Am I Too Old to Volunteer Abroad? Or Just Old Enough?

Photo of Natalie Southwick
Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations.

Am I Too Old to Volunteer Abroad?

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard someone around my age (which, for the record, isn’t exactly ancient) say something like, “Oh, I would’ve loved to volunteer abroad, but now it’s too late/I don’t have time/I missed my chance.” I’ve always wanted to point out that the rest of the world isn't likely to disappear anytime soon nor are the broad issues that many volunteer organizations are working to mitigate.

Yes, it’s true that volunteering is popular among younger travelers, but even if you don't fit the stereotypical age of an international volunteer -- e.g. straight out of high school or college -- you absolutely can still volunteer abroad.

Rather than being forced to learn (and make the necessary mistakes) as you go, you’re coming into your volunteer placement with a solid knowledge base that will help you adapt quickly and take on more responsibility right away.

In fact, there’s a lot to be said for having a few years of experience under your belt before signing up for a volunteer project. There are good reasons why intensive, long-term international commitments like the Peace Corps and Habitat for Humanity prefer that applicants at least have a four-year degree or equivalent educational / professional experience -- it proves a certain level of maturity and knowledge.

So if you're 25, 30, 40, 50, or even 80 and wondering if you're too old to volunteer abroad -- don't. You're not too old. In fact, you might finally be just old enough. Here's why:

You’ve Had More Time to Develop In-demand Skills

volunteer teaching

You’ve been out of school and in the workforce for a few extra years and, as such, have developed concrete skills, like grant writing, engineering work, marketing, or fundraising, and more "soft" skills like interpersonal communication, experience navigating a professional environment, or public speaking.

Rather than being forced to learn (and make the necessary mistakes) as you go, you’re coming into your volunteer placement with a solid knowledge base that will help you adapt quickly and take on more responsibility right away.

Looking at the organizations and placements that interest you most will give you a more informed idea of what skill sets they're looking for. Here are a few examples of high-demand skills that can really help international aid and development organizations and NGOs alike:

  • Medical staff are always in high demand, and there are plenty of NGOs that focus specifically on providing medical support or clinical services, especially in areas of maternal and women’s health or disease.
  • Biology or veterinary skills can be put to use with conservation organizations to improve wildlife health and safety.
  • A civil or environmental engineering background can make you incredibly valuable to a number of organizations, whether they’re digging wells, working on infrastructure and urban planning, or overseeing a construction project.
  • A background in business and finance qualifies you to work with micro-finance organizations, small business development, or to teach basic business skills.
  • Experience in education or social work makes you a top candidate for working with kids or language learners or training local teachers.
  • Disaster relief is an important area of expertise, as there are rarely enough people available at the moments of greatest need. The ability to mobilize during intensive disaster relief operations can make you a short-term life-saver.
  • Plus, countless organizations need more help with administrative and outreach tasks like accounting, social media management, translation, and business.

No matter what you've decided to focus on professionally, there's bound to be an organization who's searching for your skill set.

You Have a Better Idea of What's a Good Fit

volunteer plant image

While there’s something to be said for doing something to figure out if you like it (this is how I learned I never wanted to work for the US government, for example), it’s not always the most effective way to contribute to an ongoing volunteer project.

Most older volunteers already have experience traveling abroad. As such, the leap into living and volunteering abroad will take fewer adjustments.

By having a good sense of self and, for example, knowing that you'd be happier in an urban area than out in the jungle (or vice versa), you're more likely to choose a project that's a good fit for both of you. It's not too unlike job hunting: for both yourself and the organization, you want to make sure you're choosing something you'll be happy with and to feel comfortable saying no when you're getting bad vibes.

You've Traveled Before and Will Adjust Easier

Most older volunteers already have experience traveling abroad. As such, the leap into living and volunteering abroad will take fewer adjustments.

You'll recognize signs of culture shock. You'll know how to handle language barriers. Maybe you'll even have been to the country you're working in and be familiar with the language, customs, and geography.

All of this works to your advantage and will help you to jump right into things as a volunteer.

You Have a Bigger, Better Network

volunteer group

Volunteering for whatever length of time you can is all well and good, but think of the impact you can have if you can help connect people back at home with your project or share your experience with your professional and academic networks.

Your host organization will appreciate the fact that you have the ability to share the impact of your volunteering experience beyond your immediate family and friends, helping the organization access a much wider range of potential participants and supporters.

It can sometimes seem and feel as though volunteering abroad is a "young person's" thing... but don't let the stereotypes fool you.

On the other hand, you can use your network to find great volunteer opportunities -- even some that aren't publically advertised. I ended up applying to the volunteer program that took me abroad because my supervisor at my AmeriCorps placement had volunteered with that organization a few years earlier, and many of my friends who have spent significant time abroad have similar stories.

You Can Take Advantage of Corporate Volunteering

Quite a few companies let their employees take time off specifically to volunteer. Far too few employees take advantage of this. If your company is one of the generous few that include this as a benefit, don't let it go to waste. Do it.

In fact, do it abroad -- typically there's no stipulation that says the volunteer work must be in your own community with corporate volunteering.

That Whole "Volunteering is For Young People" Thing is Just a Stereotype

volunteer building

From photos in news articles to marketing language in a program description, it can sometimes seem and feel as though volunteering abroad is a "young person's" thing.

Though yes, thousands of high school and college-aged volunteers will head abroad to volunteer this summer, winter, and spring breaks, so will many of us "older" travelers (and, by older, I mean anywhere from 25 and a few years out of college to 70+ and retired).

Don't let the stereotype fool you: even if a program description has a photo of a young volunteer brightly displayed on their website, volunteer programs typically just have a minimum age requirement of 18 but no maximum. That means that anyone, seriously anyone, over the age of 18 is allowed on the program.

Perks of Volunteering While Younger

Let’s get one thing straight before wrapping things up. We’re not saying that teenagers shouldn't volunteer abroad ever. Teens and college-aged volunteers also bring a ton of their own advantages to the volunteering table, which is why they're still such a well-represented group among volunteer abroad participants.

Younger volunteers have the energy to go at projects enthusiastically. They're willing to learn and often acknowledge when there's a knowledge gap. They have the flexibility and independence to commit to longer volunteering stints.

You're Never Too Old to Volunteer

volunteers washing elephant image

Though we may be concerned about our age while volunteering abroad, it's really not the most important factor. Rather, pairing volunteers with an organization that’s a good fit and has the structure and sustainable system to easily incorporate them -- regardless of their age -- is what we should be thinking about. Further, use age to your advantage: volunteer impact will be stronger if volunteers already have relevant experience and skills to bring to the project.

This is all to say, you're never too old to volunteer.

Helpful resources for older volunteers

Ready for more? Plan your volunteering trip and browse programs.

Photo Credits: DFAT photo library, danielthornton, the measure of mike, and Children's Organization of Southeast Asia.