Volunteer Abroad as a Mid-Career Professional | A How-to Guide

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Maybe you never got the chance to study or volunteer abroad while you were in college, and now you’re working full time and thinking that you probably missed your chance. Well, think again.

There are tons of short-term international volunteer opportunities out there that can fit your schedule.

You could build houses in Africa, provide medical care in Asia, or protect sea turtles along the coasts of Central America. With so many opportunities, it can be difficult to choose.

Read on for tips on what you should consider when choosing short-term volunteer opportunities.

How long can you travel?

There are volunteer abroad opportunities ranging from one week to several months or even a year. Valerie Stimac is the Marketing and Content Manager for Go Overseas, a site that curates and reviews international volunteering organizations. There are pros and cons to consider when deciding how long to volunteer, she says.

“Most volunteer opportunities in the world require volunteers who can devote the time to arrive, settle in, adjust, learn, and become more efficient in their duties,” she says. “This is especially true in volunteer opportunities with fellow humans, since we need time to build relationships and connect with one another to be able to work together.”

But if you only have a week or two, you can still make an impact. For the shortest of short-term opportunities, she suggests looking into disaster relief projects.

To start your research, review opportunities on Idealist.org, as many global organizations post volunteer opportunities on a regular basis.

Below are some other suggestions for where to begin your research. Note that we are not endorsing one program over another, just providing a small sampling of what’s available.

Less than a month:

  • International Volunteer HQ places volunteers in 40 destinations around the globe and has projects such as wildlife conservation, healthcare, and teaching. It’s one of the more affordable options with program fees that are typically less than $500/week.
  • Globe Aware offers one week opportunities in around 20 locations all over the world. They have opportunities for solo travelers and groups with costs that are roughly $1,000 to $2,000/week for most programs.
  • Habitat for Humanity may be known for building houses in the U.S., but the organization also has a Global Village program. Volunteers can choose from more than 40 countries where they will spend a week volunteering to build a home. Costs are between $1,500 to $3,000/week for most trips.

Several months to one year:

  • The Peace Corps has a special short-term volunteer program that ranges from 3 – 12 months. Those eligible for the Peace Corps Response program are returning Peace Corp volunteers or professionals with in-demand skills such as technology, agriculture, or health.
  • WorldTeach has programs ranging from 8 – 12 weeks or 9 – 12 months. Volunteers can be placed in schools across the world, and teaching experience isn’t required.
  • Projects Abroad offers opportunities for internships and mid or post career professionals that last for several weeks to several months. There are opportunities in law, finance, journalism, and medicine, to name a few.

Pro Tip: Think you can only take a few days off to volunteer? Check with your supervisor! According to a study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 28% of organizations allow some employees to take sabbaticals and 11% of organizations allow all employees the option. It’s becoming more common than you think to be able to take time off for volunteering.

Check out “How to Ask For That Much-Needed Sabbatical” here on Idealist Careers for some advice about how to ask for a sabbatical.

What is the cost?

As you research volunteer organizations, you may notice a pretty big discrepancy in prices, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars per week. Why such a difference?

Stimac, with Go Overseas, says that the cost depends on what types of inclusions are covered. The more the cost, the more likely the program is to provide more staff support, amenities, resources, or cultural excursions. Sometimes, a portion of your fee will go toward a donation to a local organization.

More expensive programs typically provide volunteer housing and meals, whereas less expensive programs mean you may have to find your own accommodations or stay with a local host family. Before you sign up for a program, ask what your fees go toward. Trustworthy organizations will be transparent.

“In some destinations, like major cities or more developed countries, it may be okay to choose a cheaper program that doesn’t include, say, housing or meals,” Stimac says. “In other areas of the world, trying to cut costs in these areas may end up leaving you in a lurch if you can’t easily find what you need on your own.”

Another thing to consider when looking at the cost, is whether the organization running the program is a nonprofit. If the organization is a 501(c)3 then most or all of your expenses, could be tax deductible. It will usually say on the organization’s website, but if you can’t find it there you can look it up on GuideStar. It’s also a good idea to ask before you sign up.

Ethical Considerations

With more and more nonprofits and companies getting involved with volunteer tourism, it can be hard to know if you’re going with a legitimate organization. Before you commit to anything, check to see if they have a profile on Idealist.org and take a look at “6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Volunteering Abroad” on Idealist Careers.

Another place to find background information is the International Volunteer Programs Association, a nonprofit promoting awareness of quality volunteer abroad programs. Also check out Volunteer Fairly, an international organization watchdog group.

One of the most important things to consider if you’re interested in your search for an ethical volunteer-abroad opportunity, is whether the organization works alongside and for local people and grassroots organizations. The best programs support services and provide assistance that is specifically needed and requested by members of the local community. Stimac suggests doing research on the groups you’re interested in to make sure the work you’re doing won’t take advantage of, or harm the local communities.

So how do you choose?

Still can’t decide? Here are some questions to help guide your decision:

  • Does the program work with local providers, in the local economy?
  • Is the work you’ll be doing as a volunteer well-defined and supported by the host organization?
  • Is the organization good at communicating with potential volunteers to make sure they know everything they need before arriving?
  • Will you work in a team or alone, and will you be supervised?
  • What does your fee go toward?
  • What are the safety concerns of living and working in the area?
  • What do you need to organize for yourself? Consider housing, flights, meals, etc.

Don’t hesitate to call or email any organization you’re considering to ask additional questions. And always try to read reviews of the programs. While many organizations will have volunteer blogs, try looking at third party sites like Go Overseas and Go Abroad for unbiased reviews.

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As you prepare for your trip, be sure to check out “Want to Volunteer Abroad? 7 Steps to Make the Dream a Reality and Pay For It” here on Idealist Careers.

Any advice for fellow travelers? Share your stories about international volunteering in the comments.

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Samantha has worked for nonprofit organizations in NY, TX, and NV. She has experience in nearly every niche of nonprofit work, received her journalism degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, and her law degree from New York Law School.


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