Volunteering Abroad Could Help With Starting a New Career

How to switch careers

Whatever your reason or inspiration, you've likely stumbled on this article because you want to start a new career. Just one thing. How exactly can you break into a new industry, especially if you’re looking to switch careers entirely and don’t have that much professional experience in your new area of interest?

Volunteering your professional skills abroad could be just the solution you need to make your career change a lateral jump, rather than a backslide. In this article, we'll discuss:

  • How international volunteer positions could help you switch careers.
  • How to switch careers using by volunteering abroad.

You may not have thought about this as an option for starting a new career, but hear us out. Putting international volunteer experience on your resume -- provided that it's relevant and impactful -- shows potential employers you have a specific, appealing skill set, as well as some of those beloved “intangibles”. Not to mention, a volunteering gig may give you exactly the hands-on experience and network you need to jump ahead in your career.

How Would Volunteer Positions Help Your Career Change?

Volunteering abroad isn't just building houses with Habitat for Humanity or long stints in the Peace Corps -- as the global community becomes more connected, the volunteer positions out there have diversified.

NGOs in developing countries need social media marketers. The world needs architects, data specialists, UX designers, and grant writers. Startups, which have incredible potential to create jobs for locals, need help with business strategy and operations. New “social enterprises” -- for-profit companies with social missions -- might need support with web development, design, or engineering projects. Whatever your expertise, there's a demand.

Experteering volunteer positions allow you to accumulate that "relevant experience in a related field" that you keep seeing on job descriptions, but may not yet have.

Especially if you have professional experience or expertise in a particular field, you could get involved with putting this expertise to use as a volunteer -- a term that MovingWorlds, an organization which places volunteers with highly specialized volunteer positions, has coined as "experteering". But how exactly does this help you make a career change?

Volunteering abroad is a professional experience

If you choose wisely and select a position abroad that is more "experteering" than volunteering, it absolutely has all same qualities as a job. Your role will come with the same responsibilities and expectations as a real job.

Volunteering as professional experience

The only difference is that you won't be getting paid for it (though the receiving organizations are likely to provide you a truly immersive and authentic experience and, more often than not, housing and support).

But it's not the paycheck that always determines the quality of a position -- especially when working in development or developing countries -- or the amount of experience you gained through it. They're still resume-worthy and will catch a future employer's eye.

In short, experteering volunteer positions allow you to accumulate that "relevant experience in a related field" that you keep seeing on job descriptions, but may not yet have.

Though we're all for volunteering for as long as possible, people who have engaged in projects even as short as one week have attributed it as having a positive impact on their career. Deana J., Senior UX Designer at a large tech company experteered for two weeks and said about her time creating a website for a small company abroad:

"It was a good portfolio piece. Rarely do I get to do an entire site from scratch since I work for a large company -- but this was that chance. Additionally, this organization didn't have the same restrictions of tight confidentiality, so the next time I put together a portfolio, it will be the most complete piece where I will be able to tell the whole story, from beginning to end."

It shows you're serious about the transition

Imagine yourself in a hypothetical future interview for a job in this new field, say, doing advocacy work for a local non-profit. Your interviewer, noting that you’ve spent a few years as a teacher, asks how you know you’ll like and excel at this new career. What relevant experience can you contribute?

Volunteer positions abroad are more flexible with their requirements and may be willing to take on a person who has related, but not exact, qualifications.

Without any relevant past experience, it’s pretty hard to come up with a convincing answer. Interest in a field may not be enough on its own.

However, if you can say, “Well, I just spent nine months volunteer teaching for a human rights group in India, during which time I was directly involved in developing curriculum for courses that taught locals about women's rights," you'll make a stronger case.

Volunteering abroad shows that you've not only decided to make the career change, but you've tested the waters and now feel committed.

It's a chance to develop a specific skill set

At the same time, you're trying to make a career change. Although you have years of experience in your current field, you want to transition and test out something else. Fortunately, volunteer positions abroad (and at home) are more flexible with their requirements and may be willing to take on a person who has related, but not exact, qualifications.

For example, say you've worked in B2B marketing for a large corporation, but want to make the leap to small business development. Though you may not qualify for a paid position in business development, you already have a strong transferable skill set (understanding of a particular industry, communication and negotiation skills, data analytics, etc.) for this field.

A volunteer position in small business development would value the skills you bring, while at the same time allowing for you to learn and develop other skills specifically necessary for small business development (revenue models, accounting, legal, etc.) In short, volunteering in your area of interest is going to get your foot in the door at places that can help you acquire and hone the skills you’ll need to succeed in a career in that field.

As Nicole W, a professional who experteered with a startup in Brazil reflects, "It gave me the opportunity to use my business development experience in an international setting, and with new, international partners. Afterwards, the experience was instrumental in helping me attain a new position as a senior leader in a company leading international business development."

Tip: Keep track of the new skills you’re learning and any training you take part in, so you don’t forget to include them in cover letters, resumes and on your LinkedIn profile in the future.

You'll gain valuable transferable skills

Slightly less specific than the previous category, but no less important, transferable skills will show up in your cover letters later on. These aren’t unique to your chosen field, but rather are cross-functional skills that are useful for many different types of jobs in many different areas: communication, organization, leadership, project management, language abilities, etc.

Develop new skills by volunteering abroad

Though they might not appear on the checklist of requirements for a job description, these versatile skills that you pick up while volunteering are attractive to hiring managers across all sectors.

Demonstrating that you not only learned how to administer vaccines, but that you then led a four-person team to introduce vaccines to a dozen clinics throughout your host city, will distinguish you from other applicants and show that you’re a person of many talents.

Tip: While volunteering, think about which of your tasks and responsibilities involve or demonstrate development of these kinds of skills. Specific examples (“My strong leadership qualities allowed me to successfully design and lead four financial planning workshops with 120 participants from local indigenous communities…”) look great on cover letters and show hiring managers that you really know what you’re talking about.

It shows that you're comfortable with new environments

This point is specific to the "abroad" part of volunteering abroad. By taking on a volunteer abroad position, you're demonstrating to future employers that you're totally comfortable in new environments, transition, and adaptation.

By taking on a volunteer abroad position, you're demonstrating to future employers that you're totally comfortable in new environments, transition, and adaptation.

All of this is hugely helpful in making them feel confident in hiring someone who has a background different from what they usually hire, or who's coming from a different professional environment. It also shows that you have a history of taking initiative, delivering results, and operating in resource-strained environments.

How to Get Started on Your New Career Path

Now that you know how volunteering abroad is going to help you switch careers, how do you go about making sure you make the right choice about what you’re going to do? Glad you asked! If you are truly serious about moving into a different field or industry, then the first thing you should do is:

1. Set personal learning goals

If you’re looking to make a career change, you’ve hopefully thought about what you’d like to change to, not just what you’re changing from. Part of this transition involves sitting down and doing an objective analysis of what skills and experience you need in order to be qualified for jobs in your desired field -- and identifying what you might be lacking.

Tip: Setting up an informational interview or networking meeting with someone in the industry before you start your volunteering can be extremely helpful for identifying these weak spots.

2. Choose a project that aligns with your interests and objectives

This is perhaps an obvious one, but start looking for volunteer projects and organizations in the field you're looking to transition into. Better yet, look for ones that would value and make use of your previous professional experiences as well.

how to switch careers by volunteering abroad

You'll have to get creative if you're trying to transition from say, paralegal to journalist, but so long as you're flexible on location, you'll be surprised what sort of opportunities are out there.

Of course, highly specialized positions like this are tricky to locate. They're not on Go Overseas, and word of mouth may not be enough. MovingWorlds, however, leverages connections they've made worldwide to connect professionals with impactful projects abroad, and provides them with training, guides, and resources to help them "create an impact while building skills."

3. Look outside the job description

When looking for projects, remember that you don’t need to focus exclusively on the specific job description or organization.

Volunteers often end up doing a little bit of everything, and an offer to take on extra projects will usually be welcomed, so don’t worry if you don’t see “fundraising” on the volunteer listing. If the organization does it, you can likely find a way to get involved -- and get valuable training in the process.

Volunteers often end up doing a little bit of everything, and an offer to take on extra projects will usually be welcomed, so don’t worry if you don’t see “fundraising” on the volunteer listing. If the organization does it, you can likely find a way to get involved.

If you want to have your hands in a bit of everything, you may want to focus on smaller, local-level organizations or even start-ups – though there’s less stability, getting in at ground level with a small organization means you’re much more likely to take on more responsibility quickly, since everyone is doing a little bit of everything.

3. Creatives: focus on building your portfolio

For people looking to break into creative industries like photography, graphic design, web design and freelance writing, focus on building your portfolio.

While you may not work directly with an organization, but more as a contractor, these positions will help you build your portfolio, give you work to show to potential clients and expand your network, connecting you with professional references and even potentially with paid projects in the future.

4. Don't forget to volunteer responsibly

While you certainly have plenty of motivation for volunteering abroad, it’s vital to remember that this isn’t just about you. You’ve chosen to go overseas and volunteer with this particular organization or project for a reason, which hopefully means you also support and believe in the work they’re doing.

Your presence is supposed to help contribute to that organizational goal, and that should be your number one priority as a volunteer. Ask questions, discuss specific project goals, and make sure you fully understand your project, organization's mission, and the community's goals before getting started.

For a more robust and specific list of what to look for, read MovingWorld's list of factors to consider when finding a responsible volunteer placement abroad.

5. Write it down!

Make sure you keep notes throughout your volunteer project. Set up a tracking template, grab a notebook, and keep track of trainings, projects, and any quantifiable accomplishments you're involved in. Make this a regular (weekly or monthly) effort.

Volunteer responsibly

Tracking progress on your outcomes will help you see what you’ve done as well as what succeeded and what might have been a bad idea, and you can use this information in future projects and even interviews.

You can also do some more informal reflection for your personal progress – what kinds of projects you enjoy, what team roles you feel play to your strengths, what those strengths are, what you still need to learn, etc. Jotting down your thoughts and impressions about what you’ve done well and what you might do differently in the future will help keep you focused on those initial objectives and see how close you’re getting.

6. Add supplemental learnings

Like an actual job, volunteer projects may give you an opportunity to engage in a training specific to the field you're looking to transition into. Make sure to not only take advantage of supplemental learnings or training that could help you develop this skill set, but also document these trainings. Keep track of what the course / training involved, how many hours you spent with the training, and what they specifically covered.

Also, don't discount seemingly "basic" training that comes with most volunteer abroad projects. Even a 10-hour debrief on health and safety precautions in a developing nation is a highly specific education that most people don't receive.

Extra credit: Find a mentor to help guide your learning experience.

This doesn’t have to take the form of a formal mentorship program, although it can if that works out for you. However, you can also identify someone with a career path similar to the one you’d like to pursue and find time to pick their brain for suggestions and insight about succeeding in this field.

Invite them to lunch, set up an informational interview or just find time to chat in communal office spaces -- whatever strategy best fits your personality and their schedule. Finding a mentor also aids in post-volunteer abroad reflection, which helps you instill the things you learn.

Ready to Make the Leap?

Of course, volunteering abroad won’t help everyone looking to switch careers -- you can’t skip med school, volunteer in a clinic in Indonesia for six months, then come home and call yourself a doctor -- but it can be the perfect option for many people.

Think of your time volunteering as a training or internship, not a vacation: this will ensure you get the most out of that you can and don’t waste any of your time. If you’ve never considered volunteering abroad as a key step forward in your career path, it might be time to start broadening your horizons.

Photo Credits: MovingWorlds.
Photo of 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. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.