Want to volunteer abroad? 7 steps to make the dream a reality (and pay for it!)

If you’re reading this post, I bet you have a dose of wanderlust and are deciding what to do about it. Maybe you have a fulfilling job, but your employer or the nature of work doesn’t allow you time off to pursue an opportunity abroad. Or perhaps you’re seeking a job and wondering if an opportunity abroad will be a viable next step.

My desire to volunteer abroad emerged the year I graduated college, but it wasn’t until I was laid off for the third time four years later that I decided to prioritize this dream. I loved my professional work in marketing, but I wondered how my communication skills could promote youth empowerment. I also wanted to know how I would handle living in a totally different place for longer than a few weeks – something I hadn’t done since studying abroad in college.

Realizing these personal goals led me to a teaching opportunity in a country I knew very little about: Cambodia. After spending three months navigating the capital city via motorcycle, learning Khmer, taking cold showers, and most importantly, working closely with 46 young women in college, I not only developed skills in working with youth, but I also gained an inside look into a country and culture that has shaped how I view my own upbringing and opportunities. Through the highs and lows, my volunteer experience was worth every second.

Still wondering if volunteering abroad is right for you? Here are some steps to consider as you make the decision:

Define your goals

Once you have a sense of the reasons behind your desire to go abroad, it will be easier to narrow down your options.

What is it about volunteering abroad that appeals to you? Is your priority to get out of your comfort zone? Then pick a place you know almost nothing about. You’ll be amazed how quickly you learn once you arrive in the country. Is your motivation the opportunity to travel? Consider a place where travel is most feasible. If budget is a strong concern, use a travel cost calculator to select a region where travel is in your price range. If physical comfort while traveling is more important than budget, consider a place with comforts like widely available hot water and familiar foods.

Are you solely interested in helping others? Look at projects where you can apply your best skills. If you’re excellent at financial planning, for example, an involvement that will allow you to volunteer those services may be most fulfilling. (However, keep in mind that every place has a different working style, and be prepared to adjust your habits and perspectives to align with the place you go). How much time are you willing to commit? Longer periods allow more flexibility for planning and implementing projects, while shorter periods might be more budget-friendly.

Finally, do you prefer to be alone or in a group? There is a wealth of opportunities for both options, and this preference may have a profound effect on your experience. The thee-month opportunity I found was perfect for me because I had time to build meaningful relationships with my students, I could budget for it with the income I had, and as the only American volunteer in the dormitory, I was forced to dive feet first into a culture outside my own.

Acknowledge your fears

It seems one major factor inhibiting people from taking the step to travel or volunteer abroad is fear: Fear of being alone in a foreign place, fear of not finding a job upon return, fear that the experience may not work out as planned, and (my personal one) fear of running out of money. (See point 4 for the budget tips that worked for me!) These fears are actually good, and are a critical part of the decision-making process. Without them, the ultimate decision to go abroad would not be so rewarding.

In addition to dealing with your own fears, you will likely encounter the fears of the people close to you. My family was very concerned about my personal safety when I proclaimed that I’d be spending the end of the year living in Cambodia. For eight months leading up to the trip, they asked me question after question about safety: What would my transportation be? What are hospitals like? How is the political climate? Who will take care of me if I get sick? To address their questions and prevent them from tainting my motivation to go, I did a lot of research about living in Phnom Penh, using a variety of sources including news sites and blogs from expats and locals in the city. Armed with information, I was able to have conversations with my family about the risks.

I also was comforted in knowing that I was going through an organization that would be up-to-date with the political happenings and provide any resources I might need if another kind of emergency arose. The organization prioritizes volunteers’ safety, and putting trust in them was the best way to overcome my doubts. Finally, I compiled a list of questions that reflected my concerns and reached out to a former volunteer. In an hour-long phone call, we were able to cover all of my lingering questions, which left me even more confident that this choice would be a safe and rewarding experience.

Research

The more informed you are about the options for volunteering abroad, the more confident you will be in taking the step to do it. I often browsed volunteer opportunities on Idealist and then combed organizations’ social media to learn more. I specifically looked for volunteer resources, which included information like stipend availability, the number of people who volunteer at one time, volunteer tasks, living arrangements, and more. This information may be readily available on organization websites, or may be hidden in places like volunteers’ personal blogs. You can also reach out to a contact at the organization to ask questions. As you research, consider these excellent tips from Shannon O’Donnell from the blog A Little Adriftabout how to ethically volunteer anywhere in the world.

If you find an organization you like on Idealist, connect with them as a fan. When I came across the Harpswell Foundation, I immediately connected with the organization as a fan because I had seen the founder speak at my alma mater four years before. Within a few hours, the founder himself reached out to me through Idealist and asked me to apply to be a Leadership Resident. After interviewing with a former volunteer and revisiting my personal goals for the experience, I realized Harpswell was a great match for me. I committed to a three-month period at the end of the year, which allowed me eight months to make preparations to go.

Budget and save

Photo credit: Raywoo, Shutterstock
Photo credit: Raywoo, Shutterstock

Once you have an idea where you want to go and what you want to do, you’re ready to take the first step to making your vision a reality. To craft my budget for Cambodia and subsequent travels, I re-visited that travel cost calculator to get an initial number in mind for daily costs, then factored in variables like the monthly transportation stipend I would be given as a volunteer. I also reached out to a former volunteer to ask questions about spending.

For me, it was critical that I would have certain costs covered, like housing and food. Knowing that my basic needs would be taken care of helped me set realistic goals for saving the funds necessary for the plane ticket and additional “fun” expenses, such as traveling in the region. In this situation, even if I didn’t reach my savings goals, I would still be able to go. If you require a similar arrangement, make sure you are fully aware of the costs and stipends available to you by talking with the organization, and if possible, securing the financial arrangement in writing.

When creating your budget, it’s key that you’re honest about your spending habits. Are you a coffee addict? You’ll likely stay a coffee addict, so work that cost into your daily budget. Once you have a rough total number in mind, double it. I’m not kidding. Anything you estimate will be too little – and you never know what opportunity will come up that you just can’t resist.

With your new savings goal, designate a specific bank account just for your travel fund and start tracking it online. A personal favorite of mine is using mint.com’s goal function. I found that contributing consistent small amounts to this account kept me motivated to keep saving, and I checked it often to see my progress.

Finally, be ruthless in meeting your savings goal. Which costs can you cut? (Can you cook more at home? Go vegetarian to save on groceries? Carpool or bike commute?) Are there ways to increase your income? I babysat, free-lanced, cooked for a friend, and lived with family for extra income. All of this “extra” money went right into my travel fund until my goal amount was met.

Fundraise if you need to

Another excellent option for raising your goal amount is creating a crowdfunding campaign. There are many websites out there, but my personal favorites are Indiegogo and FirstGiving. VolunteerForever is a newer site that is committed solely to funding volunteer projects. If your project involves an arts component, Kickstarter is also a great option. I encourage you to browse each of these sites for inspiration and projects that may be similar to yours. I also strongly recommend using each website’s resources to learn about specific strategies to create and promote your campaign. Do not just dive into a campaign without preparation – your campaign will require forethought and strategy to be successful. Steven Weddle of VolunteerForever writes an excellent post about volunteer abroad crowdfunding myths here, which will give you a sense of the strategies to consider when crafting your campaign.

As you search for the best crowdfunding platform for your project consider these questions:

  • Which types of projects are most successful on this site? (tech, art, cause, education, etc?)
  • How much money do I need to raise, and which site has similar goal amounts?
  • How big is this platform’s reach? (i.e. how many social media followers do they have and what is their reputation?)
  • How likely is it that my campaign can be picked up and promoted by the site, and what steps do I need to take to prepare my campaign for promotion?
  • Is there a site that my personal network would be more likely to contribute to than another?
  • How much commission does the crowdfunding site take?
  • How easy is the site for me to use?

What resources are available to me as I create my campaign on this site? (For more questions to think about check out this article.)

Once your campaign is complete, not only have you raised more funds, but you’ve also built a valuable skill you can market to future employers or use for other personal projects.

Connect

One of the most amazing parts of traveling long-term for me was meeting so many likeminded, ambitious, and curious people. But you don’t need to wait until you’re on the road to connect with others. There’s a fantastic network of travelers and volunteers on Twitter, Instagram and the blogosphere – start combing these networks and following people whose travels inspire you. (John Kidly, Further Bound and Hecktic Travels are a few of my recent favorites.) A fun plus: When you do start your journey, you may find that you and your e-friends are in the same place!

Plan the dirty details

While I did not have an emergency or exit plan before I left for Cambodia, I was aware of my options if my experience did not work out. I made sure I had enough funds in my bank account for a return plane ticket home. I also had the contact information for multiple people within the organization, including the volunteer coordinator, a board member and the founder. In case I had an issue with the organization itself and needed an outside opinion, I had already built up a network of former volunteers, and knew that I could also reach out to several close friends.

If there’s an emergency on the ground in your host country, it’s always a good idea to know where your embassy is located. You can also sign up for alerts from the American Embassy here. For medical emergencies, you should have travel insurance and a sense of how medical issues are treated in your host country. (Who can you contact first? Where are the hospitals? How do you get there?) Once you have a working knowledge of how to handle an emergency situation if it arises, you will feel more prepared to leave.

Now go!

With your savings goal complete, encouragement from other travelers around the world, and a well-researched plan, you are ready to go. Get on the plane and live your experience to the fullest!

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Shannon is an interactive media specialist who believes education and accessible technology will change the world. She recently returned from volunteering in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the Harpswell Foundation, a leadership center for Cambodian women in college. Connect with Shannon on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterst, and thegreenchest.com


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