Volunteer Abroad

2012 Official Volunteer Abroad Trends Report

Katie Boyer
Katie Boyer

Katie is a Bay Area native who studied public relations, journalism, and Spanish at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA.

There is no question that the volunteer abroad industry is constantly growing. With the many options available, we wanted to take a closer look at the most popular countries to volunteer in. Instead of doing a survey, we decided to rank every country in terms of how many people are searching for volunteer opportunities in that location via Google Search. Although this report doesn’t tell us how many volunteers actually participate in volunteer programs in these countries, it gives us an idea of the destinations people are most interested in.

Go Overseas is all about helping potential volunteers make the most educated decisions possible when choosing a program and by understanding where the most interest lies, we can continue to improve the resources we bring to our users.

The #1 searched country

India came in at number one for the most global monthly searches for volunteer opportunities. With more than a billion people living in India and almost 26 million tourists visiting India each year, it’s clear why so many people are searching for volunteer opportunities in India.

While some issues like poverty, education and health care are pressing, India could use support from volunteers in nearly every sector. According to the UN Millennial Campaign to end poverty, “Among the gravest challenges facing India today is its persistently high Infant Mortality Rate (IMR).” There are many chances for volunteers to fight to save mothers and infants alike by working with organizations and NGO’s dedicated to providing health care support in India.

Maybe there are greater factors than the social issues that attract volunteers to India. It could be the leftover relics of history of ancient India, the wildlife, the large and diverse economy, the rich culture, or a number of other attractions in rural areas and cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Top ten searched countries

The top ten most searched countries for volunteer opportunities abroad includes countries in varying locations with a wide range of differences and similarities.

Europe is the only continent not represented in the top 10. This doesn’t come as a surprise since more volunteer work is needed in developing nations in South America, Africa and Asia. For this reason, the United States may seem out of place in the top 10; however there are a few recent events that help shed light on the high demand for volunteering abroad in the United States.

A few possible reasons for the US’s top spot include:

  • The US government’s push to increase tourism.
  • The fact that most volunteer organizations are based in the United States.
  • A modern/new “American Dream” that motivates people to come to the US to volunteer.
  • For many people around the world volunteering in the United States may be more of an exotic adventure than US citizens realize.

**These search result numbers don’t include searches made from within the United States. This was done to make sure that people volunteering locally weren’t didn’t change the results. See the Methodology section for more details.

Common Theme for Volunteering in 2012: Disaster Relief

Another pattern in the top 10 is the trend for disaster relief volunteering. This report makes it clear that natural disasters have a large impact on where volunteers decide to spend their time helping others abroad. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti, one of the deadliest of all time, ignited the spirit of volunteerism worldwide. From sending care packages and money to rescue efforts and building shelters, we saw many forms of volunteering in action. Similarly, the earthquake in Japan in 2011 inspired 930,000 people worldwide to get involved in disaster relief.

This may offer another explanation for the popularity of searches for volunteer opportunities in the United States. Tens of thousands of volunteers came from all over the globe to lend a hand during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and even now New Orleans is still recovering and rebuilding with the help of local and international volunteers.

What does this data tell us?

Based on our insider industry knowledge, we assumed that most people want to volunteer in underdeveloped nations for a few reasons. First, Third World countries seem like the place where volunteers can have the most impact. Second, volunteers from industrialized, Western countries can get away from the hectic, technology-driven lifestyle back home. While there are many worthy volunteer projects at home in the United States and in other Western countries, voluntourists are usually looking for something that offers a bigger change from the norm.

Based on this, our expectations were a little off. Countries that need the most help in terms of development aren’t necessarily at the top of this list. This tells us that many people volunteer for personal reasons as well. Long-term volunteer trips and projects focused on advocacy and policy are probably most effective when it comes to alleviation of poverty. Even so, the little things should never be underestimated. Changing one life or helping one person is more than enough to make a volunteer trip worth it.

Table 1 shows our top results and the countries’ poverty levels. Other countries that have high poverty levels include: Madagascar 81.3%, Niger 43.6%, Zambia 68.5%, Swaziland 40.6%, Nigeria 69%, and many more unfortunately.

Table 1: Poverty Levels of the Top Ten Countries
Search Rank Country Population Below Poverty Level
1. India 32.7%
2. South Africa 13.8%
3. Thailand 0.4%
4. Haiti 61.7%
5. Australia n/a
6. USA n/a
7. Japan n/a
8. Costa Rica 3.1%
9. Kenya 43.4%
10. Nepal 24.8%
*Statistics were collected from the World Bank, some poverty levels are more up to date than others. Poverty level is defined as "percentage of the population living on less than $1.25 a day at 2005 international prices."
Table 3: Most Endangered Mammals
Search Rank Country Endangered Mammal Species
World 3,105
31. Indonesia 184
16. Mexico 100
1. India 94
20. Brazil 81
11. China 75
24. Malaysia 70
51. Madagascar 65
3. Thailand 57
5. Australia 55
13. Peru 54
Table 2: Most Endangered Plants
Search Rank Country Endangered Plant Species
World 10,987
23. Ecuador 1,714
24. Malaysia 674
20. Brazil 389
31. Indonesia 385
106. Cameroon 378
11. China 374
1. India 291
20. Tanzania 290
36. Sri Lanka 282
51. Madagascar 273

These tables show the top ten countries with the highest number of endangered plants and animals. Conservation volunteering is very popular in tropical countries (like environmental research in Australia, and turtle conservation in Ecuador or Costa Rica). African and Asian countries with diverse animal and plant populations are also popular volunteer destinations.

However, these statistics from the World Bank (tables 2 and 3) tell us that volunteers choose their destination based on other factors since only three of the top ten searched countries appear on these lists. Even if volunteers are working with wildlife in countries with a smaller number of endangered species, they are still filling an important need and making a difference. Voluntourism is clearly a mutually beneficial action – volunteers choose the trip and destination based on interest and availability where they can enjoy a new culture and give back, and the host community gets help with various community development needs. As long as this relationship stays beneficial for both parties, voluntourism will continue to grow.

Comparing Countries by Continent

In addition to ranking the countries overall, we wanted to look at how they compared to other countries in the same continent. Smaller, lesser-known countries may draw fewer tourists but what does that mean for volunteers’ interest? Take a look for yourself!

Searches for Volunteering in Africa

South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania are the most popularly searched countries for volunteer opportunities in Africa. South Africa, the second most popularly searched country globally, boasts an especially diverse culture (11 official languages) and the largest economy in Africa. Almost anywhere you go in Africa, you are sure to find an important volunteer project to contribute to, from HIV/AIDS education to wildlife and environmental conservation.

Searches for Volunteering in Asia

Several of the most popular countries in this report are located in Asia, including India, the most popular. Thailand comes in at number three globally, which is no surprise with the growth in tourism to this beautiful country. From the bustling capital of Bangkok to the breathtaking rural areas filled with rich agriculture and ancient temples, volunteers can lend a hand in any way they choose. The wonders of Nepal, including Mount Everest, also bring international and volunteers by the thousands. While the north is extremely mountainous and rugged, attracting the more adventurous of travelers, Southern Nepal is much more urbanized.

Volunteers can find an infinite number of ways to give back to these Asian destinations. Malaysia, for example, comes in at 24 on our list and ranks in the top ten for both endangered plant and mammal species, making it a great place for conservation volunteer work. China is another popular destination, the 11th most searched, that is in need of conservation volunteers for projects like protecting pandas. Foreigners also play an important role in teaching English in Asia as conversational English skills are highly valued in the working world.

Searches for Volunteering in Latin America

Following Haiti, Costa Rica is the second most popularly searched Latin American country. Costa Rica is an example for countries striving for environmental sustainability and conservation. Volunteers can find some amazing outdoor volunteer programs working with the environment and wildlife in this tropical setting. Ecuador and the world-famous Galapagos Islands are also popular places for conservation volunteering.

Not all of Latin America is made up of tropical destinations though. There are many different types of volunteer activities in countries as diverse and large as Brazil and Peru. From supporting the rights of the large indigenous populations to orphanage work, any volunteer work can be helpful.

Searches for Volunteering in Europe

While Europe may not seem like the obvious place for volunteers to give back, there are plenty of opportunities for exciting volunteer projects. The United Kingdom was the most popular place in Europe to volunteer in terms of searches. While the UK may be very popular for volunteers, the results may also be skewed since the UK is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Volunteer opportunities in Ireland, Spain and France are also commonly searched. Popular volunteer activities in Europe include teaching English, working with children, historical restoration projects, and more.

Further Questions

Here are a few statistics to give you an idea of how many people volunteer overseas, where they go, and why.

  • Nearly 1.1 million volunteers served with an organization located overseas in 2007. (PDX Survey).
  • A large number of people who volunteer abroad have also volunteered in their home country (60%), with another 33% interested in volunteering who haven’t yet found the right opportunity.
  • The top overall volunteer travel destinations (in 2009) were Peru (23%) and Brazil (14%). For Americans, the top destinations were Peru (16%) and Costa Rica (15%).
  • 59 million people in the US did volunteer work in 2001/2002.
  • Individuals gave $211.77 billion in 2010, about the same as in 2009. (Giving USA).
  • In 2010, 4,628 UN Volunteers went abroad on a volunteer trip, the most popular regions were North and West Africa. Eighty percent of UN Volunteers come from developing nations. (UN Volunteer statistics worldwide - 2010 Annual Report).

Final Thoughts

Voluntourism, an ever-changing and growing industry, can take place anywhere and involve any type of work, from physical labor to research. Whether you want to go somewhere popular with many volunteering options or somewhere more remote and challenging, there is sure to be numerous ways for volunteers to help. While the search results may not have been exactly what we expected, these rankings tell us a lot about global trends in volunteering abroad. By understanding the how popularity relates to poverty and other factors, we can better understand the implications of voluntourism.

Use Go Overseas to find the perfect volunteering combination of your interests, travel and giving back!