How to Volunteer Abroad

Volunteer Group

For the young (and the young at heart) there is nothing quite as life changing as taking weeks, months or years off to find yourself in the blue yonder. Even braver are the travellers who dedicate themselves to bettering the world and in so doing better themselves. But the prospect of planning such a huge undertaking may seem too daunting. Fear not, we've collected the top ten tips to help you make that volunteer experience a reality.

  • Do

    1. Be clear about your own expectations. Before deciding to commit time and energy to volunteering abroad it is important to have a clear idea of your expectations of the experience. Nowhere is it written that a charitable act should not benefit the giver. If you intend to gain work experience, look for something that is relevant to your field of expertise. Volunteering can be a springboard to your next career. If you enjoy working with animals look for a programme specifically concerning conservation. The most important thing is that you get something out of the experience.

    2. Research sending companies. International volunteerism is big business and there are plenty of sending companies (companies that plan the details of your volunteer experience) to choose from. But as with all things there are unscrupulous operators, so it is important to do your research on sending companies if you intend on using them. Below is a list of things to look out for when researching:

      Do they interview their volunteer candidates?: This may seem like something you would prefer to avoid, but the companies that have a selection process tend to be more professional and offer their candidates better overall programmes.

      Do they have a good reputation?: It would be a good idea to ask people who have previously volunteered abroad for their thoughts on the experience and on the sending company they used. There are also internet forums where you can get opinions from others planning to volunteer.

      Are they an ethical organisation?: Volunteering abroad should be both beneficial to you and the community you work with. Ethical organisations work towards sustainably meeting needs on both sides by making real investments into the communities they partner with. Visit to find out more.

    3. Research your destination. The worst stereotype of travellers is that they are ignorant of the places they visit. Preferring to merely sweep through a country, take the expected touristy photos, without really getting to know the countries they visit. That may be ok for the 24 hour stopover, but volunteers who will live in a country for an extended period of time would be remiss in not learning a few phrases in the local language or reading up about their host country's history. Good visitors are often informed visitors as well.

    4. Have a robust travel budget. Learn how to create a realistic travel budget. This task will involve accounting for food, boarding, travel costs, medical costs, entertainment and most importantly - accounting for unexpected costs. The first task is to find out the cost of living at your destination and work from there. Make sure that you have money (or health insurance) to cover unexpected medical costs or any other emergency. After the event is often too late, so plan ahead. Also be aware of the ways you can carry your money most efficiently and safely. Some places may require you have a card or traveller's cheques or, in more remote areas, cash.

    5. Check FCO travel advice about your destination. The British Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) is the government department concerned with ensuring travel safety. They issue travel advice for over 200 international destinations. Check their travel advice on your destination while researching and keep tabs until you disembark. When you arrive at your destination, be sure to register with your local UK embassy and leave contact details. The FCO will assist you in the following situations:

      • Issuing new passports
      • Providing help and assistance where you are a victim of crime
      • Providing help and assistance if you should be arrested or charged with a crime
      • Making special arrangements in case of terrorism, natural disaster or any other exceptional circumstances
    6. Check whether you will require vaccinations. Some of the more popular volunteer abroad destinations lie in malaria and yellow fever areas, for example. It is incumbent on you to make sure that you are prepared for travels to tropical destinations by getting the recommended vaccines and taking the right preventative medications.

    7. Respect local customs. Most volunteer abroad destinations have customs and beliefs that differ from our own. It is imperative that you be aware of, understand and respect local customs. Understanding local customs can often help you interface with the locals better.

    8. Ensure that you are insured. Travelling without travel insurance is a recipe for disaster - especially on an extended trip like volunteering abroad. Put your mind at ease and get comprehensive travel insurance.

    9. Immerse yourself in the experience. Go with an open mind. Don't assume that your way is the right way when dealing with the locals. Remember that you are a guest in their community and their solutions to problems often fit their circumstances. You may even learn something from them.

  • Don't

    1. Expect to fix everything. Problems like famine, poverty and environmental challenges are deep and intractable. We would all like to flash an S on the chest and solve everything. It's depressing to feel like your effort has made no difference to a situation, but the little effort you make makes a difference to the community or area you work with.

Last Updated: October 2011