Volunteer Abroad

How to Find Paid Volunteer Work Abroad

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.

How to Find Paid Volunteer Work Abroad
Photo by: Victoria I., Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand Alum

Though “paid volunteering” might seem like an oxymoron, offering up your time and expertise for a few weeks or months abroad doesn’t have to amount to a huge financial sacrifice on your part.

It might be better to frame the concept as "compensated volunteering" -- while you might not see your bank account balance go up, you can receive a number of other benefits.

Unless you’re looking for long-term jobs, you’re probably not going to find a gig that will allow you to tuck away funds into your IRA (then it wouldn’t really be volunteering, would it?), but there is a middle ground between full-time employment and paying to volunteer abroad: paid volunteer jobs abroad where you'll receive a stipend or room and board in exchange for your work. Here's how to make it happen.

'Payment' May Not Always Be a Paycheck

How to Find Paid Volunteer Work Abroad: 'Payment' May Not Always Be a Paycheck
Photo by: Rebecca S., Animal Experience International Spain Alum

Before looking into paid volunteering opportunities, it’s worth clarifying what “paid volunteering” is going to look like. This doesn’t mean you’ll be earning a salary -- that’s a job, not volunteering.

It might be better to frame the concept as “compensated volunteering” -- while you might not see your bank account balance go up, you can receive a number of other benefits including language classes, cultural excursions and professional development or training, as well as offset some major costs like housing, food, transportation and even health insurance.

These "payments" don't necessarily take the form of paychecks, but they help reduce or even negate your overall costs and add to what you gain from your time as a volunteer.

How You Can Get There

There are many organizations that offer compensated volunteering opportunities, either through specialized programs or by matching potential volunteers with organizations.

Because of the financial realities and budget constraints of many smaller organizations and NGOs, paid volunteering placements are most likely to be offered through or affiliated with major organizations or even government entities that have the financial capacity to support such programs, like the UN or the U.S. State Department.

Unlike many other types of volunteer programs, UNV placements are demand-driven, so potential volunteers fill out an application and wait to be contacted if an appropriate placement opens up.

There are also other, smaller organizations out there that also provide compensation for volunteers, but this will usually take the form of provided room / board, food, and transportation, rather than a living stipend or other direct payment. Projects offered through some larger organizations, like WWOOF, also fall into this volunteer-for-room-and-board category. (Note: Compensation varies widely among WWOOF placements).

Here are a few programs and resources that offer paid or compensated volunteering opportunities:

1. UN Volunteers

One of the world’s biggest paid volunteering programs, United Nations Volunteers works to integrate volunteerism more closely into development programming and places experienced volunteers with different projects and organizations, including development and peacekeeping operations, in about 130 different countries around the world.

Unlike many other types of volunteer programs, UNV placements are demand-driven, so potential volunteers fill out an application and wait to be contacted if an appropriate placement opens up.

Applicants for this program must be at least 25 years old, have a university degree or technical diploma and a minimum of two years of relevant work experience, and have working knowledge of at least one of the three UNV languages (English, French or Spanish).

Other similar programs include Voluntary Service Overseas.

2. International Executive Service Corps (IESC)

IESC is a nonprofit (supported by entities including USAID and the State Department) focused mostly on encouraging “sustainable economic growth” in developing countries, and volunteers form an important part of its projects. Like UNV, IESC placements depend on requests from businesses or governments, which are then filled from its database of volunteers and professional consultants.

Volunteer opportunities through IESC cover a number of areas, including trade and enterprise, information communication and applied technologies, financial services, tourism and the public sector. IESC does not have a minimum age requirement for its volunteers, but since most placements require a significant amount of expertise, volunteers are expected to have at least several years of professional experience in their field.

3. Peace Corps

Yes, the Peace Corps is technically a paid volunteering gig. Most volunteers don’t save much money during the 27 months of service, it's true, but PCVs do have nearly all costs covered during their service.

Compensation for PCVs includes transportation to and from the country of service, a living allowance (typically ranging from $200 - $800 / month), full medical and dental care -- which, honestly, is better than what some jobs provide -- and a "readjustment" allowance of $8,000 on completion of service.

The Peace Corps places volunteers in countries from the Caribbean to the Pacific Islands, where they work in a number of different sectors, including community economic development, health, education, agriculture, and youth. Volunteers must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years old.

The Peace Corps also has short-term volunteer opportunities aimed more at mid-career professionals, similar to UNV or IESC, through the Peace Corps Response program.

4. MovingWorlds

In addition to these types of formal programs, there are also online resources like MovingWorlds, which helps connect interested volunteers with open placements at social impact organizations that fit their skill set.

MovingWorlds matches skilled professional volunteers with host organizations through its listings of Experteering projects, which range from a six-month opening for a web developer in Thailand, to a 3-6-month placement as a communications and information officer with a poverty alleviation organization in Peru, to a 1-2-year opportunity for a videographer to work on short films for an environmental organization in India.

MovingWorlds also works with companies to help them build and support international corporate volunteering initiatives.

5. Consult your employer

While companies may not be the first thing that jumps to mind when you think about volunteering overseas, a growing number of companies have begun to see the value of international volunteering and are providing opportunities and even encouraging employees to take time off to volunteer abroad.

Major companies like Salesforce, Timberland, Microsoft, Warner Bros, Patagonia, and PwC offer corporate volunteering programs or even pay employees to volunteer abroad -- and they aren’t the only ones.

If you’re already employed and are considering taking a career break to volunteer abroad, it’s worth checking with your HR department to see if your employer might have provisions in place for employees who want to volunteer abroad -- and if not, who’s to say you can’t be the one to start the corporate volunteering trend?

What You Can Do as a Paid Volunteer

How to Find Paid Volunteer Work Abroad: What You Can Do as a Paid Volunteer
Photo by: Victoria I, Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand Alum

There are paid volunteering placements out there, but the reality is that they’re not the volunteer equivalent of entry-level. Most volunteer organizations and NGOs aren’t exactly operating with huge profit margins, so they don’t have a lot of extra money to offer to potential volunteers.

This means that if an organization is going to make an investment in a volunteer, it’s going to expect a little more in return than just showing up and playing games with kids or digging wells for a few weeks.

Most placements that pay or otherwise compensate volunteers are looking for volunteers with a specialized skill set or knowledge in a certain field, so these kinds of opportunities are often limited to older volunteers with professional experience, rather than students or even recent graduates.

If you’re still working on your degree or just graduated from college, you might be better off looking at other types of volunteering placements or internships abroad to help you build up your resume before you start applying to paid volunteer openings.

Though you're not likely to pay off your student loans or car insurance while you're at it, it is possible to find compensated short and long-term volunteering opportunities abroad.

Because volunteer organizations operate in just about every field imaginable, volunteer opportunities cover a seemingly endless range of areas. However, since paid volunteer placements are more selective and are often connected to international development projects, the highest demand is for volunteers with experience in fields like:

  • Project management and coordination
  • Health
  • Humanitarian affairs and peacekeeping
  • Law enforcement
  • Financial management
  • Legal services
  • Technical and IT
  • Documentation and public relations
  • Engineering
  • Grant writing
  • Fundraising

Where Can You Go?

If you look hard enough and ask enough people, you can find opportunities in just about any country you can think of. Realistically, though, many of the larger volunteer programs and organizations tend to focus most of their attention on developing countries, so there are likely to be more opportunities in regions like Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

Host organizations don’t always require that volunteers have prior language skills (in fact, some organizations even offer options for volunteers to take language classes as part of their compensation package), but if you do speak Spanish, French, or another language, it can help your chances of finding a placement.

If you happen to be familiar with a less common language, you may be uniquely qualified to volunteer in the country or region where that language is spoken, and it might be worth getting in touch directly with local organizations to see if they accept volunteers.

Remember, You're Still a Volunteer

Though you're not likely to pay off your student loans or car insurance while you're at it, it is possible to find compensated short and long-term volunteering opportunities abroad, especially if you're willing to adjust your definition of what counts as payment and if you have a solid skill set and experience that you can bring to the table.

Looking for funding to help make your volunteer abroad plans financially feasible? Check out our list of volunteer scholarships and grants!