How to volunteer abroad: five points to consider

Karen Norris/Staff

Some 1.6 million people serve in places of need each year, according to a 2008 study. One popular country is Morocco, where volunteers are working in orphanages or assisting at schools. 

Thailand is also popular. One thing volunteers can do with an organization called Globe Aware is help preserve elephant habitat

There is so much good to do in the world! If you are planning a trip, here are some pointers to make your volunteer opportunities the greatest. 

Why We Wrote This

These days, many people looking to volunteer want to be sure it will truly make a difference. So in this piece, a philanthropy expert shares her insights.

1.Prepare in advance. Make sure you take time to understand the host country before you go. Find out what languages are spoken, any cultural norms that should be followed, and any issues of which you should be aware. For example, Brazil is often thought of as a luxurious vacationing spot. Yet the country’s murder rate has risen. It can be a dangerous place. You must have a heart to serve, and also know how to be careful. 

2. Find a reputable volunteer opportunity. Make sure the volunteer opportunity is vetted. Too often, volunteers’ time is wasted. It’s important that the opportunity is valuable and has a positive effect on the world.

How can you accomplish vetting? Well, UniversalGiving can help! We assess overhead, other financials, leadership, and terrorism. Our proprietary Quality Model ensures that when you volunteer, it’s a great and safe opportunity. 

3.Go in with humility. How skilled, trained, and educated we consider ourselves to be. When visiting another culture, however, the first step should be humility. Go with caring hearts, open minds, and listening ears. You are not on home turf; you are in the country of someone else. In essence, you are a guest. 

If you don’t do this, you risk burning the relationship at the start. You won’t make any true progress. You might build a home for a family in need, but you won’t build trust. You might clean up a river, but you won’t allow them to do it with you. The best is for them to lead you, using their local techniques. Then they can continue to work when you’re not there. 

4.Spend time outside the opportunity. Many people from developed countries go in to “do the job” and then go back to their hotels. When you volunteer abroad, you should be doing it full time and with a full heart. It’s important to eat with locals, share in their rituals, and attend their activities. You must immerse yourself in the volunteer opportunity, which shows that you care about what you’re building together. This improves your life and theirs.

5.Share when you return. Don’t just keep that volunteer experience in your head or in your journal. Posting it on social media is a positive idea, but even better is sharing it in one-on-one or group conversations. 

In these conversations, it’s not just “I dug a well and helped a community gain 20 more gallons of fresh water a day.” Yes, that is important! Even more important is being sincere in your compassion for the community and learning more about yourself. 


International volunteering is a gift. It is actually more of a gift for you than the recipients. Through the lessons you learn, you become a better person, a stronger leader. 

Here are two more volunteer opportunities to get you started: Globe Aware also provides volunteer activities in Ghana, including the chance to help teach English, and the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children offers the opportunity to assist at a rural clinic and other health facilities in India.

I wish you a wonderful heartfelt trip of changing the world and changing yourself. 

• Pamela Hawley is the founder and chief executive officer of UniversalGiving. She is a recipient of the Jefferson Award – the Nobel Prize of community service. She also writes the blog “Living and Giving.”

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