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Volunteering overseas - get started

There is a huge variety of volunteering opportunities available all around the world. However, your choic your abilityes will depend on your skills and experience and, frequently, to pay.

'Professional' skills like engineering, teaching and healthcare are most in demand. Without such skills you are likely to have to pay for the costs of your volunteering, including travel and accommodation. It's important to do as much research as possible before committing to anything.

For many people, volunteering overseas provides an unforgettable experience.  The chance to travel and work in a totally different environment can be life-changing, but it can take courage and commitment to leave your comfort zone.

Finding an opportunity

There's a huge range of opportunities overseas – the key is finding one that matches your skills, experience and requirements.

If you have skills that are required overseas, especially in developing countries, then it should be relatively easy to find an opportunity. Ideally, countries are moving towards training and retaining their own professionals rather than importing volunteers, but there is still a need for people with qualifications and experience. You are likely to be required to make a significant commitment, however – often as much as two years or more.

If you don't have skills and experience that are in demand you there are still many opportunities available, but you are likely to have to pay the costs of your trip abroad.


Long-term placements for people with professional skills will not normally require volunteers to be out-of-pocket. Direct costs are likely to be covered and a local subsistence wage is often paid to cover expenses.

For other sorts of opportunities the costs can be high; with flights, insurance, staff costs, administration, and board and lodging it can run to thousands of pounds. Make sure you know the costs involved before you sign up for a placement and think about all the options.

 Ethical volunteering

Living in a developing country and confronting the realities of life in a poor community can be a shock to the system, not to mention raising some tricky ethical questions. Try to contact other people who have volunteered with the organisation you're interested in - finding out as much as you possibly can about their policies is the only way to ensure an organisation is going to behave responsibly. Staying safe should be a top priority, so be clear about the company or charity's track record before you make a commitment. Volunteer or voluntourist?

 Choosing the right overseas placement

Volunteering overseas often involves a significant investment of both time and money, so make sure you do as much research as possible before choosing an opportunity.

 Why volunteer abroad?

If you're thinking about volunteering abroad, you're probably passionate about making a difference to people or a cause. As overseas volunteering charity VSO says: 'Nothing compares with the satisfaction of translating generosity into practical, life-changing achievements.'

However good your intentions, no individual is going to change the world in a few months, so make sure you are realistic about what you want to achieve and honest about your aims. Do you want to spend months devoting yourself to a single, possibly remote, community? Or do you want to have a see a new country, meet the locals and have some fun? Both are possible, depending on which placement you choose.

Since getting overseas takes money and effort, you might first want to consider volunteering closer to home to make sure you have a taste for it.

 Which placement?

The variety of opportunities is vast, but can be split into two main categories: those for people with demonstrable professional skills, and those open to anyone.

Focus on working out what skills and experience you have and matching them to the right opportunity.

If you have a professional skill, you could qualify for a more long-term placement which may even be paid. But most organisations – particularly 'voluntourism' companies offering short-term placements – will want you to pay for transport, living expenses and an administration fee.

The organisation you're interested in should be ready to answer any questions you have. If not, take it as a warning sign that it may not be committed to supporting volunteers.

How much will volunteering abroad cost?

The cost of volunteering overseas varies greatly and will often factor in food, accommodation and an administration fee. Make sure you get a full breakdown, including any extras such as insurance, visas or specialist equipment, before handing over any cash. Check whether flights are included – usually, they're not.

Ask if it's possible to cancel a booking before you go (and what the financial penalties are) and whether there's flexibility on the outward or return flights (useful if you want to arrive from another country or continue your travels elsewhere once the volunteering is finished). Before you agree to a placement, make sure you know the length of the commitment and if there are any financial penalties if you decide to come home early.

It is possible to volunteer on a budget, and some organisations offer advice on fundraising to help finance your trip. If your placement involves being miles from anywhere for months on end, your savings will stretch a long way. But if you're planning on travelling a lot, be realistic about how much you think you can raise.

 Where in the world?

For many people, the location of a volunteering opportunity is key. If you've long wanted to discover Burkina Faso, Belize or Benin, it's obviously sensible to target organisations that work there. However, bear in mind that many organisations operate in more than one country and might not always have vacancies. Wherever you go, you're likely to have a unique experience, so don't get too hung up on the exact co-ordinates.

Most organisations operate in safe countries, but if you have any doubts consult the Foreign Office website. Any organisation worth its salt should give you plenty of information about the culture of the land you'll be living in, the specific location of your placement, the type of accommodation and what amenities are available nearby.  If you have any special health needs then be sure to let organisations know straight away.

 What will I be doing?

In recent years, concern has grown that some overseas volunteering organisations (often private companies) might be a little more concerned about making money than making a difference to the host country.

Make sure you get a clear description of the work you will be required to undertake and a guarantee about any training or support offered. The organisation should be able to spell out in detail why the work is useful to the people in the host country.

 Research tips

The easiest way to find out about volunteering opportunities overseas is to search online.

If possible, meet representatives of the organisation in person. They might be at careers fairs, charity events or open days for prospective volunteers. Face-to-face is the best way to put questions and get a sense of what volunteering involves.

Ask to be put in touch with either current volunteers or those who have recently returned. In addition you can ask for advice from people on discussion forums such as those at  or on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and i-volunteer. Review sites may be useful. Everyone's experience is likely to be different, but the more you can find out the clearer the picture you will be able to build up.


  • Date published: 13th April 2013
  • Written by: Tom Green