6 Tips for choosing a volunteer abroad assignment

Penny gives tips for volunteers on choosing a volunteer placement and which details one should watch out for. Her tips concern the costs, the location, the facilities as well as the time commitment for the job on the one hand but also your personal skills.

So you’ve decided you want to volunteer abroad: Fantastic!

Perhaps, you’ve started doing some research into organizations, costs, locations, and assignments. There’s a lot of information to wade through. Sometimes this can get overwhelming, and even a little confusing. What are the key things you should be looking for in an assignment, and an organization? What are the main things you should be considering when choosing a location? I’ve been lucky enough to have some experience with volunteer projects over the years, so here are my tips for selecting a volunteer abroad assignment.

Check the costs

Often, volunteering can be a pretty cost-effective way to spend time abroad. You’ll usually get accommodation, food, and services at local prices. But volunteer projects can vary significantly concerning their fees considering the different organizations, locations, and assignments involved. Make sure you’ve prepared a budget for your trip so you can afford to take part in volunteering. Take a look at what’s included in the total costs listed, and consider whether there are any additional expenses such as flights, airport transfers, accommodation, food or materials you might have to bring (like books, mosquito nets, torches).

The location

Volunteer projects are often located in fairly isolated areas across the world. Have a think about some other times you might have traveled through, or lived in remote areas – how did you cope? Personally,

I really enjoy remote locations, as you’re totally immersed in the language, and culture, and can truly experience living like a local.

When volunteering in this way, you’ll enjoy local food, are likely to pick up the language more quickly, and learn to really appreciate the comforts of home!

The facilities

These days, a possible ‘deal breaker’ for many people when traveling and volunteering abroad, is whether there’s an internet connection. If there is internet available on your volunteer assignment, keep in mind that it might be limited to certain times of the day, and may also be unreliable. I think this can actually be a good thing, as it’s great to ‘switch off’ from the world sometimes, and it will only further your cultural immersion.

Another ‘facilities factor’ to consider may be the sleeping conditions: are they shared, for example. If they are shared, I think it’s a great way to get to know other the volunteers, and staff on your assignment. You’ll most likely be cooking, and sharing meals together as well. It’s a great way to make new, and often long-lasting friends. On weekends when you have time off, you may even travel together to explore the surrounding areas.

The time commitment

Some assignments require that you commit to a minimum amount of volunteering time, as this ensures a substantial contribution, and continuity in the project.

Before accepting an assignment, make sure you can commit fully to the requirements.

This includes not only the time commitment, but makes sure you will be able to live and work under conditions you’re probably not used to (for example remote location, living quarters, and so on – as I mentioned above). Remember, pulling out of an assignment early because you didn’t do enough research just isn’t cool.

Do you have the right skills?

Now’s not the time to use some ‘creative license’ with your skills, knowledge, and experience – it’s a volunteer role, not the next promotion you’re gunning for. Remember this is most likely an organization that’s strapped for resources, and the people in it rely on volunteers to get their projects completed. Be truthful about what you have to bring to the table, and you’ll find an assignment that’s right for you.

Also, remember that you might need to know the local language. By learning the language before you go, you’ll find communication and make friends (both local and other travelers) much easier. Learning the local language in-country is also a great way to speed up your learning – when you’re fully immersed, you learn much faster.

What will being a volunteer abroad bring you?

Volunteering is of course, for many, about giving back, but you’re allowed think about the vast benefits it will bring you too. You’ll probably gain extra skills, and enhance ones you already have.

You’ll most likely be pushed out of your comfort zone (more than once!), and be challenged in so many amazing ways.

Ultimately, you’ll learn so much about yourself and other people, and just what you’re capable of achieving in strange circumstances.

Penny is an avid Australian traveler, who is 1.5 years into a 1-year trip abroad. She’s currently living in Panama and has so far visited 20 countries across four continents. Penny is the creator and author of Travelling Penster, which features humorous stories, useful tips, and stunning pics from her adventures across the globe. Check out her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter to find out more.

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  1. says: Claudia

    I have years of experience in the firled of human rights, with not for profit organisations, NGOs and International organisations. I am somehow reluctant to recommend volunteering placements in organisations that require fees to participants. I understand the need of covering the living and travelling expenses, but some rates are extortionary and I am always left to wonder what actually happens to the money.

      1. says: wanderlustem

        Hi Penny! We haven’t decided yet. We’re liking the sound of an wildlife sanctuary maybe in Thailand but we’re not set in stone yet. Will have to do some research 🙂

      2. says: Yasmina Baker

        I would also like to volunteer and tjis info is valuable,as i am looking for a free accommodation or cheaper placrs.the douth african rand is putred overseas.i am a retired teacher

  2. I’ve volunteered abroad once and while the volunteering was a great experience, I don’t agree with the high costs of volunteering in a foreign country. I wasn’t satisfied with the organization’s explanation of where our tends of thousands of dollars went as I saw no result of it during the two weeks we worked there like they promised. I’m sure there are legitimate organizations out there that don’t charge several thousand dollars for a couple week commitment, it’s just about doing the research and finding the correct one.

  3. This is great, I love the things she brings up. Specifically understanding the location. I love remote places personally but I have to have an internet connection for school purposes. So I try to go to remote places when I’m not in school. Thanks for the plethora of tips in general, will keep these in mind next time I volunteer!

  4. says: Emily Luxton

    Hi Penny! Thank you for posting this article – you’ve raised some really interesting points and these tips are very useful. I bet so many travellers spontaneously decide to volunteer to ‘give back’, without considering all the important issues associated with it. I volunteered in India a few years ago, and I really struggled to see what the fee I paid had gone towards. It was a great experience nevertheless!

  5. Yes! Totally agree about the skills section! Too many potential voluntourists with no skill, quals or experience expect to be able to save the world and be welcomed with open arms simply because they are ‘volunteering’. Doesn’t work that way.

  6. says: Brianna

    Great tips, especially regarding considering your skill set. No matter how well intentioned you are you may actually hinder a project if you’re not the right fit.

    1. says: Anonymous

      Thanks! I definitely agree there, you have to match your skill sets to the project if there are specific ones required.

  7. says: alliblair

    Great set of tips here! I really like the one that asks if an individual’s skill set is appropriate. I don’t think many people think so inwardly like that when it comes to volunteering. But it is a must!

  8. These are all really great tips, Penny. I think it’s easy to leave out of consideration how well fit for the job you are and not just vice versa. New environments can be challenging and you should reflect if you are going to the right place for you before you make the decision to leap forward. And being able to honestly evaluate your skills for the job is huge. Thanks for sharing!

  9. I’d never pay to volunteer anywhere. I’ve heard of people paying so much money to do it and it always confuses me…if I’m doing something for someone I should be getting paid (or at least not have to pay anything), not the other way around.

    1. says: Yasmina Baker

      Definiely i am offering my skills and time.i do undersrand to pay my flight.how did you manage to go for free

  10. Great tips here! Choosing a volunteer placement can be super tricky. Unfortunately, volunteers are sometimes more of a drain on resources than actually helpful. As you mentioned, its important to make sure you’re bringing something to the table skills-wise instead of just wanting to volunteer to make yourself feel good.

  11. Unfortunately I am one of those people that doesnt believe in voluntourism. I don’t believe people should be paying money to volunteer both their time and skills. Its just become another way for people to make money and frankly I don’t really see what benefit extending passed those handling the money.

      1. says: Yasmina Baker

        I really need help finding something for free i am a qualified teacher,life coasch auxilary social worker…love working with women and children.anythinh else tjough.just want to be of service

  12. says: Jameela Deen

    When i finished university in England i thought about volunteering and so i went to check out some stalls on campus offering volunteering experiences abroad. I was shocked at the time (back in 2006) by how much money they asked for… i just wasn’t prepared to PAY in order to volunteer… then i realised what that was: feel-good projects for rich kids.

    When it comes to really helping out projects your posts is really great, people shouldn’t just focus on the travelling abroad part, they have something to give, duties to perform and most importantly, as you reminded us, a project to serve. It’s got to be taken seriously so thanks for your helpful list of tips. Hope it encourages people to try something different.

  13. says: Kibaya rogers

    My area of interest is tailored with high quality care and support to people who are socially excluded or who are experiencing problems in their lives.having a consistent track record of working successfully with individuals, families and groups,all within a variety of settings, and their application to complex cases, group work, and community issues

  14. says: Marco A Andrade V.

    Estoy dispuesto a dejar mi zona de Confort soy ex militar y me gustaria servir como voluntario en cualquier zona remota me gusta la naturaleza aai q no es problema para mi

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