People with much-needed education and/or experience going abroad for months, a year, even two years, to help with a specific project designed by the volunteer-sending organization and/or the local host organization.
|Type of Volunteer
People with much-needed education and/or experience going abroad for just a few weeks, to help with a specific project designed by the volunteer-sending organization and/or the local host organization. Short-term disaster-response volunteers fit here.
People that do not have specialized skills in high-demand in developing countries, that want to volunteer for a few weeks in a project that doesn't require any specialized skills.
|Type of Volunteer
Independent travelers who do not go through any volunteer-sending organization; instead, they make all arrangements directly with an NGO in a country where they want to help, and coordinate all activities themselves. Their skills vary. (transire benefaciendo)
These volunteers do not pay travel or accommodation or insurance expenses themselves, nor have to pay any placement fees; the host organization or the company they work for pays for their travel, housing and all in-country needs. The host organization provides insurance, will evacuate them if needed, etc. Volunteers work full-time on the assignment.
These volunteers may be expected to at least pay for their travel to and from the country and insurance; the host organization may take care of their in-country needs, OR, the volunteer may be expected to pay all expenses himself or herself. The host organization will evacuate them if needed. Volunteers work full-time on the assignment.
These volunteers are expected to pay for most or all expenses themselves: travel, insurance, accommodations, food, and fees to the host organization to cover work permits, security, training, evacuation if needed, etc. In addition to the work, they may also have language classes, attend trainings, attend "cultural" events, go on organized tours of the region, etc.
These people pay all expenses themselves: all travel, insurance, accommodations and food. They also arrange for and pay for their own security, work permits, translation services, etc. They decide how much they will work, for how long, etc.
People apply to participate as volunteers through the volunteer-sending organization and most are not accepted.
People are accepted as volunteers by the volunteer-sending organization both because of their skills and their ability to pay. Unqualified/low-skilled people are not accepted even if they can pay all expenses.
Most, even all, applicants are accepted as volunteers by the volunteer-sending organization if they have the ability to pay the fees and meet minimal interview and self-assessments. Level of skills or qualifications has little or no bearing on a person being accepted or not - soft skills are emphasized instead (desire to help others, self-reliant, etc.).
There is no volunteer-sending organization involved.
|Web Site /
Emphasizes the skills and qualifications volunteers must have, the kinds of projects volunteers engage in, profiles of projects rather than of volunteers. Not much talk about the importance of "inter-cultural exchanges" and how the experience will change/benefit the volunteer.
|Web Site / Brochure Focus
Emphasizes the skills and qualifications volunteers must have, the kinds of projects volunteers engage in, and profiles of projects rather than of volunteers, though talk about the importance of "inter-cultural exchanges" and how the experience will change/benefit the volunteer may also be present.
|Web Site /
Emphasizes the volunteer experience and how the volunteers benefit from the experience. Talks a lot about the importance of "inter-cultural exchanges" and how the experience will change the volunteer.
|Web Site / Brochure Focus
There is no web site or brochure, because there is no volunteer-sending organization involved.
Times have changed drastically in the last 30 years regarding "Westerners" (North Americans, Europeans, Australians, etc.) volunteering in economically-disadvantaged countries. In contrast to, say, the 1970s and earlier, the emphasis now in relief and development efforts in poorer countries is to empower and employ the local people, whenever possible, to address their own issues, build their own capacities, improve their environments themselves and give them incomes. The priority now for sending volunteers to developing countries is to fill gaps in local skills and experience, not to give the volunteer an outlet for his or her desire to help or the donor country good PR. It's much more beneficial and economical to local communities to hire local people to serve food, build houses, educate young people, etc., than to use resources to bring in an outside volunteer to do these tasks.
That said, the days of international volunteers are NOT numbered: there will always be a need for international volunteers, not just paid consultants or international staff, either to fill gaps in knowledge and service in a local situation, because a more neutral observer/contributor is required, or because a priority in a particular situation is inter-cultural understanding.
Highly-Skilled Volunteers Sent Abroad - What it Takes
To volunteer overseas and not have to pay for it - or to find paid work as an aid worker or humanitarian worker, for that matter - you need to have skills and experience that are critically needed in a particular region, and that can be utilized by local institutions and local people quickly. To be able to train others in these skills increases your chances of placement as a volunteer abroad.
There is no way to list all of the skills needed in the developing world, and there's no way for one person to acquire them all. A listing of international volunteering opportunities will include calls for midwives, civil engineers, lawyers, financial managers, weavers, sanitation experts, police trainers, wine makers, cheese makers, nurses, car mechanics/trainers, photographers, solar energy experts, farmers, domestic/household engineers, tourism experts, computer repair experts, and various other specialists. Many volunteer postings, particularly those where the volunteer does NOT have to pay for placement, require people with a Master's degree in a specific area.
But there are certain qualities that are looked for in all volunteer abroad candidates, and certain areas of specialization that are in frequent demand, many of which can be acquired through volunteering in your own home city and country. These include:
For instance, teaching motorcycle or tractor repair, training nurses aides, training in tailoring and sewing, teaching elderly people to use the Internet to find information they need (government pension, health, etc.), teaching a community or families about caring for people with HIV/AIDS, teaching children about good sanitary practices or peaceful conflict resolution, teaching an entire department to use a new, complicated database program, teaching adults to read, teaching farmers how to fight pests organically, training teachers to implement a particular teaching tool, training local NGO staff in accounting standards and best practices, training local government workers in setting policies and procedures for purchasing, etc. Many of these are experiences you can gain as a volunteer in your local community (more on that later), or through your professional work wherever you live now.
As far as your skills-development in pursuit of becoming a great potential candidate for service, do not try to "do it all." Specialization is more valued by potential placement agencies than generalization.
Your curriculum vitae (CV) should detail your volunteer and professional experience that will be of particular value in-the-field. You might want to prepare a special CV or resume specifically for seeking volunteer assignments, that is focused on the skills and experience you think would be most valued by volunteer-placement agencies.
Use action-verbs and results-oriented-verbs to describe your volunteer and professional accomplishments. See this excellent, very long list of action verbs relevant to describing most middle to senior level management jobs.
One thing your CV won't always reflect, but which you will also need to volunteer internationally, is a very stable emotional and financial state. If you find yourself easily frustrated or having trouble dealing with stress, daily activities or people you view as uncooperative, if you are feeling overwhelmed or depressed, or if you are facing financial problems and debt, volunteering abroad is not something you should consider right now.
For an idea on what is looked for in international work, have a look at the job postings on ReliefWeb. Although most of these postings are for paid-placements, the listings give a good idea of what is being looked for in international volunteers as well.
Organizations that place volunteers in developing countries, mostly for long-term assignments, and that do NOT require the volunteer to undertake costs his or herself, include the following:
Note that many of these organizations receive thousands of applications (Peace Corps receives 10,000 applications annually; UNV receives more than 40,000 annually; both of those organizations have just 2000 - 4000 people abroad at any given time). In other words, the selection process is highly competitive.
When evaluating an applicant, these organizations consider the "whole person," including the applicant's life experiences, community involvement, volunteer work, motivations, and even hobbies.
If you want to understand what Peace Corps volunteers do in the field, "like" the Peace Corps Facebook page. You might also want to "like" the VSO UK Facebook page, to learn what VSO members do in the field. Reading these Facebook profiles regularly will help you understand what international volunteers really do in the field, and why applicants with an area of expertise and/or extensive local experience addressing various issues are preferred candidates.
Paying To Volunteer / Short-Term Volunteering
There are many, many organizations that place international volunteers but require that the volunteers pay the costs associated with the placement, which include: international travel, in-country travel, housing, security, staff time to train and supervise volunteers, and work permits. Some of these organizations that require volunteers to cover costs still require at least a bit of experience or even a lot of expertise in a particular field, but, as noted in the chart at the top of the page, there are volunteer-sending organization will place people who are unskilled, have no area of specialization, have no higher education degree, etc. I'm not listing those anyone-that-can-pay-goes placement agencies because there are so many such agencies. Hundreds. Thousands.
Before you pay to volunteer abroad, however, note that many programs are not worthwhile and, in fact, harm local people -- especially those programs focused on orphans. Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. For now, the campaign is focused on Cambodia, but don't be surprised if the campaign expands: an incendiary report by South African and British academics focuses on "orphan tourism" in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. There's also this blog from a person who paid to volunteer in an orphanage, and realized just how unethical it was.
Medical volunteering / voluntourism isn't safe from unethical, even dangerous practices as well. Many medical voluntourism web sites invite volunteers with little or no medical training to do invasive procedures abroad, including providing vaccines, pulling teeth, providing male circumcisions, suturing and delivering babies. A researcher notes in this blog, "Most volunteers I’ve observed deliver at least one baby, despite being unlicensed to do so." Read more about the dangers of medical voluntourism here.
Unless a program is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children, certifications, references and criminal background checks, unless the program clearly states that they do NOT take just anyone as a volunteer and that they DO turn away applicants that don't qualify, and unless the program places volunteers for many months, not just weeks, stay away from the program.
Here are directories of short-term volunteering organizations, online and in print, that can help you identify credible programs:
Here are eight endorsements of pay-to-volunteer programs or DIY programs that I will make, but only because:
World Computer Exchange (WCE). Volunteers travel in teams of seven and assist local WCE partner organizations that have received WCE computers. Volunteers assist with troubleshooting, training and technical support. To be eligible, volunteers must be 21 years of age, have some prior tech skills, and a willingness to participate in technology-related tasks and education. For certain trips there are some language requirements. Trip participants also visit local families and enjoy a variety of opportunities to experience the local culture. Also, accepted volunteers must pay the costs for their trip (flight, etc.).
Unite For Sight and its partner eye clinics and communities work to create eye disease-free communities. "While helping the community, volunteers are in a position to witness and draw their own conclusions about the failures and inequities of global health systems. It broadens their view of what works, and what role they can have to insure a health system that works for everyone..." This program was featured on CNN International. Volunteers, both skilled and unskilled, are 18 years and older, and there is no upper age limit. It is obligatory for accepted volunteers to purchase insurance coverage through Unite for Sight's recommended provider, and volunteers are responsible for all travel arrangements, visa vaccine requirements, lodging, airfare, food, and any additional expenses.
The Kiva Fellows Program requires a four-month commitment. It offers individuals from any country the opportunity to be officially associated with Kiva and to witness firsthand the impact and realities of microfinance, by working directly with a host microfinance institution (MFI). You do not pay a fee to Kiva, but you are required to undertake all travel and accommodation expenses yourself. A mandatory five-day training is provided (you must pay all expenses to attend). You must be at least 21 years old to apply. Here is the main page for the Kiva Fellows Program and here are the FAQS for the program.
GlobalGiving Foundation Field Visitor Internships. GlobalGiving connects organizations from all over the world with donors who can support their work. They are often looking for self-funded travelers who will be in a region for several months to act as representatives of the organization, conduct site visits of partner organizations and identifying organizations that would be a good match for the Global Giving fundraising site. Volunteers also organize informational workshops during these travels. Volunteers can weave these responisibilities into their tourism of a region. "You will work closely with GlobalGiving's DC staff in preparation for your trip, planning site visits, workshops, travel, and accommodations, while gaining skills in organization and cross-cultural understanding. Upon returning to the U.S., you will present your findings and experience to the GlobalGiving staff." This position is unpaid and program participants are expected to fund their entire trip including airfare, in-country travel and accommodations. GlobalGiving provides training, office support, travel medical insurance, a minimal stipend for communications costs and workshop funding.
Humanist Service Corps, part of Foundation Beyond Belief. Provides an avenue for humanists to engage in global cultural exchange while working to protect human rights and the environment. HSC partners with local organizations and individuals to encourage sustainable programs and practices in their communities. Beginning in the summer of 2015, the Humanist Service Corps will support Ghanaian human rights organizations working to restore dignity to women who have been accused of witchcraft and banished to "witch camps." Although the women are relatively safe from violence once they are in exile, the living conditions are deplorable. They do not have access to basic education and health care, and they are unaware of or are unable to exercise legal protections under Ghanaian and international laws. Humanist Service Corps volunteers will work alongside locals to design and implement projects with the short-term goal of improving the standard of living in the witch camps and the long-term goal of eliminating the dynamics that lead to death or forcible and violent exile of women from their communities. Applications for 2015 will be accepted through December 15, 2014.
World Heritage Volunteers (WHV) is a UNESCO (United Nations) initiative in collaboration with the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS). The WHV initiative mobilizes young people and youth organisations in World Heritage site preservation and promotion. Generally, participants are students between 18 and 30 years old, but the requirements can vary according to the country and the project. Volunteers acquire basic preservation and conservation skills, and to engage in intercultural exchanges with local communities. Many assignments are in remote locations, and volunteers are expected to respect local customs. To get involved in a project, click on the list of projects for the current or upcoming year on the WHV site, and then consult the brief descriptions of each of the WHV action camps for that year. When you find the one you want to participate in, contact the project organizer for that action camp (the email addresses are in the project profiles). To learn more about an action camp and the application requirements, you must contact the local organization in charge of that project (UNESCO does not accept applications). Note: YOU are responsible for funding your own trip! The cost of travel from your country to the site and insurance are YOUR responsibility. Food and lodging are usually provided by the host organization.
Conservation Volunteers International Program - nonprofit organization that provides volunteering opportunities "for ordinary people to perform extraordinary volunteer services." Projects include maintaining and building trails, restoring archaeological sites, and protecting and restoring critical habitats. "Most of the administrative work of ConservationVIP is done by volunteers, and our trips are led by volunteers." In partnership with REI and various nonprofits.
If you have volunteered overseas and paid a fee for the experience, I strongly urge you to offer comments about that company on Yelp, another customer reviews web site, or your own blog. Some of the most frequently asked questions on online groups, such as Also see: YahooAnswers or The Thorn Tree, are regarding experiences with fee-based volunteering abroad programs. People ask, "Has anyone heard of such-and-such organization, and is it a good idea to use them to go to Africa to volunteer?" You could help others make the right choices by reviewing the company that sent you abroad, on Yelp or any other customer review site.
A WARNING: Several individuals and organizations have posted horror stories about volunteering through the Institute for International Cooperation and Development (IICD), also affiliated with California Campus TG (CCTG). Both organizations are part of a Danish network known as "Tvind." Its volunteering program also operates under the name "Humana People-to-People". See Zehara Heckscher"s warning about this very shady organization for more details and links to other sources. IICD/CCTG/Tvind/People-to-People is not an organization I recommend.
For those who think it's wrong to have to pay to volunteer overseas: again, remember that it is much more beneficial to local communities to use funds to hire local people to serve food, build houses, educate young people, etc., than to use those resources to bring in an outside volunteer. The priority is not you and your desire to help -- the priority is local people being employed. Volunteers from outside of a community are needed to fill gaps in local skills and experience, but it's not cost-effective for most organizations to pay for someone to come only for a few weeks or months. If you want a short-term volunteering assignment, be prepared to pay for at least your travel and accommodations - and probably even more beyond that.
The End Humanitarian Douchery campaign takes a much stronger stand against voluntourism in any form, drawing attention to the negative consequences such can have for local communities in particular. The campaign organizers offer tips on "how to find a program that will have a truly POSITIVE impact on the host community." Likewise, ‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education, an academic paper by Colleen McGloin of the University of Wollongong, Australia and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, says that "voluntourism reinforces the dominant paradigm that the poor of developing countries require the help of affluent westerners to induce development. And this article is advice from someone who paid to volunteer abroad - and realized she shouldn't be. All are worth reading, no matter where you stand on the issue of voluntourism or volunteering abroad.
And one more thing: please be on the lookout for, and report, sexual exploitation of children in the context of travel and tourism. There are people who look for volunteering abroad opportunities that will bring them into contact with children, with the intent of sexually exploiting those children. ECPAT is a global network of organisations working together for the elimination of child prostitution, child pornography and trafficking of children for sexual purposes. It seeks to ensure that children everywhere enjoy their fundamental rights, free and secure from all forms of commercial sexual exploitation. And it has an online platform set up to help you recognize and report the sexual exploitation of children in the context of travel and tourism.
Book recommendation: Lonely Planet Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around
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