Volunteering overseas is a wonderful way to travel and discover other cultures while also doing some good in the world. However, it often involves a significant time commitment, which is not always an option. Short-term volunteering -- usually defined by a placement that lasts up to two weeks -- allows people to enjoy the benefits of volunteering overseas without having to interrupt their careers, education, or other important life events.
Despite the brief time frame, a short-term placement can have a great impact on a local community. This kind of placement is perfect for seasonal work in agriculture and conservation and is well-suited to other types of short-term tangible projects. It also allows people who would not otherwise be able to volunteer to do so and helps tourists form a more meaningful and socially conscious connection with the places they visit.
A short-term volunteering placement should be relatively easily accessible -- there is little point in journeying to a remote village in Central Africa if you need to make the trip back within a week or two. Aim for placements in destinations that aren't too far, have good transport networks, or are easily incorporated into a longer trip overseas.
Beyond the beautiful temples and culture, Cambodia still faces widespread poverty and social inequality. A short-term volunteering placement in Cambodia can easily fit into a Southeast Asian trip while offering a deeper insight into this fascinating country than you would get as a tourist.
Opportunities exist in areas such as medicine, farming, wildlife conservation, and construction. However, be generally wary of placements in orphanages, which are common in Cambodia. Short-term work is not ideal in this area as a regular turnover of volunteers doesn’t provide a stable environment for the children and may ultimately do more harm than good.
Costa Rica is one of the best places in the world to volunteer in wildlife conservation due to its astounding biodiversity. Volunteering with the sea turtles, where you can help protect these vulnerable animals during their hatching season, is particularly popular and can easily be done on a short-term basis.
Best of all, the country’s location in Central America and good transport hubs makes is quite accessible for people based in the U.S. and for those traveling around Latin America.
Many people don’t think of developed European countries like Spain when considering volunteering trips, but there is plenty you can do there in a couple of weeks. For instance, Spain has incredible marine conservation projects along its coast as well as sustainable farming projects around the country. Many of these are based either in or close popular destinations such as Valencia, Ibiza, and Madrid.
Spain is a major global tourism hub, meaning it is easy to get to, and a short-term volunteering placement is a great starting point for travel throughout the country and Europe in general.
Short-term volunteering is ideally suited to projects that can be fully delivered in a timeframe of two weeks or less. Look for structured projects that are clear about their timeline and the deliverables of your placement. This will not only give you a tangible sense of achievement from your volunteering but will also ensure that your work has real value for a community.
Though working in marine conservation usually requires years of training, there are many volunteering opportunities available for people with little to no experience who are passionate about preserving oceanic life. Many organizations often need people to count and monitor species such as seabirds and turtles, while large teams of short-term volunteers are always needed for ocean cleanup work.
For those who don’t mind hard manual labor, building homes, schools, or community centers in areas with poor infrastructure can be a great way of helping out in a short space of time. This is a particularly good option if you have some experience in construction work, although novices can also help out in a variety of ways.
Construction projects work well for short-term volunteering since they are measurable and tangible. However, if you opt for a construction placement, make sure the organization has a good track record for delivering durable, sustainable construction projects.
Farming & Agriculture
Every year, thousands of volunteers head out to rural areas around the world to help with planting, harvesting, and other labor-intensive farming processes. These roles are usually with charitable organizations aimed at empowering local communities through farming. In particular, NGOs helping women achieve financial independence through agriculture are becoming increasingly widespread.
These placements are ideal for short-term volunteering as they allow you to provide tangible support to a community that is not mitigated by turnover of volunteers.
Short-term volunteering is usually arranged through a sponsoring organization, meaning most of the planning and administration will be done for you. Your only task is to choose the sponsoring organization that best aligns with your goals, beliefs, and budget.
How to Choose a Short-Term Volunteer Program
Short-term volunteering has come under fire recently, with many declaring it the pinnacle of “voluntourism," which seeks to benefit the volunteer and sponsoring organization rather than the local community. The truth is that while short-term volunteering can be a wonderful way to make a difference, when not practiced correctly it can be detrimental to the people it seeks to help.
Before confirming your place in a program, make sure you are choosing ethically. Look for highly respected sponsoring organizations with great track records and solid accountability around where your money goes and how your work will benefit the community. Ask yourself what skills you bring to the table, and try to find a placement that you are genuinely passionate about.
In particular, think twice about any projects that seem like they should involve long-term relationship building, such as teaching children, social casework, and working in orphanages. The constant shuffling of short-term incoming volunteers can lead to a loss in quality of the work and can be especially traumatic for children.
Health & Safety
Many short-term placements are based in areas that are easily accessible. These areas tend to be closer to urban hubs and as a result require fewer vaccinations and precautions. Easily accessible areas are also likely to be closer to hospitals and emergency services. That said, most of the work in conservation and agriculture will be based in rural areas where the opposite is true.
Certain sponsoring organizations provide more support than others in terms of health and safety, so make sure you are clear on what is being covered by your fees. Depending on the organization, this can include an international emergency response service and full travel and medical insurance for your trip.
Other Need to Know
Short-term volunteering programs are almost exclusively run by sponsoring organizations since few NGOs will bother to directly recruit and train a volunteer for just a few weeks. As a result, you will most likely be paying a sponsoring organization to find, plan, and liaise with your placement. Costs for these types of providers average at around $2,000-$2,500, but will depend on the location, activities, and sponsoring organization.
As a general rule, this fee will cover all aspects of your trip except flights and visa costs. Some organizations will cover any necessary vaccinations or medications, but not all will. Make sure you consider these extra costs when budgeting for your placement.