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, those are by no means the only opportunities; there are also programs like CESO which mainly take retirees, and organisations like Doctors Without Borders or International Senior Lawyers Project who mainly recruit volunteers with specialized skills.
While there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entirely 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 conditions 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 high-priced tour with good hotels and professional guides, but getting services — transport, accommodation and food — that a low-budget backpacker would not have to put up with.
- 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.
- Sometimes volunteers compete with local workers who would otherwise be hired to carry out the same tasks. This not only deprives local people of work; it may also produce inferior results for the project. Often local carpenters, bricklayers and other craftsmen can do a far better job than inexperienced foreigners.
- Some projects do not meet the needs of the community; instead they just do what might sound good to prospective donors. For example, 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.
- Some companies offering volunteer placement charge outrageous fees. Of course all such organizations 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.
- Some organizations provide no proper visa, claiming that as a volunteer you need only a tourist visa rather than a working visa. This is true for some countries, but in many cases the host government allows no such claim. In those places using tourist visas saves the employer money or trouble, but the hapless volunteer might be deported or even jailed for working illegally. If you encounter such a claim, check it carefully using government sources as much as possible.
- 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 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 organizations 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 organization that wants a substantial lump of your money or time.
There is even a campaign to End Humanitarian Douchery, run by ex-volunteers. They provide a toolkit to help prospective volunteers find good opportunities.
Various agencies of Western governments send volunteers abroad: the US Peace Corps, British VSO, Canadian CUSO, Australian AVID, New Zealand VSA, French France Voluntaires and so on. They primarily recruit recent graduates for postings abroad, but some have other programs as well. "Peace Corps Response" recruits experienced managers and technical experts for short postings, CUSO has "diaspora volunteering" (sending immigrants or their descendants back to the ancestral country) and "e-volunteering" (help out on a project via email or Skype), 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, medical insurance, emergency evacuation if needed, etc.) and some sort of salary, though this is generally quite small by home country standards. Typically these volunteers get the same medical care and some of the training that the country provides for military or diplomatic staff; this is generally very good, and often includes topnotch language training.
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, and the process after application may be quite competitive. Most also require a heavier commitment than other volunteer schemes, typically two years.
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.
Many governments also run organizations to teach 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 organizations for English and for 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
There are also programs that involve volunteer work on archaeological digs; see here.
Other overseas volunteering
Many of the major NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) involved in international aid also recruit volunteers and/or paid workers for various tasks. Examples include:
- Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors without Borders
- Oxfam, originally an anti-poverty campaign, now with broader gials
- UNICEF, UN International Childrens' Emergency Fund
- UNHCR, UN High Commission for Refugees
- Red Cross
Many of their jobs are high-risk, involving work in war zones or epidemic areas. Many also require specialised training such as medicine or nursing. On the other hand, almost all cover things like immunisations and travel cost, and some also pay reasonably well.
A gap year is a year (or other chunk of time) taken off, most typically between high school and university but also perhaps at various other times in life. Volunteering overseas is a common way to spend such a break; most famously, Prince Harry spent a gap year in 2004 volunteering in South Africa and Malia Obama is taking one before starting at Harvard in 2017. Typically there will be a fee to participate in these programs, and participants are not paid. For more, see our gap year article.
Many churches or other religious organizations also send volunteers abroad, mainly either religious specialists (preachers, monks, nuns, ..) or people with important practical skills (doctors, nurses, teachers, ...). If you are a member of a religious congregation, then it is probably worth inquiring about their programs.
There are also various other organizations that recruit volunteers. These generally do not cover the major expenses such as airfares and travel insurance, and some charge a fee for placement. Web search for "volunteer" or "gap year" will turn up an enormous number of examples. You can narrow it down by adding a country or region name or using combinations like "youth volunteer" or "retired volunteer". Many things you find will be worthwhile opportunities, but see also #Be_wary above.
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.
There are numerous opportunities to contribute to the world while at home. For one thing, many worthwhile international organizations need donations and some may need volunteers in your area. Also, working for a local political party or advocacy group may have effects on the rest of the world.
The Virtual Volunteer wiki covers a range of opportunities for volunteering without travelling and provides links to many.
Some governments have volunteer programs within their own country, for example the US CNCS, Canadian Katimavik and French Service Civique. There are also more specialized programs like the US Veterans Affairs Volunteer Service and Medical Reserve Corps.
Other projects to consider include:
- The Humanitarian OSM Team, applying Open Streetmap data to problems like the Haitian earthquake or the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
- The Tor Project, an Internet anonymity service often used by people at risk from oppressive goverments, such as human rights workers or dissidents
- For Canadians, CUSO's e-volunteering program.
You can also contribute information or copy edits here on Wikivoyage, on other Wikimedia Foundation projects such as Wikipedia, or on independent projects such as the appropriate technology wiki Appropedia.
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.
In some countries, corrupt officials may interfere with entry of volunteers or vital supplies in an attempt to extract payments or bribes. In some recent conflict zones, governments may wilfully obstruct aid to civilians in rebel-held areas. And then there's crime and theft as risks.
If you pay income taxes in your home country and work as a volunteer abroad, 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.
Visa requirements vary significantly between countries, so make sure you check the regulations before you agree. Even if you are not getting paid for your efforts, you may have trouble if entering a foreign country without a work visa.
In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, all work (paid or otherwise) explicitly requires you to obtain a work visa, meaning that you will be breaking the law by volunteering on a tourist visa.
In other countries, volunteer work is allowed on a tourist visa as long as you don't overstay and the task is a legitimate volunteer position normally taken up by locals as an unpaid effort. In theory, the United States claims to fall into this category, if the host organization follows a specific procedure which requires it issue a letter in advance explaining their plans and "paroling" the volunteer into the country. In practice, it's not so simple. Border control officials have wide latitude to claim any arbitrary part of the task description falls into what is normally paid work. In one instance "cleanup" of hurricane damage was arbitrarily considered "construction work" to be protected for domestic workers, causing a church group to be delayed at the border and turned away. Likewise, one mention of WWOOF may get an unsuspecting, well-meaning volunteer strip-searched and turned back if the task could have been done by a paid employee.
For some travellers, a working holiday visa is another alternative; these are bilateral arrangements between various pairs of countries that allow young travellers from either country to work in the other for a year or so.
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 and libraries in villages you pass through.
- Deliver donated medical supplies. A few non-profits accept surplus from western manufacturers, medical practitioners or individuals; some fill donated suitcases with supplies and ask travellers to deliver them to clinics abroad.
- 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.