Back in 2011, when I began to tell friends I would be moving to Colombia to work as a volunteer teacher, I lost track of the number of people that responded with some variation of “Oh, I wish I could do that!”
It's four years later and I can count on one hand the number of friends who have actually ended up moving to another country to volunteer or work, or even do a shorter-term volunteer stint abroad. Despite the expressed interest in volunteering abroad, that enthusiasm never fully translated into action for my friends.
Despite the expressed interest in volunteering abroad, that enthusiasm never fully translated into action for my friends.
But my friends are hardly the only ones that don’t manage to follow through on actually making it out of the country. There are many reasons -- ranging from reasonable to ridiculous -- why people believe that volunteering abroad isn’t an option for them.
However, there’s a way around almost all of them if you’re committed to the idea. Here are a few of the main concerns that hold people back from pursuing their dream of volunteering abroad -- and why they shouldn’t stop you.
I Don’t Have the Money
Let’s get the financial elephant of the way first: volunteering abroad requires going abroad, which requires traveling, which isn’t always cheap. Some places are significantly more expensive than others, but traveling does cost money, especially if you’re going to another continent.
Add to that the fact that many volunteer programs charge a participation fee, you may have to pay for a visa or other paperwork, and you won’t be working for pay while you’re there, and the cost alone can be enough to turn anyone off the idea.
Solution: Volunteer for Free, Fundraise, or Find Scholarships!
There are plenty of creative ways to volunteer abroad for free (or close to it!) and not all programs require a fee.
Just like university, there are also scholarships out there to help you go abroad if you know where to look -- like the twice-annual Go Overseas' volunteer abroad scholarship, for example. Many organizations also encourage volunteers to fundraise to cover the costs of their volunteer program
Whether you do it through Kickstarter, an event, selling homemade brownies at a bake sale or your personal preferred method, this can be a great way of getting your community more involved in your volunteer project and cutting down on costs at the same time.
Want to get even thriftier? Consider closer to home options. Airfare tends to be one of the biggest expenses, and as long as you're flexible about where you go, you could save yourself hundreds on this alone.
I Don’t Have the Time
Whether you’re studying, working full time, taking care of kids or doing some combination of all three and/or world domination, the idea of taking long stretches of time off to go abroad can seem overwhelming and completely out of reach.
You would have to plan way ahead, ask for time off, find a subletter, train your replacement, get someone to take care of the dog, and so on. There are so many responsibilities, both big and small, that you don’t think about until you consider leaving -- and then there are just too many to count, much less actually tackle.
As a volunteer, it's helpful if you have some experience in the field, but nobody's expecting you to be an expert.
You’re better off staying put until a time in your life when you have fewer things tying you down -- which, at this rate, will probably be never.
Solution: Find a Short-Term Program
Just because you don’t have two and a half years to devote to the Peace Corps doesn’t mean you can’t ever volunteer abroad. Sure, there are some (very) long-term programs, but there are plenty of options that are just a few weeks, or even take place over spring break and other conveniently-timed vacation periods.
It may not be a full immersive experience, but volunteering for three weeks, rather than three months, can make the difference between being able to go and staying at home.
I Don’t Speak the Language
How are you supposed to connect with and help people when you can’t even understand what they’re saying?
You’re not going to be much use if you have to rely on a translator or sign language to figure out even the most basic sentences -- plus, you’ll probably be lost half the time and not even be able to ask for directions to get back to where you’re supposed to be volunteering.
You’ll probably spend more time asking people to repeat things than actually doing work. Who wants that?
Solution: Not All Projects Have Language Requirements
Language skills are always a bonus when it comes to doing pretty much anything abroad, but they’re not always a requirement.
Especially if some or all of your responsibilities involve using English (like teaching English or fundraising) or you're volunteering in a mostly English speaking country (Ghana, Kenya, Belize, Jamaica...), foreign language skills aren't necessary.
If you’re going to a country that speaks a less common language (like Swedish in Sweden, or Laotian in Laos), it’s unlikely that your organization expects that you’ve learned it before arriving. Therefore, they'll have structures in place to facilitate hosting English-speaking volunteers.
At the same time, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can pick up words and phrases when you hear them 2,000 times a day. Unless you’re staying for a year or longer, you probably won’t come home fluent, but you’ll almost certainly end up having an easier time communicating than you think. Besides, if all else fails, you’ll get really good at charades!
I’m Not Qualified
You’ve taken a few classes on public health or early education, but that doesn’t mean you’re an expert. Most of the skills on your resume are related to social media and carrying five full dishes at a time, neither of which will serve you particularly well as a volunteer in a farming community in rural Turkey.
No matter how enthusiastic you are, the people in charge would probably be much happier to have someone who has actual experience on a farm, rather than you.
Solution: Find Projects that Make Use of Your Skills
Are you applying to be a volunteer brain surgeon? Then yes, chances are you’re not qualified (and if you are, you should probably be asking for slightly higher compensation). If not, though, remember that you may have more skills -- indirect or otherwise -- than you think, and well run programs will have a training component.
No, you probably won't cure malaria or eradicate illiteracy in two weeks but volunteering abroad isn't always about sweeping change.
Of course it’s helpful if you have some experience in the field, but nobody is expecting you to be an expert. If you do some homework before arriving (teach some practice ESL classes, shadow a youth soccer coach, spend some time with rangers at a nearby national park) and come to the experience open-minded and willing to learn, you’ll make yourself qualified.
Also, you'll be surprised what skills you have that volunteer projects need! Can you use a computer? (You're reading this, so I hope so...) Then you can teach basic computer usage classes. Did you work at a summer camp as a teen? Why not do it again -- abroad? Are you social media savvy? Help an NGO with their online marketing. Or maybe you're just a healthy pair of hands -- then you're qualified to help build trails or protect sea turtles.
Volunteer projects go beyond teaching-conservation-healthcare, and there's a project out there for anyone's skill set!
There are Lots of Volunteer Opportunities Close to Home
Why do you need to go abroad to volunteer? The food bank down the street, the after school program across town, the animal shelter near campus – all of these places would likely love to have a volunteer. You’ll save a lot of money and time and be able to accumulate just as much good karma by volunteering at one of these places as you would at a turtle rescue center in Costa Rica.
Solution: Plan to Keep Volunteering Once You're Home!
This is a really valid point, and something that often gets overlooked when people think about volunteering -- in reality, it doesn’t have to take place far away, or even out of your zip code.
However, there are plenty of important reasons for choosing to go abroad as well: you’ll pick up language skills, learn about another culture and likely challenge your assumptions about The Way Things Are Done, just to name a few.
If you’re trying to broaden your knowledge of a certain field, it can be invaluable to see how things work in other countries and cultures.
You can also think about how to connect volunteering abroad with organizations and projects back at home, rather than seeing it as a standalone experience -- there’s no reason you can’t continue the volunteer work you did abroad once you get back to your home country!
I Won't Be Able to Really Make a Difference
If you’re just going to be helping at a clinic for two or three weeks, are you even having an impact as a volunteer abroad? There have to be more sustainable and effective ways of creating positive change than just popping in to offer your services for a little while before leaving... right?
Solution: Remember the Small Impacts You'll Make
You may not be able to measure your contribution using hard data, but unless you break everything around you, crash a car and get sent home, your presence should have a net positive effect.
Many organizations simply need as many hands on deck as possible, or don’t have the budget to afford the services necessary to improve and expand their work -- which is where you come in.
Sometimes it’s just about adding a pair of hands where before there were none, helping one person improve their quality of life.
You might be able to help people access vital information by translating or using your ultra-handy Googling skills for them, connect a health worker in Senegal with a medical center in Portland, or set up a pen pal exchange between a classroom in Thailand and your friend’s fourth-graders in Tennessee.
No, you probably won’t cure malaria or eradicate illiteracy in two weeks (and if you do, tell us about it!), but it’s not always about creating sweeping change. Sometimes it’s just about adding a pair of hands where before there were none, helping one person improve the quality of life for his or her family, bringing a little income to the community, or inspiring one kid to learn English.
Make Volunteering Abroad a Goal You'll Keep
Going overseas is an ambitious undertaking no matter what, and it can be easy to talk yourself out of doing it. But press on, make volunteering abroad a resolution you'll keep.
While it might seem like there are plenty of excellent reasons to put off volunteering abroad, remember that almost all of these apparent roadblocks have a solution, if you’re willing to put in a bit of effort and do a little creative problem-solving. Aren’t those some of the most important skills for a volunteer to have anyway?