Volunteer Abroad

Is Volunteering Abroad Right For You? 6 Insights from Past Volunteers

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Go Overseas was started with the simple idea of creating a centralized website to provide the resources required for meaningful travel abroad.

Ryan, TEAN Study in Sydney

Do you want to volunteer abroad in 2019? On the fence about where to go or what to do? These are big decisions that can have a huge impact on your worldview, and you might wonder how to know if volunteering abroad is right for you, or whether you’re choosing a program for the right reasons.

In 2018, we at Go Overseas partnered with a research company called Trek Research to examine the volunteer abroad field. Trek Research prepared a series of questions that would help us better understand what makes volunteering abroad so special, why people do it, and what they care about when choosing to volunteer abroad. We worked with Trek Research to reach out to users here on Go Overseas who had shared a recent review about their volunteer abroad experience.

In this article you’ll learn some of the major takeaways from that survey. It was run in two parts: among volunteer abroad alumni and among the general population. With the help of Trek Research, we looked at the data and came up with conclusions that help us -- and you -- better understand what this volunteering abroad thing is all about, and why it’s so important. Here’s what we found:

  • Studying abroad is a good indicator you will volunteer abroad.
  • People who volunteer at home are likely to volunteer abroad too.
  • Once you volunteer abroad once, you’ll probably want to volunteer abroad again.
  • Most people want to volunteer abroad for months, but only get to volunteer abroad for weeks.
  • People volunteer abroad for three primary reasons: to experience culture, to help others, and for adventure.
  • When people choose to volunteer abroad, they care most about the project or social issue, the location, and the cost.

Read on to learn more about each of these conclusions, plus how you can know if volunteering abroad is the right decision for you. (Spoiler: it probably is!)

Studying abroad is a good indicator you will volunteer abroad.

Caitlin, Volunteer in South Africa with African Impact
Photo credit: Caitlin, Volunteer in South Africa with African Impact Alum

While we’ve always known that meaningful travel has a powerful impact and thought that people who participate in meaningful travel are likely to do it again, now we have proof!

One of the most interesting findings from this survey was the correlation between respondents who had studied abroad and those who volunteered abroad. There was a high number of people who took this survey who reported they had studied abroad before volunteering abroad. We jokingly started calling study abroad a ‘gateway drug’ for volunteering abroad!

What this means is that if you’re a student or graduate who studied abroad, you’ll probably enjoy volunteering abroad too. This is the perfect opportunity to browse volunteer abroad opportunities and start planning your next trip.

People who volunteer at home are likely to volunteer abroad too.

Daniel L., Volunteer Programs Bali
Photo credit: Daniel L., Volunteer Programs Bali Alum

Similar to the relationship between studying abroad and volunteering abroad, this survey found that people who volunteer at home are also likely to volunteer abroad. Volunteering -- whether at home or abroad -- gives us a good feeling, and we like to continue having that feeling.

If you’re currently volunteering at home and on the fence about volunteering abroad, you can interpret this finding as a good indicator that you’ll probably love volunteering abroad too. If you’re not sure if you’ll enjoy volunteering abroad, try finding a volunteer opportunity closer to home first -- if you enjoy that, you’ll have a great time volunteering abroad!

Once you volunteer abroad once, you’ll probably want to volunteer abroad again.

Melissa P., Volunteer India
Photo credit: Melissa P., Volunteer India Alum

As you can tell, we wanted to understand what motivates people to volunteer abroad with this survey. The last main discovery we made from this survey about the characteristics of people who have volunteered abroad is this: once you volunteer abroad the first time, you’re more likely to volunteer abroad again. There was a positive relationship between having volunteered abroad once and having volunteered abroad twice or three times.

While we didn’t look at whether or not people reported their first volunteer abroad experience as positive (or how positive it was on a scale of 1 to 100), we are fairly confident that people volunteer abroad again because it feels worthwhile -- even when not everything goes perfectly. Volunteering abroad is not like other more traditional forms of travel. You might not be staying at a five-star luxury resort and you might be uncomfortable at times. It’s worth it though, to grow personally and give back to a local community. Don’t be surprised if you return home and come right back to Go Overseas to browse volunteer opportunities for your next trip.

Combining these first three takeaways, this means that if you volunteer at home, and have studied and volunteered abroad before, it’s time to book your ticket and volunteer abroad again! (Or, as we joked, once you study abroad as the ‘gateway drug’ for volunteering abroad, you get ‘addicted’ and want to keep volunteering abroad! That’s a good thing though, as it expands your worldview and helps give back to the world too!)

Most people want to volunteer abroad for months, but only get to volunteer abroad for weeks.

Ghada H., Volunteer Programs Bali
Photo credit: Ghada H., Volunteer Programs Bali Alum

In this survey, we asked people how long they want to volunteer abroad, but also how long they actually volunteer abroad. There was a discrepancy: most people wanted to volunteer abroad for 1-2 months, but typically they were only able to volunteer abroad for 1-2 weeks.

We hypothesized that this result might be because most of the respondents in our survey live in the United States -- and the U.S. is notorious for the limited vacation time most people have each year once they start their career. Many people would love to volunteer abroad for longer, but they just don’t have the PTO.

The world would be a great place if people could volunteer abroad for twice as long! One way this can happen is when companies offer employees more time off to volunteer abroad (like Go Overseas and these other companies do). We hope more companies will adopt a more generous time off policy when it comes to volunteering abroad -- most respondents would take advantage of it!

People volunteer abroad for three primary reasons: to experience culture, to help others, and for adventure.

Joseph, Volunteer in South Africa
Photo credit: Joseph, Volunteer in South Africa Alum

Our last two takeaways looked at different issues people consider when choosing to volunteer abroad. This first discovery makes a lot of sense: we asked people to tell us the primary reason they want to volunteer abroad, and the results were as follows:

  1. To experience cultures
  2. To help others
  3. For adventure

While some of these reasons might seem selfish, we know that what makes meaningful travel like volunteering abroad so powerful is that it impacts the traveler and the community they visit.

We also ask this question every time we run a Go Overseas scholarship (like our recent Volunteer Abroad scholarship), and the results were similar: Giving Back and Cultural Immersion were the top two reasons those applicants chose.

If you’re considering studying abroad and wondering if it’s okay to choose a program that gives back but also offers you some personal benefit -- that’s totally okay! Everyone has different reasons for volunteering abroad, but we’re confident it’s a good thing for you and the world, no matter your reasons or which program you choose.

When people choose to volunteer abroad, they care most about the project or social issue, the location, and the cost.

Anna P., Volunteers Peru
Photo credit: Anna P., Volunteers Peru Alum

Our last takeaway is related to how people choose volunteer abroad programs. Here on Go Overseas, we have program listings and work with partners who offer structured volunteer abroad programs, rather than you just turning up in a new country and organizing the volunteer work yourself.

Respondents in our survey said they care most about the project or social issue, followed by the location, and finally they care about the cost of the program. This gave us a warm fuzzy feeling: most people say that the issue (from childcare to construction, animal conservation to reforestation) is the most important thing to them. If you have an issue you’re passionate about and you want to volunteer abroad -- you can probably find a program which aims to improve that issue, and most of the people you volunteer abroad with will care a lot about that issue too.

Location and cost are obviously important too, but neither is the primary factor. We want to volunteer abroad in an unforgettable location, and we can’t break the bank, but at the end of the day it’s the issue that matters most.

Now you have a lot more insight into the what people care about and why they volunteer abroad. The only question left is: are you ready to join them?

Special thanks to Trek Research for choosing us as their research partner for this survey producing the results and charts that helped us make sense of the data. Also thanks to our volunteer abroad partners who helped us survey their alumni and the greater population to draw these conclusions: African impact, Go Eco, GVI, IVHQ, Maximo Nivel, Projects Abroad, Rustic Pathways, and Volunteering Solutions