If you have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work -- or maybe even studied something else entirely but have experience in the field—and have a desire to give back in some way and make a difference in someone’s life. Why not do so abroad?
All across the globe, you can find short-term and long-term social work and social services opportunities, from volunteering in an orphanage in Romania to helping at-risk youth in South America. Especially as a skilled and qualified volunteer, these organizations would love to hear from you.
Where to Go
Where there are people, there's a need for social work. Meaning, there are social work volunteer opportunities in just about every corner of the world:
You can work in a community center, participate in community development initiatives, help out gender equality NGOs, volunteer in health clinics, or participate in other beneficial ways in countries like Kenya, Togo, Ghana, Morocco, and South Africa.
Whether you’re in Nepal, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, or another Asian country, there are a variety of different social work volunteer opportunities in community development, healthcare, childcare, and disabled care programs.
Countries like Romania, England, and France have different social work and social services volunteer opportunities such as working in senior living centers and with youth development organizations.
Looking to work with at-risk youth in Canada, volunteer as a translator at a health clinic in Mexico, or help out in an after-school program in the U.S.? You’re in luck: North America has ample opportunities to volunteer abroad.
In countries like Costa Rica and Guatemala, there are several volunteer opportunities in areas like healthcare, education, community development, and gender equality
There are many different volunteer opportunities in countries with histories, landscapes, and cultures as different as Guyana, Uruguay, and Chile. For example, you can volunteer with special needs children, youth groups, work on literacy initiatives, or empower women with small businesses.
Overall, you will find that the majority of social work volunteer opportunities abroad involve some kind of community development. Many volunteer programs focus on collaborating and working with local programs and leaders towards developing and empowering their communities.
Unfortunately, in many countries where you will find opportunities to volunteer abroad, there can be significant disparities in the rights, socioeconomic statuses, and legal opportunities between men and women. That is where many of these volunteer organizations come in: to empower women with education and microfinance.
Some of the countries you may be thinking of volunteering in have underfunded healthcare systems that lack significant resources. Others may have specific initiatives against fighting and preventing diseases like HIV/AIDS. If you are interested in volunteering in a social work capacity in a healthcare setting, there are different options such as translating and healthcare education.
Like community development, the volunteer opportunities for youth development are plentiful and are found in the majority of the countries that have volunteer abroad programs. Common programs involve working in a youth center, a children’s home, or participating in community-based or after-school programs for children of various ages.
Planning Your Trip
Given the wide array of social work volunteer programs abroad, planning your trip can vary significantly by where, when, and how long you are going. Generally, though, there are some key questions and themes to research and pursue when deciding where to go and then planning your trip:
Many volunteer programs offer housing options, but not all do. If it's included, volunteers will typically stay with a host family or in a volunteer dorm. If you're traveling as a family or couple, get in touch with the organization to ask about private accommodation or hotel options.
Also consider the costs of living and other factors: for example, are utilities or food expenses included?
Depending on the country and the length of your volunteer program, you may need to get some kind of visa. A lot of countries will allow for American / Canadian citizens to stay for up to 90 days on a tourist visa, but definitely look this up well before you go. Also find out if the volunteer programs you’re researching provide support with this process or resources.
Some volunteer programs are free, many are not. You may need to pay an application fee, housing fee, or other fee in addition to your travel costs, including your flights to and from your destination.
Obviously, the notion of volunteering can be a noble one. But what are your real goals in doing so? What are the motivations and missions statements of the organizations you’re thinking of volunteering with? What are the results? Volunteering abroad will be a formative and eye-opening experience, but not always easy or necessarily fun all the time. Make sure that the program you choose aligns with your personal ethics and that it is an organization whose ideals you stand for.
Contributed by Michelle Philippon