Volunteer Abroad

9 Books To Read Before Volunteering Abroad

Books for volunteer abroad

One of the best ways to prepare for volunteering abroad is to educate yourself - on culture, on social issues, on local news, etc. Most volunteering projects gone wrong could have been fixed with the right knowledge. Many times, travelers underestimate the importance of preparing for a volunteer abroad experience.

Reading, research, and education are the best ways to help understand a new destination and make your time there more meaningful. Here are a few books to get you educated on various popular volunteer subjects and locations.

In the Shadow of Man, Jane Goodall

In the Shadow of Man

This is Jane Goodall’s classic story of her study of chimpanzees in the wild of Africa. The book is a stunning account of her early years as a scientist in the field at Gombe Stream Reserve in Tanzania. During her time there, she came to have a special bond and mutual understanding with the chimpanzees.

  • Why it's a must read: It's a beautiful classic story of humans and animals from one of the world’s most honored scientists. Goodall does an amazing job of describing her closeness with these amazing animals.
  • Related locations: Perfect for a trip to the heart of Africa, especially Kenya or Tanzania, and for all animal lovers.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Half the Sky

Half the Sky is a gut-wrenching look at the oppression of women around the world. Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn condense one of today’s most horrifying and expansive human rights violations into a compelling 300-page book. With a wonderful mix of facts and personal stories, Kristof and WuDunn make these modern tragedies come to life for those of us who are so far removed.

  • Why it's a must read: The authors give this modern day genocide the attention and voice it deserves.
  • Related locations: This book is perfect for igniting (or fueling an existing) passion for women’s rights. Any volunteers interested in gender equality, human trafficking, or human rights in general should read this book. If you are volunteering in East Asia, like Thailand or China, these issues are particularly relevant.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, Mark Adams

Turn Right at Machu Pichu

Turn Right at Machu Picchu takes author and travel writer Mark Adams down the path of the original discoverer of the great ancient city of Machu Picchu. Adams treks through Peru’s beautiful countrysides, learning about its people, its culture, its history and more.

  • Why it's a must read: Explore the landscape and wonders of Peru through the eyes of an adventurer!
  • Related locations: Machu Picchu is no doubt one of the world’s most amazing ruins and travel destinations. Peru is also one of the world’s most popular volunteer abroad destinations. Before you travel there, learn about the historic discovery of the gorgeous ancient Incan civilization of Machu Picchu.

In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country

Bill Bryson recounts his travels in Australia with an adoration like no other. Australia is a place of extremes - extreme weather, deadly wildlife, breathtaking beaches, and welcoming people. Bryson takes his story off the beaten path and away from tourists to find all Australia has to offer.

  • Why it's a must read: This hilarious traveler has written about various trips from the Appalachian Trail to Europe. Bryson is “the perfect guide” for an adventure in Australia.
  • Related locations: This is a fantastic read for anyone volunteering (or looking for a unique experience) in Australia!

Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Greg Mortenson

Stones into Schools

Greg Mortenson starts the story where his last book left off - working to establish schools for girls in Afghanistan; supporting Pakistan after a destructive earthquake; and building relationships with religious figures of Islam.

  • Why it's a must read: For any volunteer hopeful to support education in Third World countries, this an inspiring must-read book!
  • Related locations: It's perfect for anyone teaching or volunteering abroad in Third World countries, especially the Middle East.

Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams

Finding Beauty in a Broken World

This moving story is a tale of art, spirituality, genocide survivors, and travel. Through family and community, Terry Tempest Williams searches for meaning in a world of fragmentation. This book is an interesting account of how man and nature can combine to create both violence and beauty.

  • Why it's a must read: If you are looking for inspiration before or after volunteering abroad and witnessing hardships around the world, this is the book for you.
  • Related locations: Although the lessons apply to all travelers, readers traveling to Italy, the American Southwest, or Rwanda will find it especially applicable.

28: Stories of AIDS in Africa, Stephanie Nolen


Stephanie Nolen, an award-winning journalist who reports on Africa for the Globe and Mail, presents personal stories that put a face to the AIDS crisis in Africa. The 28 stories represent the 28 million lives affected by this pandemic in Africa. The stories not only reflect the hardships of life with AIDS, but also the importance of medical treatment.

  • Why it's a must read: This is an essential read for any global citizen, given the enormity of AIDS. The book also does a great job of explaining what the virus is and how it typically affects those it gets sick.
  • Related locations: This book is not to be missed by any AIDS or medical volunteer in Africa. It’s a great way to have a better idea of what you’re getting into and to become sympathetic to those affected by this tragedy.

The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold, Gretel Ehrlich

The Future of Ice

Gretel Ehrlich explores remote and cold destinations and the ways they free the imagination. With a new and invigorated sense of self, Ehrlich experiences a range of emotions and dives into the fascinating history of ice, water, wind, and snow.

  • Why it's a must read: If you’re interested in getting away from it all and wearing your best winter coat, this is the book for you! Even more importantly, it addresses the science of climates and brings up the question of a world without seasons and winter.
  • Related locations: Whether you want to volunteer in Greenland, Antarctica, or Russia, this book is a perfect segue into the mysteries of the cold - especially if you want to do environmental work there.

The Voluntourist, Ken Budd

The Voluntourist

This volunteer abroad expert shares his experiences of finding meaning and purpose in life again after his father’s death. Ken Budd finds himself while helping others in this hilarious and honest tale.

  • Why it's a must read: For prospective “voluntourists”, it doesn’t get any more realistic than this. Reading this story is a great way to get in the right mindset for volunteering abroad.
  • Related locations: Ken Budd’s stories are relevant to anyone volunteering while traveling, especially if you visit the same spots as he did - New Orleans, Costa Rica, China, Ecuador, and Kenya. Budd describes the wonders of the lands, the cultures, and the peoples with an exceptionally fresh perspective.

No matter where your volunteer abroad adventures take you, be sure to do some educational and inspirational reading beforehand. These books are sure to spark an interest in traveling and bettering the world around you. The more you know and read about the issues at hand, the better prepared you can be to become integrated into a new culture and make a difference. Besides, books are great for downtime during travel and waiting in airports!

Photo Credits:
Global Volunteer Network and Amazon.