Volunteering Abroad: A Do or a Don’t?

Volunteering internationally has been a rising trend for students and fresh graduates in  recent years. Our India Programme Officer Caroline Townsend offers some thoughts on steps to take before deciding to volunteer abroad. 

Thinking of volunteering overseas?

Here’s why you shouldn’t.

© Neon Tommy/ Creative Commons license

© Neon Tommy/ Creative Commons license

It was learning about the darker side to international volunteering which surprised me most when I attended the Tourism Concern International Volunteering Conference on Saturday 25th October. This conference aimed to debate the implications of international volunteering, ethical options and alternative local opportunities. Before the conference, I was sceptical of volunteering internationally as I felt most opportunities did not make a significant difference and concentrated instead on marketing and false promises. I found the conference very insightful. I am still sceptical but feel much more informed on how to responsibly volunteer abroad. Volunteering abroad can be very enriching for volunteers and beneficiaries if done well. At the conference I learnt the following handy tips when considering international volunteering:

  • Think about your motivations to volunteer. This can help you decide if international volunteering is right for you. There are plenty of reasons to volunteer (i.e. develop your CV, make new friends, see the world, learn about a new culture etc) but volunteering abroad is only one way of fulfilling these aspirations.
  • Do your research to find a scheme which makes a sustainable difference to the people you wish to help. Click here for detailed tips on how to do this. There are many schemes that cause more harm than good; just look at orphanage volunteering. Other schemes take away jobs from local people and do not give volunteers any sense of achievement or fulfillment.
  • Higher cost placements do not indicate quality. Many costlier placements mean higher profits for companies. Many lower cost placements can be more ethical and it’s really important to do your research to find out as much as possible about the organisation.
DiA Volunteers in India

DiA Volunteers in India

  • Get detailed and transparent information from the organisation about the costs and what it covers. Make a budget of the costs for the whole trip as you don’t want to run out of money while you’re away.
  • Not all roles are suitable for all volunteers. Good placements wouldn’t recruit unskilled volunteers into skilled roles. Be wary of schemes offering placements without a recruitment process as it means it isn’t a priority to them who they send out to help people. Additionally, the placement should offer relevant training and induction to their volunteers to ensure that they are fully supported.
  • Worthwhile volunteering is hard work and not a relaxing holiday as advertised by some travel operators. You should treat volunteering like a job as a good placement requires you to be reliable, flexible and hardworking. This gives you a much more enriching experience and a chance to grow.
  • If you’re mainly looking for a holiday/travelling and wish to support local peoples consider ethical travelling where a lot more of the money you spend goes directly to the communities you visit. Also, you might want to consider fundraising for a charity which supports people internationally, as they have the expertise and infrastructure to help.

Finally, there are plenty of volunteering opportunities at home as well. It is obviously much cheaper, gives you a chance to develop your CV and make friends. Additionally, many of these volunteering opportunities will increase your skills more than going abroad. You can find volunteering roles online on websites such as do-it and at your local volunteer centre. And remember, DiA is always looking for volunteers too. Good luck!


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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