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Five Types of Volunteer Programs and How to Find the Right One

Volunteer teachers in Africa

So you’ve considered your motivations for volunteering abroad and looked at possible alternatives—now it’s time to learn more about the different types of volunteer organizations available to you. As you will soon discover, the wide variety of placements can be overwhelming to someone who is just beginning to consider their options, but it’s important to look at each and decide which one you are most suited for.

Depending on your motivations to volunteer abroad, these categories can help you narrow down your program choices. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, so it may be helpful to list what these could be before making any final decisions.

#1. Short-Term Volunteer Programs

Volunteers provide service to a community on a short-term basis and/or focus on the cultural learning experience. Programs can be for-profit or not-for-profit. These days, short-term/intercultural placements make up the vast majority of volunteer abroad programs.

Voluntrek is a new organization that offers short-term volunteer programs in Mex
  • Offer short-term volunteer positions (from one week to three months).
  • Generally do not require volunteers to have specific educational or professional qualifications.
  • Advantage: Chance to experience a country and work with local people.
  • Disadvantage: May be ‘gap filling’ if there is no long-term plan.

#2. Long-Term Volunteer Programs

The focus of this work is on empowering local people. Programs often involve some kind of skills transfer, and may require volunteers to have specific educational or professional qualifications.

All Hands Volunteers offers longer-term volunteer programs in places like Japan
  • Generally not-for-profit.
  • Require volunteers to have specific educational or professional qualifications.
  • Usually involves the transfer of required skills and knowledge to individuals and groups.
  • Advantage: Volunteers usually work very closely with local people on long-term issues.
  • Disadvantage: Can take a long time to see the results of the program.

#3. Conservation/Environmental Volunteer Programs

These programs are primarily concerned with conservation and environmental work in the field. Organizations have been classified separately from intercultural exchanges, as their emphasis and goals are notably different.

Global Visions International offers numerous conservation projects around the wo
  • Focus on environmental issues relating to a local or global scale.
  • Advantage: Projects are often results-orientated.
  • Disadvantage: May experience tensions between the destruction of environmental resources and the need for economic development.

#4. Recruitment/Placement Programs

This category is used to cover organizations that match volunteers with certain programs, but that are not themselves involved in organizing or running the volunteer program. Such organizations may be for-profit or not-for-profit, and may or may not charge a fee for their services.

IVHQ recruits volunteers to serve on various projects in almost 20 countries
  • Advantage: Can help to find the best theoretical match between your skills and the jobs available.
  • Disadvantage: Do not run programs directly, so may not have strong connections with projects or share their goals.

#5. Relief/Emergency Programs

The focus of this work is on emergency situations, which could arise as a result of conflicts or natural disasters. Projects are usually run on short notice and concentrate on basic needs, such as the provision of food, water, sanitation, medicine, and shelter. Many placements require specific professional and educational qualifications, as will as relevant prior experience.

Relief international provides emergency assistance to vulnerable communities wor
  • Work in disaster areas and help those who need it most.
  • Advantage: The results of your hard-work will be readily visible.
  • Disadvantage: Can be very stressful on a personal level.

Nine Questions to Ask Yourself

As you research and discover programs and organizations that interest you, be sure to also prepare a list of questions to ask each one before you apply. Questions should be designed to ensure that your goals and those of the organizations are aligned. These questions also serve as a warning if a group does not respond appropriately.

1. What are the organization’s main aims and goals?

These usually are set out in the organization’s mission statement, and help provide a quick overview of its ethos. Most groups will provide a mission statement at the bottom of each program listing here on—use this to assist you with getting some idea of what the organization aims to achieve and the methods it uses to do so. Contact the organization to ask any more specific questions that you have, and read their other promotional literature carefully (leaflets, brochures, websites, etc).

2. What selection criteria does the organization have when choosing volunteers?

Does the group require that volunteers have specific educational or professional qualifications, and if so, do you meet these requirements? Do they have other prerequisites such as age limits, religious beliefs, previous work experience, and so on? Many of these questions will be directly answered in the program listing, but be sure to follow up with the organization with any further questions you might have to clarify that you meet all the requirements for the program.

3. What is the involvement of the host community in the project?

It’s very important to establish the level of involvement of the host community in the project. Key questions to consider include:

  • Why has the project been set up?
  • Who requested that it be set up? For example, was the organization approached by the local community and asked for their assistance, or did they identify the need themselves?
  • Who asked that international volunteers be involved in the project?
  • How involved are the people that the project aims to help in making decisions about the aims and objectives of the program?
Volunteering for construction projects

These questions will help you find out whether non-local volunteers are actually required for a project. Occasionally, organizations will use expatriate volunteers as “free labor” despite the availability of local labor that would be better suited for the task at hand. Despite your best intentions, it’s not always in the best interests of the community to have foreigners do the work for them.

4. Is there a job description available?

Ask for a job description that clearly states the amount of work you will undertake, the hours that you will work, who you will work with, and the organization’s expectations for a volunteer in your role. A detailed job description may also help ensure that your work has been properly planned by the organization and that there is a need for your assistance. This of course shouldn’t stop you being flexible while on the job, but is rather a means to ensure that the organization is serious about the work you will be doing.

5. What are the conditions in which volunteers live and work?

Ask questions about accommodation, facilities in the area in which you’ll live, availability of transport, and any major health issues that you might need to consider. Find out whether the organization provides insurance for volunteers, or whether this is something you need to arrange yourself.

6. Can the organization put you in touch with previous volunteers?

Ask whether you can be put in contact with former volunteers who have worked either on the project, in the area, or even just with the organization. These people can provide useful advice on the work you may be involved in, the ethos of the organization, and what they found useful to bring with them when they went overseas.

7. Can the organization give you precise contact details for your chosen program?

Some groups arrange placements and projects, and then fill the vacancies, while others may wait for participants to sign up and then find relevant placements. The former system tends to produce much better projects than the latter.

A good organization with well-run programs should know—and therefore be able to let you know several months before you travel—where you’ll go and what exactly you’ll do. If they cannot or will not give you these details, remember that hastily arranged programs can be disorganized, leaving both volunteers and local hosts with unclear expectations. Ask for specific contact details and then, if possible, contact the placement yourself and see what they expect of you, whether you should bring anything particularly useful, whether there is anything specific you can do to prepare, and most of all, whether they know you are coming.

8. Does the organization provide pre-program training and post-program support for volunteers?

Ask what, if any, training the organization provides volunteers before they begin their work overseas. What topics are covered? Useful areas highlighted by former volunteers include language skills, an introduction to development issues, country and program orientation, anti-racism training, guidelines on living and working in an intercultural environment, and conflict resolution. Learn if the group offers support when you return, such as project evaluations, post-program debriefings, and workshops.

9. Are there costs associated with the volunteer placement and, if so, can you get a breakdown of how they are spent?

Many volunteer placements involve placement fees, whether it is to cover transport costs to the destination country or paying for project upkeep and support. If the organization is not covering all your costs, be sure to get an accurate account of what the total price will be and how your money is spent. For example, how much goes toward overhead and administrative costs? How much goes directly to the host project or community? How much is spent on training for volunteers and in-country staff? Make sure that you are happy with the answers before making a final decision. If you are fundraising in your local community to try and cover costs, it may be important to have these figures to relate to people making donations.

Having a big heart has nothing to do with how big your bank account is. Everyone has something to give.

Barbara Bush

The differences in the types of volunteer organizations can lead to a wide variety of volunteer work to do while abroad. This ranges from projects where no particular skills or qualifications are needed, to performing highly skilled work that requires extensive experience. The type of work that volunteers undertake very much relates to the organisation that arranged their placement.

Below you will find feedback from real volunteers and how they described the work they were involved in while volunteering abroad. We begin with volunteers who did not have any previous experience, but rather there value was seen as interacting with the local community.

We started to make cement bricks with the villagers so that we could build a school for the children of the village. We spent 5 or 6 days a week, most mornings and a little after lunch (if it was not too warm) carrying bricks, cementing and mainly enjoying the happiness it brought to everyone.

Natasja Saad describing her work in Tanzania

I taught English in secondary school and worked with fellow volunteers, teachers, and students to re-build a library, run a work-shop on smokeless stove building and keep the Green Club active (with the GC, we mostly ran environmental awareness days and performed educational dramas with younger members of the community).

Anna Merrill describing her placement in Nepal

Initially I worked mainly in administration, writing reports for the funders, looking after the finances, etc. After a few months I began to organise the nutrition component of the programme, i.e. organizing nutrition clinics and home visits in the various outlying areas.

Áine McDermott describing how her role as a volunteer changed over time

The following accounts are by volunteers who used there education qualifications and previous experience to contribute to projects abroad.

My anchor project has been the Home Vegetable Growing project for villagers. I established a ‘model’ vegetable nursery where local conditions and a wide range of vegetables are tested. The young plants raised are then distributed to members of the project for planting in their own village gardens.

Pete Graham describing his volunteer project in South Africa

I worked for Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative [WRAPA] which is an organisation which provides legal advice or counselling to women who have been victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, etc.

Grace Fuller describing her project in Nigeria

These first-hand accounts illustrate only a small aspect of the different types of volunteer work available. One essential characteristic emphasized by former volunteers is the need to be flexible when undertaking a volunteer placement.

Many volunteers have found that the work they signed up to do can be very different to what they actually undertake when they arrive in the host community. There are a number of reasons for this, including responding to needs as they arise, filling in if there is no-one else available for the job, adapting to changes caused by a lack of resources, or simply because a project’s objectives can change over time.

So now that you’ve learned more on the types of volunteer abroad programs available, as well as what to ask them—it’s time to choose one! Take a look at the many organizations on offering placements worldwide, and find one that fits you!

Andrew Dunkle
After graduating with a lucrative degree in Art History, I decided to throw caution to the wind and teach English abroad in Taiwan. This turned out to...