Gap Year Series: How to Volunteer Abroad

 My Instagram feed is full of them: beautiful photos of friends traveling around the globe. But what if you want to go beyond the filtered images of beautiful cities, picture perfect landscapes, and poolside snaps? What if you also want to make a difference while you travel and participate in a sustainable volunteer program?

Volunteering abroad has a mixed reputation. Some say that it is nothing more than tourism, and at worst it takes jobs away from local communities and exploits locals. However, after doing some volunteer work in Germany and hearing about a friend’s amazing experience volunteering in Mexico, I can tell you there are still some great programs out there.

So how do you find the volunteer abroad programs, so you can travel and do good?

Start with a Checklist

Write down all the things that are important to you while volunteering abroad. Is there a particular country you want to visit? Do you want work experience relevant to your career goals? How long are you willing to commit? Do you want to learn a new language? What’s your budget? Do you want to work with kids, animals, conservation efforts, or another cause important to you?

Then review your checklist: how many of these things are non-negotiable, and how many are flexible? Use your checklist to evaluate the programs you come across.

Don’t be afraid to cast your net a bit wider with your flexible requirements – you might find something amazing that you had never thought of!

Do Your Research

Thoroughly look through the volunteer organization’s website. Email or call them. Have them send you as much information as possible. Ask for testimonials from previous volunteers, information about the organization, and its mission. Also ask for realistic costs of volunteering, and what kind of support you will be provided as a volunteer.

Ask to email or Skype previous volunteers. This will give you a first-hand feel for the organization. Volunteers who have been there can give you a great overview of what day-to-day life is actually like, with all its ups and downs.

Let’s talk money

As a general rule, if you are volunteering abroad short-term (up to 6 months), you will have to pay for the privilege. Remember that while you are offering your time for free, the organization more than likely has to pay for your accommodation, food, training and other costs.

Look for volunteer organizations that tell you where your money will go: beyond the overheads of the organization, how does the money benefit the local community? Does the organization employ local workers?

If you are willing and able to commit to a long-term project (think 6+ months), then the chances of finding programs with low or no fees are higher. Committing for a longer time period also allows you to truly settle into the job, learn more, and develop meaningful relationships.

Start Packing!

Volunteering abroad can be a wonderful, rewarding experience that has a positive impact on the community you work in. With a little preparation and research, you can enjoy the perks of travel with the knowledge that you’re also making the world a better place.


Have you volunteered abroad? How did you find your program? Please share in the comments, I would love to know!

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