How To Decide Where To Volunteer Abroad



In October 2012, my husband and I made a decision that we want to go volunteer abroad in a few months’ time. The decision came suddenly, but the root was there before, in both our minds though we hadn’t really spoken about it. We love travelling, and we also have a deep desire to help, to contribute in our own way.

Once we’d decided to volunteer in February, the big wide world was suddenly open to us. How do you decide when there are similar programmes in various countries and you don’t know where to go, or what’s best?

Narrow Down the List By Following Your Preferences

You already have preferences, even if you don’t know it. Think about your preferences, places you’ve already considered going or taken an interest in,
Once we made the decision to go, there was a very quick narrowing down process. We ruled out Africa immediately. Yes, they need help too, but lots of aid goes to Africa already, and we weren’t comfortable about the safety aspect. South Africa was ruled out because of safety issue too. My husband was keen to go to South America, and I was happy with it, as it would mean I get to practice Spanish.

This initial narrowing down process doesn’t have to be complicated at all. You don’t have to justify your preferences, so just follow your instinct.

Look at your absolute requirements

What it is that you can’t manage without for whatever reason? Volunteering isn’t supposed to be a luxury holiday, but still, the kind of facilities you can expect vary widely. For me, having an internet connection was absolute necessity, as I would still need to continue Kaizen Journaling work.

The need for internet again narrowed down the list of kind of places we can go to considerably. It meant that at the very least we would need to go to a small town, rather than out-in-the-sticks villages or wilderness.

Look at your skill set

How can you contribute? Start with the obvious. Look at your resume, the jobs you have had in the past. In which areas do you have most experience? But don’t just stop there. What are your main hobbies? Have you participated in social or sports clubs? Are there particular strengths that people always compliment you on? Even if you are a housewife, or a student who haven’t had much experience, you still have skills. Are you super organised? Do you have great eye for detail, or a vision of what could be that others simply can’t see?

Look at your interest / motivation (even more important than skill set)

This is the top most factor. If you have the right motivation, or absolute interest in something, you can overcome almost any barriers. If you don’t have the skill, you can learn it. If you don’t have creature comforts, you can manage. If you don’t speak the language, you can pick it up. If you are doing the job that you have the right motivation for, you can do great things. So look for your motivation. What is driving you?

Promoting literacy, education, and creative pursuits has been my lifelong mission. That is my cause. I have a lot more motivation to help out people without seeking any reward when it’s in the service of literacy or encouraging love of reading than almost anything else. Does that mean, other kinds of helps are not important? Of course not. Someone needs to build wells for fresh water supply, someone needs to provide medical assistant, someone needs to look after the needs of the elderly. There are millions of worthy causes, but since you can only do limited amount of good in the time and resources you have, do the things that you have strong motivation for. My passion for books shine through when I talk about that. I certainly can’t say the same about building wells. 

Consider your finances and available resources

Okay, so you want to do this thing. You want to volunteer for whatever period. You really want to contribute. But can you? If you go in debt to go volunteering, that’s just dumb. Not only that but it’s also dishonest. You are supposed to improve the lives of people you try to help, and wherever possible you are supposed to be an example. If you are piling up debt to do it, you are not teaching them the kind of behaviour they can emulate.

If you really want to go to New Zealand, but you can only afford to go to Canada, either your finances or your preferences need to change. If you did want to do something really expensive, you could always plan for it, save money and then do it. But either way, you need to consider what money and resources – people and things are available to you.

When I first started looking for places to volunteer, the first thing I found was that all of the opportunities were through placement agencies, and cost a lot of money, almost as much as going on a luxury holiday. While I am prepared to bear the costs for myself, I’m not prepared to pay middle-men for the privilege of working for no money. So I started deeper research and focused on finding the places to volunteer directly. It does mean you need to do more work, because there is no one vetting things out for you, and it also means you don’t have any staff organising quick language lessons, or orientation period. However, it makes it more authentic experience rather than an organised feel-good holiday.

Find the place that’s right for you

After looking at above five things, you now have a much narrower search to begin. You have a general idea of what places you prefer, or not prefer. You know what your absolute requirements are, and what you can afford. You also know what your motivation is, and what your cause is if you have any. Keeping all of that in mind, start your research. 

Internet is full of information, and if you do the research right, it’s really not very difficult to find. I put in solid research, working at it few hours every day, and sent out lots of enquiries to places that interested me. But within about two weeks or so, we had a short list, and also our first choice of place, where we applied and were accepted. 

Volunteering abroad is an exciting opportunity. It’s an humanitarian adventure. It’s a win-win opportunity where you benefit by the experience, and the place and the people you work with benefit by your contribution. This little preparation work in advance will ensure – as much as any guarantee is possible – that you find the right match. 



Exercise for your journal: If you could go volunteer abroad, where would you like to go, and what would you like to do? What stops you from doing it?


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