Volunteering Abroad



Volunteer Work Abroad

Working to Provide for Unmet Needs


By William Nolting

Volunteering abroad is defined not so much by earnings, since volunteer programs may or may not provide some form of reimbursement, as it is by service, working to provide for unmet needs. Unmet needs may be social—poverty, hunger, illiteracy, etc.—environmental, or educational.  Traditionally, volunteering has been seen as helping others. Today, it is more often seen as helping persons or groups achieve their goals as they themselves define them, building local self-reliance.

            While volunteering means giving of oneself, it also means receiving—friendships, knowledge of oneself, insight into another culture, and the relationship between that society and our own. For some it can be a catalyst towards lifelong work for social change at home or abroad.



“Before making a commitment, it is important to clarify your motives. You may be drawn to voluntary service by a desire to help impoverished people. You may be interested in learning about another culture and society. You may wish to be part of a process of positive social change. Or you may wish to gain experience which will help you find employment. Each of these motivations will direct you to distinct options for voluntary service.”

Alternatives to the Peace Corps



        Skills required: These run the gamut from unskilled through professional, in areas such as teaching, business, health sciences, environment and natural resources, engineering and other technical skill areas, special education, math and sciences, and many more.

        Time commitment: From a few weeks to two or three years.

        Pay or cost: A few long-term (two or more years) volunteer programs cover all expenses plus a stipend. Many provide for room and board but not for transportation or personal expenses. Some require volunteers to cover their own expenses. Short-term programs which provide training, on-site support, and sometimes academic credit usually charge a fee—but they are generally less expensive than study-only programs or simply traveling.

        Location and type of work: You can volunteer virtually everywhere in the world. In wealthier areas such as Western Europe (or the U.S.), volunteering may be the only way for nonspecialists to work for social, educational, or environmental causes. In most countries with developing economies, volunteering is often the only work possible for foreigners, particularly for those seeking their first work experience in these locations.

        Sponsoring organizations: Include the U.S. government (e.g., the Peace Corps), large international multigovernment organizations such as the United Nations, smaller non-governmental organizations (known as NGOs), and religious organizations. The latter may have either a social-activist or a proselytizing orientation, or in some cases both.



The best way to find funds is to go directly to people or organizations for support. In exchange, the volunteer can provide reports from abroad or presentations upon return. Possible sources include service clubs such as Rotary or Kiwanis, religious organizations, and relatives. Other fund-raising events include raffles, providing services for contributions, etc. Most organizations will assist volunteers with suggestions for raising funds.

            Undergraduates should consider applying for the Council Travel Grant, sponsored by the Council on Independent Educational Exchange (Council), for use in less-developed countries. The grant pays for roundtrip transportation and a stipend. Application deadlines are October and March. Contact Council at (888) COUNCIL; ISICGrants@ciee.org, www.ciee.org.



Volunteer Placements

Coping With Potential Problems


By Susan Griffith


Many potential volunteers aspire to serve humanity or are motivated by some similarly grand ambition. Many past volunteers have discovered that the world is wider and their role smaller than they had previously thought.

            While most volunteers return from a project abroad buzzing with excitement, their lives enriched, others have experienced disillusionment. Either way, they have gained. The process of shedding illusions, though sometimes uncomfortable, is enlightening and ultimately positive. When starting your research for a stint abroad as a volunteer, it is important to maintain realistic expectations. Think about potential problems and how you would cope.

            Ideally, your research should begin at least a year in advance of your intended departure so that applications can be lodged, sponsorship money raised, language courses and other preparatory courses attended, and so on.

            When you receive a placement organization’s literature, consider the tone as well as the content. For example, the glossy brochure of a U.K.-based agency that arranges short stints of volunteer English teaching reads almost like a tour operator’s hard sell: “Choose your destination—colorful Ghana, exhilarating Mexico, the grandeur of Ukraine or Siberia, mystic India, lively Brazil or magical China.” Sure enough, volunteers must pay from $1,350 for arrangements in the Ukraine to more than $2,000 for short placements in Ghana or Mexico, not including travel to the destination country. These contrast sharply with the printed-on-a-shoestring directories sent by the main U.S. workcamps coordinators like Volunteers for Peace. For a modest contribution of $225 (plus travel costs), VFP volunteers can join anything from an environmental project in rural Italy to a community center for Aboriginal people in the center of Sydney.

            To illustrate further the diversity of cost, even among projects working towards broadly similar ends, the book Green Volunteers includes many conservation organizations looking for volunteers. Of the three operating exclusively in Peru, one runs eco-safaris and charges volunteer naturalists nothing at all; another collects data on marine wildlife and charges volunteers $5 a day for food and a mattress in a shared house; and the last, which monitors the macaw population, charges $50 per day (for a minimum of four weeks). Predictably, the ones charging very little expect their volunteers to have an appropriate background or degree, previous fieldwork experience, and computer skills (in the case of the marine wildlife project). The expensive program requires nothing apart from good health.

            For pre-arranged placements, much depends upon the efficiency and commitment of the representative or project coordinator on the ground. Promises of expert back-up are easier to make than to keep if the sending organization’s local agent is more interested in his or her own prestige than in attending to the day-to-day problems of foreign volunteers. Few steps can be taken to guard against clashes with other individuals. The archaeologist for whom you are cleaning shards of pottery may turn out to be an egomaniacal monster.  Fellow participants may not always be your cup of tea either. Voluntary projects attract a diverse range of people of all nationalities and ages, from the wealthy and pampered who complain about every little discomfort to the downright maladjusted. Assuming you fall outside both categories, you may have to call on every ounce of tolerance.



Even when good will predominates, things can go wrong. One young volunteer who arranged a stay with a small grassroots development organization in Sri Lanka felt isolated and miserable when she was billeted with a village family who knew no English. She was given very little to do apart from some menial office tasks. When she asked for something more to do, she was told to visit nursery schools, but had to refuse on the grounds that her embassy had advised foreigners not to leave the main roads. Perhaps someone with a little more travel experience might not have felt so daunted by these circumstances, difficult as they were.

            A more mainstream example of differing expectations comes from Israel where every year thousands of young people continue to work as volunteers on kibbutzim. In exchange for doing primarily manual work, volunteers are given free room and board, quite a bit of time off, and the chance to make a set of new international friends—all of which are sufficient rewards for most foreign volunteers. But others question the arrangement. In an era when the ideals behind the original communal societies of Israel have been replaced by a more hard-nosed business approach, some young people can’t justify working for eight hours a day picking fruit or working on a factory production line for no pay.

            In many cases, the longer a volunteer stays, the more useful he or she becomes, and the more interesting the jobs assigned. Of those organizations that charge volunteers by the week, some have introduced a progressively decreasing scale of charges. In some cases, long-stay volunteers who have proved their usefulness do not have to contribute toward expenses. However, red tape sometimes gets in the way of this arrangement. Most countries of the world impose a maximum period of stay for foreigners, and it can be very difficult to renew visas in countries like Nepal and Uganda after the original tourist visa has expired. In other cases, there may be a hefty fee for visa renewals and a lot of tiresome form filling by both volunteer and sponsor.

            Volunteer vacations are very different from normal vacations, though the difference in cost may be negligible. Restoring historic buildings or teaching classes is just as much work as it would be if you were still at home. Jobs are jobs wherever you do them, and there may be little chance to see the sights or sample the nightlife. Provided you are prepared for such eventualities, you will in all likelihood have a thoroughly interesting and rewarding experience.



Vacation Workcamps

Swap Labor for Room and Board Worldwide


By Seth T. Cohen


A volunteer workcamp enabled me to spend four weeks living, working, and learning in a rural African village, far from the bustle of Zimbabwe’s popular tourist destinations. The only cost was a small registration fee.

            Started in post-war Europe as a way to rebuild war-torn towns and infrastructure, workcamps are now organized by nonprofit organizations in over 60 host countries in Asia, Africa, North and South America, Europe, and Australia. Their purpose is to promote both the grassroots development of their country and the educational exchange that occurs among the participants. Workcamps range in duration from 10 days to two months, with the average running for two to three weeks. Most take place between June and September.

            Although the name “workcamp” may conjure up images of arduous forced labor, the work involved can be fun and rewarding. Projects depend upon community needs in such areas as the environment, construction, agriculture, archaeology, childcare, or the arts. Recent project choices for workcamp volunteers included working on a reforestation program in Zimbabwe; maintaining nature trails in the mountains of Japan; renovating a castle in the Czech Republic; building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Korea; setting up an Austro-Slovenian cultural festival in Austria; and renovating a children’s home in Bolivia.

            No previous experience is required, but for most workcamps volunteers must be over the age of 18. Open-minded, enthusiastic adults of any age find this a unique and rewarding experience. Volunteers usually work in groups of 12-15 people who come from all over the world and regularly include several volunteers from the host country as well.

            Cultural activities such as dances, musical performances, lectures, banquets, and the like supplement the project work and greatly enhance the experience. In addition, volunteers normally have ample free time to explore the region or to make their own contribution to the host community. The free time also gave us the chance to take part in local soccer matches, visit the homes and classrooms of our hosts, and attend an extraordinarily musical church service.

            The intense experience of living and working together allows participants to share their own culture and ideas with their hosts and fellow participants.  All participants inevitably learn a great deal about the lifestyles and values of other cultures while gaining a deeper understanding of their own.


Volunteers for Peace or “VFP” (43 Tiffany Rd., Belmont, VT, 05730;

802-259-2759, fax 802-259-2922; vfp@vfp.org; or www.vfp.org) is a non-profit membership organization that has been placing American volunteers in overseas workcamps since 1981. For a membership fee of $15, VFP will send you, in early April, its annual International Workcamp Directory, which lists detailed information on over 800 workcamps in more than 60 countries worldwide. The registration fee of $225 per workcamp covers everything. (Many volunteers take part in multiple workcamps in a season ˆ thus enjoying a multicountry working vacation and meeting co-workers from all over the world.) VFP works directly with the host organizations to arrange for your participation. Volunteers are responsible for getting to the site.



The Cost of Volunteering

Secrets from Behind the Nonprofit Desk


By Daniel Weiss


I am the director of Amizade, a nonprofit organization that puts together short-term volunteer programs. Many people call our office looking for volunteer possibilities that do not cost an arm and a leg.

            First of all, you should know that volunteering costs money. Even when you volunteer for an organization in your community, you have expenses. For example, when you volunteer at a local animal shelter or literacy program, does the organization pay for your transportation? Your meals? Your rent?  Your health insurance? Probably not. When you volunteer overseas, you cannot expect the organization to pay for these things either. When looking for a volunteer opportunity, keep in mind you will probably have to pay for your own airfare and room and board.

            A variety of sources are available to help you find volunteer opportunities.

The best sources are your library, the Internet, and Transitions Abroad.  Alternatives to the Peace Corps, Volunteer, and International Exchange Directory are good resource books that can be found at most libraries. They list a variety of organizations looking for volunteers of all types. Explain to your local librarian what you want to do, and he or she should be able to provide you with plenty of information.

            Nowadays, you can do most of your research in the comfort of your own home. Here are some of the best sources of volunteer information on the Internet:

Action Without Borders, www.idealist.org

Empower Web, www.SFtoday.com/empower.htm

GuideStar, www.guidestar.org

Impact Online, www.impactonline.org

NSLCC, www.nicsl.coled.umn.edu

SERVEnet, www.servenet.org

WorldWorks, www.vcn.bc.ca/idera/ww.htm

Volunteering Abroad, www.cie.uci.edu/~cie/iop/ voluntee.html

Volunteer Web, www.epicbc.com/volunteer

Volunteer Vacations, mel.lib.mi.us/health/health-vol-vacations.html.

            Other sources include your local church or temple. Also, talk to your local Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, and Optimists clubs. They do a lot of international work and have connections overseas. Furthermore, many provide financial assistance to volunteers abroad.

            If you do not have the time to do the research yourself, organizations including the Overseas Development Network, (415) 431-4204, and the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service, (800) 543-5046, will help you find a volunteer placement for a nominal fee.

            When applying to volunteer with an organization, be very specific about the kind of service you can provide them. Many people call me up and say, “I just want to help.” This is a very pleasant sentiment, but when I ask, “What can you do?” many respond with, “I don’t know, what do you need?”

            Just because you want to help doesn’t mean that you can. Many nonprofit organizations are underfunded, understaffed, and over-worked. You must prove to the organization that you will be an asset—and not a drain—by convincing them that you understand their needs and have the skills and ability to truly help them.

            It is not a wise idea to quit your job with the idea of volunteering right away. Finding a volunteer position overseas takes time. You must be persistent and patient. There is a reason why there is such a long period of time between when you apply, get accepted, and actually join the Peace Corps. Wisely, they want to ensure that your commitment to volunteering is genuine and not just a whim. It is neither fair to the people you are volunteering with nor to yourself if you are not serious about your commitment to serve.

            If you have already made plans to travel, work, or study abroad, and you want to volunteer as well, I suggest bringing your resume and a generic cover letter with you. To find volunteer opportunities when in a foreign country, go to the local church or synagogue. Even though you may not be of the same faith, these institutions are often familiar with local health, education, and welfare organizations. Again, you may want to try the local Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs—international organizations with chapters all over the world.

            Volunteering should be fun and rewarding. Go with an open mind and an open heart; you will return enriched with a better understanding of yourself and the world around you.


From Work Abroad by Clay Hubbs, General Editor. Copyright © 1999 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. Excerpted by arrangement with Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. $19.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-293-0373 or click here.