Volunteer Your Skills Abroad in North America

The complete guide to making a real impact

Anybody can visit North America. But if you really want to experience the natural beauty and cultural melting pot found here, you'll need to do more than come as a tourist.

While parts of North America are incredibly developed, not all areas are equal. And, with its population representing people from around the world, it is also home to more nonprofit and social impact organizations than any other region. Therefore, there are a lot of social impact organizations based here that focus on helping at home AND abroad. By sharing your business, professional, and/or technical skills with these innovative North American led organizations, you can help them catalyze innovation and accelerate their progress around the entire world. This sort of volunteering is commonly called skills-based volunteering or Experteering.

But, before jumping at the first volunteering project you see, here are some tips to make sure you have the experience of a lifetime.

Finding the Right Volunteer Project in North America

North America has many connections to the rest of the world. So as you look for projects in North America, keep the following things in mind:

  1. Does this project use my real skills?
  2. Is this something that a local could be doing? Is it possible that I’m taking a local job?
  3. Will the tasks I will be completing leave a lasting impact on the organization and the surrounding community?
  4. Are the goals and objectives I am being asked to complete locally driven?
  5. Is the host organization reputable?

There are many organizations that make sure the volunteering opportunities they post are through organizations that operate in an ethical and sustainable manner. Some

include: VSO International (Voluntary Service Overseas), MovingWorlds, Cuso International, and Peace Corps.

Check out more tips for finding the right volunteering project abroad.

Examples of Volunteering Projects in North America

We've supported Experteers work on a wide variety of projects, from monitoring and evaluation to education, architecture to fair-trade fashion, food to fitness. As this is a diverse part of the world, there are a wide variety of projects with nonprofits, school, social enterprises, and community groups.

Best Practices While Volunteering in North America

When you get to your destination, there is a right (and wrong) way to volunteer in a way that truly makes an impact. First, you should outline clearly defined goals that are created in partnership with your hosting organization. Beyond that, following these rules will help create positive outcomes for all parties:

  1. Support locally initiated projects, to make sure that the work will continue after you leave.
  2. Train local staff to take over your work so that the transition after you leave will be seamless.
  3. Spend more time teaching than doing.
  4. Do what’s best for the host organization, not what’s most interesting to you.
  5. Embrace cultural differences and discuss with your host the differences you might have, and how you can use those to your advantage.
  6. Check in with your team consistently to make sure everyone is on the same page about tasks and timelines for projects.

Take this free training for international volunteering best practices through Udemy, and review this complete guide to volunteering your skills overseas.

Cultural and Communication Tips to be an Effective Volunteer in North America

It is important to understand the cultural differences that North American countries have from other parts of the world so that you can work and communicate effectively with your partners while you're abroad.

globe-smart-north-america This chart shows the cultural differences between someone from Canada, USA, and where a typical Experteer might be. Image from GlobeSmart® provided by Aperian Global.

As an example, people in North America tend to focus on being unique individuals, but also stay within the strong social forces that bind this very diverse society together. More specifically, according to Geert-Hofetede's cultural comparison:

"There is a fair degree of acceptance for new ideas, innovative products and a willingness to try something new or different, whether it pertains to technology, business practices or food. Americans tend to be more tolerant of ideas or opinions from anyone and allow the freedom of expression. At the same time, Americans do not require a lot of rules and are less emotionally expressive than higher-scoring cultures."

- Geert-Hofetede's cultural comparison

Use Kwintessential and other country-specific travel guides to learn more about customs and social norms.

Finishing Your Project and Recapping Your Story

When you return from your trip it is essential that you keep in touch with your host organization: We like to say that success happens after you leave. This is because success should be measured by what happens after you leave. By doing what you can to ensure your work lives on after you leave, you can also ensure that the work you did made, and continues to make, a real impact.

You should also make sure to reflect on your experience during and after your overseas experience. There are several reflection strategies you can use to promote your own learning and improve happiness. You should also be sharing your stories with as many people as possible about your experience with the aim to inspire others to go volunteering abroad and do good, just like you!

Share your story with the #Experteering hashtag

Additional Tips While Volunteering in North America

Here are some additional resources to help you plan, fund, and prepare for your trip, if you do decide to travel and volunteer in North America:

  1. Guide to funding your trip
  2. Gear, resources, and tools for your volunteering adventure
  3. Books to read while volunteering in North America

In Summary

North America is a beautiful part of the world that is very easy to get to from almost everywhere. With projects starting as short as 1 week, you can make an impact and transfer skills while on vacation or during a short sabbatical. And with its global connections, one can often find organizations with global headquarters in North America, and then head abroad to get experience in the field, too.