solve last-mile challenges and create jobs.

2. Do Skills-Based Volunteers Actually Help?

As we share in our Experteering page and in our research published on Stanford’s Social Innovation Review, skills-based volunteers can be catalytic. The United Nations calls volunteers vital to the Sustainable Development goals

3. Types of Free International Volunteering Projects

International volunteer projects can vary greatly and be for almost any length of time. From a 1 day virtual project to a 2 year field experience, there are countless ways that you can use your skills. Here are a few recent examples:

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.

  • A fashion designer who worked on fair trade designs with a nonprofit empowering local women in Guatemala for 1 week.
  • An accountant supported a medical college in Ghana to help it focus on sustainable social and economic development for 3 weeks.
  • A retired Federal US Government employee supported a technology social enterprise working on improved child education in Tanzania.
  • An architect supported a nonprofit in Panama to build a self-sustaining research facility for 4 months.
  • A business strategy professional traveled around the world for a year supporting social enterprises with go-to-market and marketing plans.
  • A business development professional supported a startup in Brazil for 18 months to help it create jobs in impoverished areas.

Regardless of the length of time, the common theme is that these projects are skills-based. We use the word "Experteering" to define skilled volunteering overseas.

Time is one of the most important factors in determining the type of project you’ll work on. Here is a table showing the most common types of projects you’ll find based on your availability, regardless of your skills:

Trainer (1-4 Weeks)

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). See sample

Doer (1-8 Weeks)

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. See sample.

Consultant (3–24 weeks)

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. See sample

Team Member (6+ months)

Become a core team member for a specific length of time, like a contractor. See sample

Not all volunteer projects are created equal. Make sure to find one that fits your skills and availability.

4. How to Find Free Skills-Based Volunteering Projects Abroad

The proper match can have a catalytic impact on both parties. Done incorrectly, it can actually cause more harm than good, as documented in the haunting story about the Cambodia Orphanage Business. Stories like this have fueled the "voluntourism" debate, which is when you pay to volunteer or teach. If you are going on a paid volunteering trip, please visit LearningService to plan appropriately. However, there are ways to find free volunteering opportunities if you use your skills and contribute real value. Here are 8 factors to consider when choosing a volunteering engagement, at home or abroad:

If you are going on a paid volunteering trip, please visit LearningService to plan appropriately. However, there are ways to find free volunteering opportunities if you use your skills and contribute real value. Here are 8 factors to consider when choosing a volunteering engagement, at home or abroad:

  • Skills – Make sure there is a strong alignment of an organization’s needs with your skills.
  • Timing – Find a start date, end date, and duration that is agreeable to all parties.
  • Motivations – Be clear about what you are hoping to get out of the experience, and what the hosting organization is hoping to achieve.
  • Sustainable Impact – Focus your work on projects that have long-term potential, and where you can build the skills of people to sustain the projects after you leave.
  • Communication – Ensure that you can clearly communicate with each other.
  • Commitment – Both you and the host should invest time and resources in the engagement and agree to certain outcomes.
  • Ethics – Make sure the project is locally led, doesn’t erode jobs and is in the best interest of the community.
  • Partnership – Work hard to build a partnership that benefits both parties.

You can find projects on your own or with a matching service. Regardless of which option, make sure to follow the tips above. Read this article on Devex Impact for more information on these 8 factors.

Helpful people also tend to be healthier and happier; helping others causes happiness. Be selfless, if only for selfish reasons.

- Gretchen Rubin

5. Planning for International Volunteering Work

People are consistently surprised at how much time goes into planning a volunteering project, at home, or as part of an international trip. However, once people finish, we consistently hear people say they wish they had spent more time planning. In other words, tedious as it might be, plan, plan, and plan some more. To help you plan, we strongly urge volunteers to do the following:

1. Get Ready to Go

Enroll in training on International Volunteering Best Practices, like this one by MovingWorlds.org and this one by Serve Smart. In addition, review these 9 tips from LearningService on Being a Valuable Volunteer.

2. Plan in Partnership With your Host

Remember that the single most important thing during the planning process of your project is that everything – including planning – is done in partnership with the organization you are supporting. Use a collaborative planning process, like this open-sourced Experteering Planning Guide, to clearly set expectations between you and the hosting organization.

3. Make a List and Check it Thrice

Use a preparation and packing list to make sure you have the necessary visa, health checks, planning & safety documents in order. Use this Experteering Checklist as a starting block, and then work with your hosting organization to further customize it to make sure you have everything you need to be safe and successful.

4. Learn from Others

Take time to read about other people who have taken similar trips. Check out this free eBook, Adventures Less Ordinary and read this earlier article, 7 Things I Wish I Knew About Volunteering Overseas Before Spending a Year Doing It.

Don’t shortcut your planning process.

If the organization you are supporting does not have its own formal process, you can follow this free international Experteering guide.

6. Being an Effective International Volunteer

The best and most successful Experteering engagements all have one thing in common: clearly defined goals that are created in partnership with the hosting organization.

Most importantly, these goals are documented, and not only include project goals, but actually define success as it will look 1 year in the future. We have found the following rules help create positive impact for all parties:

  • Support locally-initiated projects to ensure that the project will continue after you leave.
  • Train local staff at the start of your project to be able to take over your work seamlessly.
  • Spend more time teaching and less time doing so that the locals develop the skills necessary to keep growing after you leave.
  • Do what’s necessary, not what’s interesting so that the most essential tasks are completed in your limited time.
  • Embrace cultural differences and discuss with your host the differences you might have, and how you can use those to your advantage.
  • Have consistent checkpoints to make sure you’re working together well and everyone is on the same page about project and timing expectations.
  • Remember long-term thinking is critical, as it ensures that the program is locally-led, sustainable, and focussed on making an impact.

Depending on the length of time you are going for, the work you will do on a day-to-day basis will vary greatly. For more insight into what projects are best for what timeframe, read this article about How to Make a Real Impact by Volunteering Overseas.

To enhance this experience (and your impact), we suggest that you find a mentor, take along your favorite books, and identify ways you want to grow as a leader. We have found these resources will help anybody be a better changemaker at home, and abroad. If nothing else, watch this TED Talk: If You Want to Help Someone, Shutup and Listen.

Just like you would prepare for a course, take an "orientation". We recommend taking both of the trainings listed above and following the planning process.

7. Ethical and Sustainability Considerations 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

8. Gear, Visas, and Travel Insurance while Volunteering Overseas

Gear, visa, and travel requirements vary greatly from country-to-country, so we recommend you do a lot of your own research. However, these few pointers help cover the essentials. For some of the items listed below, we get a small % of affiliate sales – just enough to help buy some coffee for the global team that puts these resources together and supports people volunteering around the world.

Travel insurance for International Volunteers

There is no BEST travel insurance. Depending on your age, location, and time away, use SquareMouth for finding the best and best-priced insurance for you and your unique trip. VolunteerCard – for students and for families and professionals – also offers insurance and a host of discounts.

Gear for volunteering overseas

The goal is to look like a local while volunteering, so you don’t need much gear. The most important thing is that you have a great journal for reflecting your experience and a good camera for documenting it. Because of the personal and close-up nature of a lot of work, we think GoPro’s are awesome because they can take time lapses and fit a lot of things into a single frame.

Visas for Volunteering

Every country has different requirements. To help you find answers, and even help with processing your visa, you can use VisaHQ. You can also use ask your hosting organization for help navigating the visa process, acquiring a letter (if needed), and learning about how other travelers handle the process.

9. Computers, Phones, Tablets, and Electronics while Volunteering Overseas

Before deciding what to buy, talk to your hosting organization and carefully plan the work you will actually be doing so you know if you need to bring specific resources, supplies, and electronic devices.

Chances are that if you’re going to go skills-based volunteering, you’ll likely need to bring a computer. At the same time, remember that you’re traveling so you don’t need all your normal electronics. Leave the tablet at home and stick to the basics – you’ll thank yourself for not being overly connected.

A small laptop that doubles as a tablet is both unassuming and useful for your travel and work – this one is a good example. If you want to take a phone with you, make sure it’s unlocked. Here is a list of the best selling unlocked smartphones on Amazon.

Of course, you’ll need the right power adapter. Talk to your hosting organization to make sure you know what types of plug-ins they have. If you need one, this is highly rated and flexible travel power adapter.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

- Albert Einstein

11. Returning from Your Volunteer Travel Experience

Your field experience is just the start. Once you finish, make sure to keep in touch with your hosting organization to ensure the project lives on. In one year, you should be able to track your impact. In fact, we like to say that "Success happens after you leave".

In addition to making an impact, remember this is a personal growth experience for you, too. Make sure to reflect on your experience. Take a moment to read this article You’re Forgetting to do this One Essential Thing While Volunteering Overseas, and also watch this video from LearningService about what to do after you finish.

When you return, share your story with the world to help inspire others to follow in your footsteps. Tag your posts using #Experteering and contribute your story to GOOD Magazine.

12. Understand 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 MovingWorlds, CUSO International, VSO, and Peace Corps will cover this, but primarily for longer-term projects of at least 2 months.

Room & Board ($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.

Visa ($0 - $500+)

This depends on where you are, and where you’re going. Most organizations won’t help you find a visa, so you’ll have to arrange this yourself. Services like VisaHQ can help.

Health & Insurance ($50 - $500+)

Squaremouth can you find the right policy, and it really depends on length of your trip.

Gear ($0 - $500)

First, don’t buy what you don’t need. But as you prepare your budget, it’s helps to look at if you have the right clothes and electronics for the location you’re going to.

Total ($0 - 5,850+)

This can vary based on where you are from and where you are going, but this range will help you get a better idea of your costs.

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

13. How to Fund Your International Volunteering Trip

If you volunteer your skills, you should be able to find a place with free accommodations. However, you might still need to pay for your airfare. A few other ways to pay for your trip include:

14. Organizations That Can Help You Find Free Volunteer Projects Abroad

There are a lot of organizations that can help you volunteer your skills overseas. Here is a brief listing of our organizations.

Important note, nobody on this list paid for placements, but the author does work for MovingWorlds.

CUSO Internation

  • Covers your costs
  • Project is 1 year or longer
  • Training & Support included
  • Skills-based volunteering

Idealist

  • Free to use, many projects are pay to volunteer.
  • Projects can be any length of time
  • Training & Support are not included
  • Varied skill levels

MovingWorlds

  • $125 matching fee to free opportunities with free room & Board. Some projects provide compensation.
  • Projects can be any length of time
  • Training & Support included
  • Skills-based volunteering

Omprakash

  • Varied costs, from free to pay-to-volunteer.
  • Variable length of projects
  • Variable Training & Support
  • Varied skill levels

Peace Corps

  • Covers your costs and provides compensation.
  • Project is 27 months or longer
  • Training & Support included
  • Skills-based volunteering

VSO

  • Covers your costs
  • Project is 12 months or longer
  • Training & Support included
  • Skills-based volunteering

Find projects that need your skills, not your money. A matching service, like MovingWorlds.org and Omprakash, can help. You can also use a rating site like GoOverseas.

Summary

Volunteering your skills overseas has the potential to create a massive impact for you, as well as the organization you support. But there is a right and a wrong way to volunteer your skills overseas, so take care to find, plan, and prepare for a high-impact volunteering engagement.

A path is now appearing to show us how to have a positive impact on the world around us. This is a path of hopefulness, but also a path of fulfillment: typically, we start off by trying to empower others and end up empowering ourselves, too.

- A Path Appears