Overseas for Volunteering
Volunteering is an excellent way to spend your time – it’s among the least selfish things you can do (as long as you’re not doing it for clout). As a volunteer, you’re putting your personal resources at the disposal of a person, community, or area in need, and you can do that in your local community or far away from home.
Volunteering abroad has been around for a bit over one century. The first efforts of international volunteering stem from World War I missionary services. The official beginning of overseas volunteering goes even further into the past when the Red Cross established the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) in 1909. While it was not the most prominent scheme, the idea stuck around and grew more appealing to people over the years.
What started as engagements with causes to which people were directly related became a widespread network of organisations and institutions that offered to connect volunteers with various causes all over the globe. If you’re looking to participate in such a project, you’ve come to the right place.
Before You Go Looking for Volunteer Abroad Programs
There’s no right or wrong time to start volunteering. However, when you want to volunteer abroad, you are making a big, often life-changing decision, and you should plan carefully. Choose the volunteer abroad program that fits your free time range, e.g. in the summertime when you’re out of school, during your gap year, or when you graduate and want to devote time to a good cause before you start working.
Before you start looking for an ideal program, you should dwell on several things:
- Your motivation. It’s one thing to travel abroad for sightseeing but entirely different when you’re supposed to work there for an extended time. Volunteering abroad is not a Summer vacation with a few hours of light work here and there – it’s hard work. If you’re not ready to put sustainable effort in, you shouldn’t apply in the first place. On the other hand, volunteering abroad is not your personal marketing platform; you’re not going out there tO tAkE pIcTuReS wItH lITtLe AfRiCaN kIDs for Instagram. That is plainly dishonourable and distasteful. If any of your motivation is driven by similar motives, you’re not the right person to volunteer.
- Preparation and qualification. It’s the truth that anyone can volunteer even without specific qualifications, but once you set out to go, you should still assess your own skills and put them in the hands of those who need them. If you have medical training, pick causes that would benefit from it. If you’re good at art, choose projects that teach art or capitalise on it.
- Finding the right organisation. Not every platform offering volunteer abroad programs is honest and benevolent. Lots of them are set up as businesses, which cause more harm than good to local communities. You should only apply through reliable and well-acclaimed organisations.
- Visa and vaccinations. The visa process can take up to three months (especially if there’s a long waiting time), so do check in time whether you need one and how you should apply. Similarly, some countries you’re travelling to require proper immunisation – also best taken around two months before the trip. Plan ahead for these necessities.
- Volunteering abroad is not free. While you may wonder why you have to pay to work abroad, think about what the host community might have to give up to give you room and board. Flights can be expensive, and the organisation arranging your trip needs to be paid for as well.
- This is not your cultural platform. You don’t go abroad to bring your cultural values or try to teach them to host communities. Volunteering abroad is about preserving cultures as they are. Ditch that Western saviour myth before you even start packing.
Now that these important themes are out of the way, you can start looking for a perfect program for yourself.
Volunteer Opportunities Abroad
Some of the most popular volunteer projects abroad include medical work, teaching, construction, environmental and cultural preservation, and various programs on international cooperation. There are a few leading organisations that facilitate volunteering abroad that I strongly recommend you apply through:
- VolunteerWorld. You can search the website based on a number of criteria: where you want to go, what kind of projects you want to support, how long you intend to stay, and how much you can pay. The organisation is transparent about its programs and certified for its ethical work. The team offers you continuous support throughout the program and is highly flexible with planning.
- International Volunteer HQ. These MVPs are a headquarter of excellently placed projects, transparent work, and their devotion to health and safety. Their programs are highly rated and range from working in national parks to painting houses.
- GoAbroad. Lauded for its local impact, GoAbroad has a wide range of overseas programs that fit every interest there is. There are even scholarships to help you pay for your program.
- GoOverseas. I don’t know whether GoAbroad had bought the domain first, so these guys are going overseas, but in addition to the similar name, both organisations have similarly rated and admired programs abroad. This organisation also offers a good deal of internships, certifications, and learning opportunities.
- UN Volunteers. The United Nations has its own platform for organising volunteer opportunities overseas with a special focus on human rights, fighting for global equity, and promoting international cooperation. You need to register in the talent pool to apply, as you are thoroughly checked and matched with suitable projects. While you can apply for specific programs, it may happen that you don’t fulfill the requirements and that you are sent elsewhere.
And while there are probably many other organisations for overseas volunteering, these five are the most reliable and straight-to-the-point you will find. Combined, they offer more than 100,000 volunteer abroad programs, and if you cannot find a suitable one for yourself, you probably won’t find it elsewhere either.
Why You Cannot Volunteer Abroad for Free
Some people will refuse to even consider paying for a chance to volunteer, while others might be more flexible about the idea. Whichever camp you belong to, the hard fact is that you simply cannot volunteer for free. If anyone offers you such a chance, avoid them as they most likely represent an exploitative side of the international volunteering business that damages communities it’s meant to help. No, you cannot volunteer without showing your bank card or physical money, which makes perfect sense.
Firstly, you’ll have to pay for your flight to the location and back – flying, just like anything else, is not getting cheaper these days. If you are devoted to sustainable travel, you’ll probably want to pay a bit extra for those companies that are devoted to environmental protection. Furthermore, visa processing also costs money – sometimes more, sometimes less, but even so.
More importantly, the organisation you apply through has limited funds to support a project. If those funds go into giving volunteers hotel rooms, three meals a day, and extra pocket money, the community they’re meant to be helping is left without the very funds intended for them. Which defeats the purpose of the program.
You can volunteer abroad at reduced costs if you’re financially proficient and can take care of your money – reckless spenders, time to learn! There are scholarships you can apply for, or you can start a fundraiser to help you out. Ultimately, you can work for a while and save up cash for your volunteering opportunity – there’s hardly a better way to spend money anyway. Don’t let the costs deter you from doing a good deed!
Gap Year – Volunteering Abroad Without Constraints
Volunteering in one’s gap year is quite popular – it allows for greater flexibility, more time to really get into a project, and a higher impact on one’s engagement. If you’ve recently finished your studies but are not ready to jump into the world of work, think about taking a gap year to do some good. However, please do not make it about ‘finding yourself’ – you need proper, sustained motivation to volunteer abroad.
The great news is that all organisations listed above have excellent offers or gap year volunteers. These programs are more flexible, and you can tailor them to your own needs. On the beneficial side, volunteering abroad during your gap year will open up amazing job prospects across multiple territories – you never know who you might meet and where they may take you. You’ll discover what you’re capable of, test your limits, and positively impact the world. 😊
Applying to Volunteer Abroad – Tips for Students
Some practical information at the end of this lengthy treatise. Once you find a suitable program, you must apply directly. Depending on the organisation and the program, you’ll get to pick the dates, or you may receive a predetermined time when the program is taking place.
While the application process is relatively simple, quite often, you’ll be asked to explain your motivation to volunteer. You don’t have to make this as formal and uptight as a job motivation letter, but you should still keep a firm structure. If you need to, introduce yourself in a sentence or two and get straight to the point of why you’re applying.
Answer the following questions in your letter:
- Why is this cause important to you?
- Which details of it do you find particularly appealing?
- What skills do you possess that will be useful to you during your stay? You can also add examples to demonstrate those skills.
- What might be challenging to you as you engage with the project? How do you intend to face those challenges?
Apart from the motivation letter, here are a few more tips:
- The language. Most volunteer abroad programs are fairly English-friendly, but you may need to brush up on your other language skills.
- Be acquainted with the local medical system. It’s true that dramatic things rarely happen, but you should be equipped to deal with them. You should also be insured for the trip!
- Pack light. Just thinking about dragging a massive suitcase gives me headaches – be practical about it. And most definitely wear comfortable shoes!
- Bring enough money – just in case.
- Read your volunteer guide thoroughly. Everything you need to know will be there – not just about the program but also about the local culture and dynamics.
With that said, you should also be cautious about not being ripped off by those preying on foreigners. Also, have your medical supplies and come with an open mind and high spirits. After all, volunteering abroad is indeed an experience of a lifetime!