Updated: Mar 31, 2020
Volunteering abroad can be a phenomenal experience.
You're not only fulfilled because you are making a difference but you also expand your cultural horizons and learn more about the world. Before we start, however, you may want to check out my blogpost about how to avoid voluntourism - and make sure you are actually helping - and not harming the community you want to serve.
Sites to Find Volunteer Opportunities
I have compiled a list of places where you can look for volunteer opportunities worldwide. Depending on your needs: Volunteering for a Fee, Volunteering for Free and Somewhere in Between you may want to check out either Organized Volunteer Experiences, Professional Volunteering and Volunteer Get-Together's (I am explaining these categories below)
Please note, that just because a website (including mine) directs you to a program doesn't mean that it's sustainable and ethical. Using online search engines to find volunteer opportunities is a great way to start, but be critical - use your brain! - you may want to consider talking to your friends and family contacts first: a personal recommendation is often much better than a random thing you found on the internet.
But first: Ethics
It is important to remember that even if you want to help: you are a guest and unfamiliar with the situation of a country or community. It's great that you want to lend a hand but you are not there to "solve" another countries issue or impose your worldview on others. Be grateful for being able to get such a wonderful insight.
Option #1 - Volunteering for a Fee
If this is your first time volunteering you may want to consider going on a trip that is led by an organization: Organized Volunteer Experiences. These are trips that are run by organizations (for-profit or non-profit) and thus cost money. This makes sense because they usually book your accommodation, pick you up from the airport, provide you with insurance - so that all you have to do is book your flight and arrive. For first-time volunteers this is perfect because it saves you the hassle (and dangers) of not finding your way in a different country.
"Perfect if you are a first-time volunteer and
are able/willing to spend money"
However, people, of course, need to be compensated and sometimes these experiences are quite expensive. On the other hand, many of these organizations provide tips on how to crowdfund money to pay your fee or offer financial aid or scholarships.
"However, these organizations prioritize YOUR experience"
Also: although I do believe that most of these organizations do care about the communities they serve, they also prioritize your experience. This is great and this will ensure that you have a really enjoyable holiday. However, these trips sometimes raise ethical questions: volunteering is a part of the (money-making) travel industry. To what extent can we ensure that your volunteering is really helping the community and that the organization is not just making money off of you?
I cannot answer these questions but I urge you to consider this and ask critical questions when you are selecting your experience.
Organized Volunteer Experiences
If you are up for a true immersion experience this website has a lot to offer. Along with Learning Enterprises, ICYE is one of the volunteer programs that have volunteers live in host families of their placement. In some regions that may involve getting out of your comfort zone a little bit. However, if you truly wish to deeply engage with the culture you are exploring, this may be exactly what you are looking for. They do charge a fee for your accommodation, food etc but I haven't been able to figure out how much that is.
This organization is definitely leading the sector with regard to ethics. I have a friend who did two trips with them and had a really good experience. When I had a brief chat with them, they gave more detail on how they approach their programs: "While we wholly believe in an individual's ability to influence change on a global scale, we make sure that our participants know that they can't and won't "save" whatever place or country we visit. The change and impact is really mostly on the traveler! We try hard not to use exploitative images of our community partners and avoid catchy (but misleading and harmful) tropes like, "you can change the world in a week!"
For me, this really shows a commitment - not only to you but also the communities they are working with, which is why I highly recommend this organization.
Okay, I will admit it - this is an expensive organization, which may cause many of you to immediately dismiss it (and that's fine). They have, however, a range of recommendations on how you can fund your experience and even offer to cover 25% of your fee, if you have the need.
If you want to go on an adventure but you would like to trust that you are in good hands (and not completely on your own) this seems like a great organization that really helps and supports you on your trip. That, of course, comes with a higher price range.
Again, pretty expensive - especially if you add flight costs to this. But - I am generally a big fan of ecology volunteer trip. As opposed to when you are working with people (and children!) you can be much more confident that you are actually making a difference and not harming a community. They also realize that not everyone can afford their prices and list different ways of funding your experience, including scholarships.
Although this organization also has fees, they are not as high as GoEco and Operation Groundswell. I saw a few listings that were around 500 UK pounds (as opposed to several thousand USD)! Moreover, they seem very concerned with ethics and sustainability. For example, they employ a "careful and independent selection process, ensuring that we only work with sustainable, long term projects that we know personally and where there is a lasting, positive impact on the local communities". Check it out and see for yourself!
This organization seems to be one of the much cheaper volunteer abroad organization and they seem amazingly transparent in regards to where their costs come from. Moreover, they have a variety of programs to choose from and seem to have very positive reviews online. The only thing that raised some concern for me is that listed at the top of their most popular opportunities are "volunteer at orphanages", which is simply something that I have a few ethical concerns with.
What I like about this site is that it seems fairly transparent and very communicative about their goals and values. The programs do come with a pretty big price tag, although there are scholarships and reduced fees available e.g if you are a full-time student.
Option #Two - Volunteering for Free
If you are a very experienced traveller and volunteer you may want to consider organizing your own experiences. This means you have to organize your own transportation, accommodation, insurance and service site.
"If you have experience and are more independent,
professional volunteering is perfect"
This can be a scary endeavor but it gives you the most control over how you want to spend your time. It also allows you to think even more critically about where you are spending your time: is this organization really making an impact?
You may may want to check out:
Experiences like this usually interview you as if you were applying for a job. Because, technically you are. With certain skills that you have, especially if you have a little bit of volunteering experiences, some organizations may recruit volunteers for specific purposes. This can indicate that you are actually making a big difference (yeyy) but it also means that it's a little bit more like a job - and less like a holiday. Don't get me wrong, you can still have the most amazing experience. But the organizations hire you to do something - as opposed to you paying for an experience, if that makes sense. That said, this also means that these experiences are usually much cheaper: you are often provided with accommodation and food in exchange for your services and only have to cover your own transportation (check that beforehand, though).
What I love about this page is that it takes volunteering to a professional level: you can create a profile listing the skills you have and then initiatives can look through a database and contact you if they are interested in your services. This is a great way to ensure that what you are doing is actually meaningful, since it's not you showing up - but they asking for specific help that your skills match.
Since this is coordinated by UNESCO, it seems that the partners of their initiatives are pretty legit. You are asked to cover your transportation and insurance costs yourself but the costs of food and lodging are apparently covered by the host organization.
Option #Three - Somewhere in between :)
If you fit into neither categories: for example if....
you feel fairly comfortable with traveling by yourself but don't feel experienced yet to volunteer professionally
you would like to travel in a more organized group but don't want to pay the hefty fees of the volunteer organizations
... you may want to check out Volunteer get-together's. I created this category for the websites that seemed like great experiences, however I wasn't sure how professional they are - which sometimes means that they are simply spending more time working on their projects than on their website, which is great :)
But here it's really important to make sure you are safe! Take a friend with you, know a local contact, double check all visa, insurance small-print etc.
Here is an student-run (!) organization whose programs are apparently free. You would still have to cover your transportation but depending on where you live you could take a train or bus. If I understand it correctly, these experiences have you teach English while staying with a member of the community. I just came across it randomly but it sounds really good!
This website is as much a search engine as it is a forum for people to share their opportunities and skills. It seems as if a variety of organizations and people can post volunteer opportunities, so make sure to be in touch with them beforehand and ask critical questions. What's great about this, though, is that the experiences are all at low or no costs.
I am not exactly sure whether this falls into the "volunteering" category but I thought I'd include it anyway, just to bring a little more diversity into this list :)
The idea is to travel and get to know a local community by helping out at an organic farm (again, a fee for accommodation is charged, I believe - how much largely depends on the country and farm)
Especially if you are looking for short-term volunteer projects and perhaps some that are a little closer to home, this page offers "work camps" almost everywhere in the world. Some listings are more expensive and others don't list a price at all but all the projects seem very hands-on.
Don't leave just yet :)
There are a two search engines I came across that you can also use to generally browse a variety of experiences. Especially, because I can never list ALL the volunteer organizations and experiences here.
This amazing magazine doesn't only list various volunteer opportunities but also information about working and studying abroad as well as blogposts on sustainable traveling, safe couch surfing etc. Check it out :)
I love it!
This is a search engine for a variety of experiences: studying, interning, volunteering abroad - they have it all. GoAbroad.com vets all programs prior to listing them, but it's the user's responsibility to do the proper research into whether or not a program is right for them. I particularly love their free Online Advisor, which helps you get matched with programs that are perfect for you. That way you don't have to sift through hundreds of listings: https://www.goabroad.com/onlineadvisor
These are two search engines specific to a place - so if you have already picked your destination, are doing a semester or internship abroad or are looking for a place to volunteer at home - check out these. They also have very short-term placements where you can volunteer for a day or so.
*Important: Please note that I have gathered these resources partially from friends and partially by spending countless hours on google. There are surely some great initiatives listed on here but I know (because I have seen it) there are also some really dodgy programs that are advertised in some of these websites. Again: make sure you are safe and that you are critical about what kind of impact you are having.
Safe travels :)
And please, tell me all about it!
Seriously, though - do you have experiences with any of these organizations or websites? Good ones? Bad ones? Tell me! And make sure that people can have the same amazing experience as you or ensure that no one has a bad experience!