Why not do more than just visit a bunch of old temples and ruins when you travel? It is often possible for travellers to significantly improve the lives of people in destination countries.
Volunteering while travelling is a great way to make a difference but it's not just about giving. Living and volunteering in a foreign country is a great way to get to know a different culture, meet new people, learn about yourself, get a sense of perspective and even gain new skills. It can also be a good way to stretch a budget to allow a longer stay somewhere since many volunteer jobs provide room and board and a few pay a small salary.
Many volunteer programs are oriented toward youth since good health, a desire to explore, enthusiasm and flexibility are all assets in volunteer work. Some programs involve gap year travel for secondary school leavers, and others are mainly designed for recent university graduates or for young people in general. However, these are by no means the only opportunities; there are also programs designed specifically for retirees, and organisations like Doctors Without Borders who mainly recruit volunteers with specialised skills.
The patron saint of volunteering is Saint Vincent de Paul who did extensive work among the poor of France in the early 17th century.
While there are dozens of quite legitimate volunteer projects, there are also some scams specifically targeting volunteer travellers. Some people will make profits any way they can, including exploiting both their country's poverty and your good intentions for their own gain. All of the following are common enough to be worth watching for:
- Sometimes volunteer work is just a marketing ploy; the company is basically selling tours, but including some volunteer work both attracts customers and makes them more amenable to 'roughing it' with accommodation, food or transit that they would not accept if they were just paying for a tour. Some volunteering tours are quite reasonable deals, but others are seriously overpriced for what they actually provide. In the worst cases you could be paying as much as for a tour with good hotels and professional guides, but getting lower quality accommodation and food than a backpacker who spends far less.
- Sometimes volunteers are just cheap labour, especially for teaching jobs that need foreign staff. In particular, 'gap year' volunteers often work for much lower salaries and with fewer benefits than other foreign teachers. Since the students pay the same fees in both cases, this can be very profitable for the companies involved.
- Some organisations offering volunteer opportunities charge outrageous fees. Of course all such organisations have costs to cover and some quite legitimately want to make a profit, but some go well beyond that. If a company wants a large sum to register for their service or to sign up for a trip, then it is worth asking some hard questions.
- A particularly heartless scam is the bogus orphanage; families in poor Third World locations are persuaded to give up their children to institutions on the pretext that they will be provided with an education or a way out of poverty. These children are then misrepresented to the traveller as orphans. Any money donated goes not to education, but to enriching the owners of the institution - which most often will not allow the "orphans" to leave. The usual caveats about the use of children for begging apply. Employing "voluntourism" to provide workers to these institutions is also problematic due to frequent departure of travellers (to be replaced by new tourists) creating a very unstable home environment for the child.
The best defense against all of these is to research and compare carefully.
- Compare the 'volunteer tour' to other tours on offer or to independent travel.
- Look at our English teaching article and sites linked there for information on the 'going rates' for teachers and on available jobs.
- Look at several sources of volunteer opportunities, including the cheap or free index sites listed below.
- Check whether organisations arranging placements are registered as non-profit entities in the sending countries.
- If possible, check the legal status of orphanages and other sponsoring organisations in the receiving countries as well.
Of course, do an Internet search on any organisation that wants a substantial lump of your money or time.
Careful research is also needed to verify the effort meets the needs of the local community, instead of merely what might sound good to prospective donors. Importing travellers as free labour to "rebuild a community", if the community already has many unemployed builders who cannot find work, is an expensive but unhelpful proposition. Likewise, proposing to "build a school" in a community which already has a suitable building but cannot afford salaries to hire instructors sounds great but accomplishes little.
Various agencies of Western governments send volunteers abroad: the US Peace Corps, British VSO, Canadian CUSO, Australian AVID, French France Voluntaires and so on. These are among the best volunteer jobs. All the major expenses — immunizations, travel, etc. — are normally covered and there is support — training (often including very good language training), medical insurance, emergency evacuation if needed — and some sort of salary, though this is often rather small by home country standards. On the other hand, these positions are harder to get; they generally require citizenship in the sponsoring country and a university degree just to apply. Most also require a heavier commitment than other volunteer schemes, typically two years.
Many governments also run organisations to teach their languages abroad, and of course they hire teachers. These are not purely volunteer jobs — typically they cover travel expenses and provide a salary — but salaries are often lower than they would be at home and sometimes the working or living conditions are difficult. We have lists of such organisations for English and other languages.
There are also programs sponsored by host governments in various places. Many involve teaching English and mainly want native speakers who are new university graduates. Typically they use one-year (renewable) contracts, pay a salary and cover expenses such as airfare. See teaching English for details.
Various other government-related groups also sponsor volunteer programs:
- European Voluntary Service (EVS). Allows you to work abroad for 3 months up to a year, funded by the European Union, at some kind of charitable organization. Requires European citizenship or at least a residence permit.
- United Nations Volunteers (UNV). A UN program.
- World Heritage Volunteers. A UNESCO program mainly working on preservation of UNESCO World Heritage Sites
When you come back, these organizations look good on a resumé, especially for jobs where your knowledge of the country and language will be of use. Both governments and international companies quite often recruit among former volunteers; any overseas volunteer experience may help but the government-sponsored programs are the most credible.
There are also programs in various countries that involve volunteer work on archaeological digs:
For archaeological volunteering, see also World Heritage Volunteers above, Past Horizons in the next section, and our article on Archaeological sites.
Index sites for volunteer jobs
Several sites provide online indexes of volunteer opportunities:
- HelpX. A web site that indexes organisations worldwide offering room and board in exchange for labour. They have a range of opportunities: farms, hostels, sailboats, ...
- Past Horizons. An index of archaeological projects worldwide that need volunteers
- Volunteer Stays (Help Stays). An index site mainly for opportunities in Ireland but with some elsewhere in Europe
- Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Involves working on an organic farm. You can be sowing seed, making compost, gardening, planting, cutting wood, weeding, making mud-bricks, harvesting, fencing, building, packing, milking and feeding livestock in any of 80 countries.
- Workaway. Hosts from over 100 countries with opportunities including gardening, babysitting, art projects, language learning and animal care. £23 to register.
- Working Abroad. Offers a range of volunteering projects around the world in the humanitarian, conservation & teaching fields. They also have a free online database of 2000 volunteer organisations for visitors to find suitable projects.
Nearly all these posts cover at least room and board while you are working, but few cover anything beyond that. Typically there is no salary and you are responsible for your own travel expenses.
As an alternative, or to complement the working holiday, many people have chosen to embark on a volunteering experience. These meaningful experiences allow individuals the chance to give back to the international community, whether this be teaching in underprivileged schools, working with animals in Africa, or helping with community development project. Typically there will be a fee to participate in these programs, and participants are not paid. Most famously, Prince Harry embarked on a volunteering Gap Year in 2004 when he went to South Africa.
There are many organisations offering gap year placements. A few of these are:
- EXIS  a 30 year old Danish organization that specializes in volunteering, internships and/or language/cultural stays in around 20 countries across the world.
- Frontier Conservation  specialises in scientific and conservation projects in locations such as Tanzania, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Fiji and Madagascar.
- Global Vision International is an award winning volunteer abroad organization running projects all over the world.
- Gap Year Diver , specialists in gap year and career break scuba diving trips. Marine Conservation initiatives, learn to dive, become a Divemaster, teach in local schools, community work, Instructor training, language learning and much more.
- The Great Projects . Beginning life as the multi award winning 'The Great Orangutan Project', the Great Projects now offers a wide collection of projects, used to showcase working models of animal conservation tourism around the world and promotes the importance of setting standards in endangered animal welfare and conservation in the tourism sector.
- Yomps, Gap year, career break and adventure specialist, from volunteering in Africa to learning to surf in Ecuador, Yomps has it all.
- Shumba Experience  Specialists in conservation and veterinary projects in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
- Global Vision International , Specialists in gap year expeditions such as marine expeditions in the Indian Ocean and exploration in Patagonia. GVI also has over 150 volunteering projects around the world.
- Gap Medics , Specifically aimed at students looking to go to medical or nursing school - Work experience and volunteer opportunities in The Caribbean, India and Tanzania.
- Raleigh  Youth and education charity offering challenging environmental, community and adventure programmes for 17-75 year olds in Borneo, Costa Rica & Nicaragua and India
- Projects Abroad , Global organiser of overseas voluntary work placements. Projects Abroad runs placements like Teaching, Care, Conservation & Environment, Medicine & Healthcare, Sports, Culture & Community projects and Journalism.
- VAE Kenya , a small UK organisation that organises challenging teaching placements in rural Kenyan schools.
- Praktikawelten  offers more than 300 volunteer projects in 17 countries as well as work and travel programs in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
- FruitFriends is a locally based organisation in Vang Vieng; Laos. FruitFriends provides immersion through volunteering. Positions available for: social enterpreneurship, teaching English, farming, building, community-based activities.
There are also various organizations that recruit volunteers. These may not cover the major expenses such as airfares and travel insurance. Some charge a fee for placement. A few of these are:
- If you would like to work in an international work camp for two weeks as an alternative holiday, contact your national branch of SCI .
- Arm-In-Arm Volunteers provides responsible,safe and low cost volunteering experiences geared towards social justice, international development and cross-cultural understanding in developing countries.
- Action Volunteer Alliance (AVA)offers affordable volunteer opportunities abroad. 
- AFECT offers volunteering opportunities to assist Burmese refugees in north Thailand 
- Akha Asia has volunteer placements with Tribes and Indiginous Peoples 
- Center for Children in Need (Thailand) offers short and long-term volunteering in a grassroot orphanage for abandoned Burmese children. (http://www.volunteeringthailand.blogspot.com)
- EDGE of AFRICA offers short and long-term volunteering in Africa, specializing in community empowerment, environmental restoration and wildlife research projects, as well as internships in local organisations.
- Ikando Volunteer & Intern in Africa 
- Tanzania Volunteer Agency provides personalized placements in a wide range of fields in Tanzania. 
- Global Vision International (GVI) has worldwide volunteering opportunities 
- Volunteers and Interns for Balinese Education 
- Year Out Group , a British organization promoting gap year volunteering
- Overseas Working Holidays , an Australian organization that offers guaranteed placements in regions such as Africa and India.
- Thai-Experience  specialized in placements in Thailand.
- Travel to Teach  with jobs in Southeast Asia and Latin America.
- Volunteer Abroad  offers volunteer programs in Latin America, Asia, and Africa
- Mundo Exchange  non-profit organization for volunteering in Guatemala and Thailand.
- Earthwatch  lets volunteers work on scientific field research projects all over the world for 1 - 3 weeks.
- Projects Abroad offers a diverse range of volunteer placements in 26 different developing countries - for students, gap years, grads and qualified professionals from 2 weeks and up. 
- The International Humanity Foundation [] works in Indonesia, Thailand and Kenya and is always looking for volunteers.
- Intiwawa  offers free volunteering in Peru. Opportunities mainly include social and educational projects as well as nutrition and water.
- Mozvoluteers  offers affordable volunteer projects and medical elective placements in South Africa and Mozambique.
- Mijn Bestemming Peru  Dutch organization focusing in volunteering free, internships, work and support to communities all over Peru.
- Volunteering Solutions  India based Volunteering Organization which incorporated in 2006 and provide volunteering opportunities in 20 countries.
- The Bergwaldprojekt (Mountain Forest Project)  to work in forests in German and Swiss mountains or in Austria, Catalunya or the Ukraine.
Many volunteer jobs are in the 'third world'; see Tips for travel in developing countries.
Health can become a major issue when you are exposed to conditions and germs not found at home; see Stay healthy and Infectious diseases. At a minimum you need to see a doctor, preferably one who specialises in travel medicine, about vaccinations and other precautions well before your departure date, and to consider travel insurance.
If you pay US or Canadian income taxes and work as a volunteer, then you may be able to take a charitable deduction for some or all of your trip expenses. The tax agencies are very strict on which organizations' trips qualify, and if you combine volunteer work with vacation, you will have to prorate the deduction on your airfare.
More generally, tax rules get complicated when you live abroad. If you have income other than the volunteer salary then parts of the discussion at Retiring_abroad#Taxation may apply.
Even if you are not getting paid for your efforts, expect trouble if entering a foreign country without a work visa; one mention of WWOOF to US authorities is enough to get an unsuspecting, well-meaning volunteer strip-searched and turned back at the border if officials think the tasks could have otherwise been done by a paid employee.
Other ways to help
Of course volunteer work is not the only way to do something helpful while travelling. See Working abroad and Teaching English for some of the others. Our article on begging also has a discussion of other ways to help.
If you're only on a short trip, take time to visit an orphanage, hospital, etc. Those with more time can contact local NGOs, tourist offices, embassies, etc to inquire about longer term possibilities.
A few ideas are:
- Take books to drop off at schools in villages you pass through.
- Rather than bringing back all your clothes, medical supplies and equipment, leave what you can with locals - this also frees up space in your luggage for bringing back other stuff!
- Support local enterprise.
Also, be wary of helping at an orphanage as some of these who look for foreigners to come and help, might be doing so for the wrong reasons and not in the children's best interest. You might also find that the actual number of genuine orphans living in some orphanages is actually quite small as sometimes orphanages "recruit" children with living parents in order to attract paying visitors to come and help!