Volunteering abroad is an increasingly popular way to travel. With dozens of different programmes available and multiple companies based around voluntary projects, it’s becoming an easy way to see a country while developing your skill set.
Why should you volunteer abroad?
There are several reasons people volunteer abroad. Maybe you want to add some skills to your CV, gain experience in a particular area, or maybe you just want to give something back.
If you’re young, booking with a volunteering company can be a cheap and safe way to travel. You’ll likely be in a large group of people your age, and will have the option of organised sightseeing.
Volunteering can sometimes offer a more immersive experience than travelling. You might be living in a homestay, or a location off the tourist track. This can be a wonderful way to authentically experience a country.
What kinds of volunteering can you do?
Childcare, teaching, medical placements, mental health, women’s empowerment, construction, animal and wildlife conservation… You name it, you can probably do it.
Most programmes will have working weekdays, with your weekends free to travel. Some placements might take up your whole day, whereas others might only be a couple of hours in the morning.
Does it actually make a difference?
This is something I’m very torn about. I’ve volunteered on 4 different programmes in 3 countries, and I’m still unsure the extent to which I was just a tourist.
Each programme varies drastically depending on the type of work, the company, country, time frame and the volunteer themselves.
For example, teaching English when you have no qualifications and don’t speak the native language can be problematic, and is unlikely to make a genuine difference if you’re only there for a couple of weeks.
Be sceptical about the programme you book. Ask yourself whether you think it’s a genuine worthwhile project, or whether you can do well in the role.
Keep in mind that the volunteering is centred around you just as much as it is around the local community. Just because it’s called ‘volunteering’ doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily having a positive impact. Do your research, be open-minded and don’t expect any miracles.
It won’t always be easy
Volunteering abroad is a commitment that you have to take seriously. If you just want to go lie in the sun and drink lots of cocktails by a pool, then this probably isn’t right for you.
You might have to work long hours, use your free time to plan lessons, or be willing to get your hands dirty.
I literally spent an entire morning gutting fish on a turtle conservation programme.
There might be days when you’re itching to travel, but are tied down by your volunteering commitments. And there might be days when you’re dying to get stuck into your project, only to have it cancelled.
In Peru, school was cancelled three days during one week because of local holidays and festivals, and in Nepal, my classes were often rescheduled because of the heavy monsoons.
Having said all of that…
When you volunteer, you will get out of it what you get in. If you put your heart and soul, time and energy into a project, it will be an incredible and rewarding experience.
You will gain insight to another culture, try new things and learn a lot (both about the country and culture, and about yourself).
You’ll meet amazing people, experience something completely different and make memories to last a lifetime.
How do you sign up?
Do your research thoroughly. The first company I volunteered with in Peru expected us to fundraise over £3,000 for a 3-week trip. Comparably, I spent a month in Nepal for a fraction of that, with accommodation and meals included.
Check what’s included and what isn’t. Some programmes will include flights and meals, whereas others will only cover your basic accommodation. Remember to budget in expenses for registration fees, visas, vaccinations and airport transfers.
If you’re at college or university, look out for organised trips through your institution. This can allow you to meet your fellow travellers before you set off on your trip, and is a great way to gain confidence if you haven’t volunteered abroad before.
Things to bear in mind
Be respectful of the area you travel to, particularly if it’s off the tourist track. Be mindful of the cultural differences in order to not appear offensive.
Take the placement seriously. If you’ve decided to volunteer, then you need to put in the effort, even if there are days when it feels more like a job than a holiday.
Be realistic. You won’t solve a world crisis in the couple of weeks you’re volunteering. But the collective impact of the project overall will likely be significant.
Enjoy it! You’re lucky if you are able to have this experience – make the most of it.