The Beginner’s Guide to Volunteering Abroad

backpackers walking in forest

Volunteering can be beneficial to your career as it helps you increase your employability and can give you a chance to make a difference in the world. Becoming an international volunteer offers a unique opportunity to experience life in developing countries while improving people’s lives.

Why you should volunteer abroad

The first thing you need to understand about volunteering abroad is that it’s not like finding volunteer work back home. In fact, doing this type of unpaid work requires vast amounts of determination and commitment because, depending on the project you choose to participate in, you are likely to experience poverty and suffering. What’s more, most placements require a relatively large payment (to cover accommodation and living expenses), and you’ll need to prepare for your trip by raising money, etc.

1. It enhances personal development

Whether you are taking part in this unique experience after school, university or mid-career, you should know that being given the opportunity to experience an entirely different way of living can change you. It can help you create a different set of values, as well as change your priorities.

2. It gives you time and space to think about decisions

It’s common for people to become international volunteers during their gap year as recent graduates are often keen to rethink their decisions. If you are struggling with your chosen path, taking the time to do something that is completely different can be exactly what you need.

3. It allows you to make a difference in people's lives

Ultimately, the decision to work without pay for weeks or months should be driven by altruistic motives. Doing things that can help change the quality of life for the less fortunate can be an extremely rewarding experience.

Deciding on a project

Deciding on a project can be quite overwhelming because there are thousands of organisations offering thousands of projects across the world. So, the first step to take is to decide what you are interested in.

There are quite a few variables you can take into account to help you make a decision. First, ask yourself where you’d like to go. Choosing a destination will help you narrow down your options. Then, choose a cause you care about. You can always do it the other way round and first choose the cause and then the destination of course.

Whatever you decide what matter is that you find a destination that matters to you and a cause that aligns with your interests. These gap year ideas are a great place to start and will help you decide what you’d enjoy doing.

It’s always advisable to choose a project that aligns with your professional goals because it can boost your skills, and when added to your CV, it can also help make you more employable.

Remember that there are essentially two options to become an international volunteer. Receiving a placement through an established volunteer abroad programme or volunteering without an organisation.

Volunteer abroad organisations

Volunteering through these organisations can be a lot safer since you will be provided with all the support and help that you need.

Most of these placements will require a fee, although you might also be able to find a few free volunteer abroad programmes (but you’ll generally be expected to cover your own costs). Many of these organisations are not-for-profit, and their sole purpose is bringing together volunteers and projects.

What’s great about these organisations is that they’ll assist you with everything, from choosing a project to helping you choose the best flights and organise field trips to help you explore your target country.

As you’ll generally need to pay in advance, you’ll need to have the funding part figured out before you even start thinking about destinations and projects. It’s important to be thorough about your research and to determine whether the fees for your shortlisted programmes are logical or not.

Placement fees usually include accommodation, living expenses, an English-speaking counsellor that will provide you with support 24/7 and a contribution to the project. As such, to determine if the price is logical don’t just look for hostel prices in the target country, but consider living expenses and how valuable a support system is to you.

Top organisations

  • GVI
  • International Volunteer HQ
  • Original Volunteers

Volunteering on your own, without an organisation

Volunteering on your own can be ideal if you are a very independent person and cherish flexibility. With no set of rules and regulations to follow, volunteering abroad can be a life-changing experience that will help you gain many skills that can be of value in the workplace. Having planned a trip on your own speaks wonders about your initiative and would definitely set you apart from the competition.

What’s more, finding opportunities yourself could mean that you get a chance to visit various places. As volunteering through an organisation can be costly and programmes usually come with a pre-determined duration, it’s not really possible to visit more than one place.

Volunteering on your own, on the other hand, allows you to plan your time as you see fit so you could stay for a couple of days here and a couple of days there and thus, experience lots of different communities and places.

It’s important to note that going with this option might not be as safe since you’ll be out there on your own. To reduce risks, you are advised to contact not-for-profit organisations in your target destinations ahead and build meaningful relationships with them so that they can provide you with support should you need it.


Creating a positive volunteering experience has a lot to do with what you expect to get out of it and how you shape the experience. Finding a project you are interested in and going to a destination that fascinates you are vital elements of a positive experience.

1. Find an affordable project

If you’ve decided to use a volunteer abroad organisation make sure you shop around before you decide on a specific volunteer abroad programme. Many companies offer similar projects, e.g., teaching English in South America, so make sure that you compare what they offer and their prices.

2. Raise a hefty allowance before you leave

Whether you are volunteering through a placement or doing it on your own, you should know that it all requires money. Even with accommodation and living expenses paid, there are lots of other expenses you need to consider, like travel-fare and commuting expenses. You need to raise money before you leave. Consider getting a part-time job, or even starting your own crowdsourcing page.

3. Use a reputable organisation

Thousands of organisations offer volunteering abroad programmes, some are cheap and some are expensive. Don’t just choose the cheapest or the most expensive thinking that it will be the best, rather do your research, find reviews online and if possible talk to people who’ve already gone through the experience and ask for their insight.

4. Decide on a time frame

Deciding on a time-frame can not only help you put together an efficient budget, but it can also help you plan your next steps as well. If you are planning on going to university or getting a job when you come back, then you should know that staying too long can hurt your chances of convincing admission officers and recruiters that you’re responsible and staying for too short a time can reduce the value of the experience on your CV.

Volunteering abroad can be a great experience that can benefit your personal and professional development. The key is to find a project that you are passionate about and invest your time and energy into it.

Would you ever become an international volunteer? Let me know in the comment section below.