Whether you're from outside the U.S. and want to experience this vast, diverse nation as a volunteer, or you're an American looking to travel outside your hometown, this guide will help you figure out what sort of volunteer projects you can do based on region.
From volunteering with horses on a ranch in Wyoming, wildlife conservation in the marshes of Florida and the wild mountains of Colorado, or assisting with youth development in the south, there's a project out there to meet any level of experience, interest, or duration requirement.
Unique to the United States are the opportunities to volunteer with specific native American populations -- from the Navajo in the south to a myriad of tribes in the Pacific Northwest.
Excited yet? Then let’s take a look at just a few of the volunteer programs operating throughout the U.S. -- both through this guide and the programs listed below -- and how you can get involved!
Photo Credit: dhilung
Much of the eastern United States is comprised of industrial towns or sprawling urban areas like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, D.C., and Atlanta. But what if we move a little bit further into the less-developed areas of Appalachia, we’ll find a region in great need of improved education, renovations to houses and community buildings, and even upkeep on its famous 2,180-mile-long trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine.
What can you do?
- Appalachia Service Project: Based in Tennessee, volunteers with the Appalachia Service Project assist with construction and renovation programs for underserved and impoverished communities. Trips are catered to adult, college, and youth volunteer groups, and last one weekend to one week at a time.
- Appalachian Trail Conservancy: With programs stretching across the length of the Appalachian Trail, this organization focuses on trail building and environmental conservation. Volunteers work for one week or longer on trail crews, which provide trail relocation and rehabilitation, as well as bridge and shelter construction. Participants must be 18 or older, and no previous trail work experience is necessary.
- Camphill Special School: This Pennsylvania school cares for and educates children, youth, and young adults with developmental disabilities. Residential and non-residential volunteers and interns are welcome to help in the school, assist with gardening and landscaping, take on construction projects, and more.
This area, comprising Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, has needed ongoing construction and recovery work since Hurricane Katrina as well as the 2010 BP oil spill. Volunteers in the Gulf Coast often are called upon to build homes or renovate damaged ones, rehabilitate sick and injured animals, and assist with habitat restoration.
What can you do?
- Common Ground Relief: Based in New Orleans, Common Ground Relief’s volunteers work on such varied projects as construction, disaster response, environmental conservation, and legal and social work. On one project, volunteers can provide advice and assistance to homeowners faced with legal obstacles such as contractor fraud or wrongful home demolition. Short- and long-term projects are available for volunteers of varying skills and expertise.
- Habitat for Humanity: As one of the most widespread volunteer organizations in the world, Habitat’s volunteers work on a global scale—and even within the U.S., projects are hosted from city to city and from state to state. Volunteers construct homes or renovate older or damaged ones—for example, the St. Bernard Project in New Orleans rebuilds homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Programs last one week or longer, and volunteers are accommodated in shared, community housing.
- Gulf Coast Wildlife Rescue: Located in Texas, the Gulf Coast Wildlife Rescue trains volunteers to rehabilitate sick and injured birds, reptiles, and mammals. Volunteers must be at least 18 years old and attend orientation and training in order to handle the animals. Training sessions are held on the fourth Tuesday of each month and are open to the public.
- Florida Wildlife Rehab Center: Located next to the Everglades in Florida, volunteers to rehabilitate mammals and birds. Volunteers are required to dedicate at least six weeks to the program but can stay for as long as 12 weeks.
Midwest & Beyond
An incredibly diverse area for finding volunteer opportunities, the Midwest and western United States (excluding the coast, which we’ll get to next) offer programs in youth development, environmental conservation, disaster response and recovery, and even paleontology.
That’s not to say you can’t find youth development programs in Georgia—because you totally can—but the point is there isn’t necessarily a strong trend to cover volunteerism in the Midwest. If you have an idea in mind for the type of work you’d like to do, you’ll probably find a great program addressing it in this region.
What can you do?
- Samaritan’s Purse: Samaritan’s Purse historically has deployed volunteers throughout the U.S. and abroad to respond to natural disasters, including the tornadoes that devastated Joplin, MO in 2011. Projects often include home repair, construction, and cleanup, and individual and team sign-up forms are available on the organization’s website. Current U.S. response projects are operating in Alabama, Alaska, North Carolina, and North Dakota.
- Wyoming Dinosaur Center: This program allows volunteers to dig for a day, or for recurring volunteers to take on ongoing tasks and have a greater hand in research projects. Volunteers must arrange their own transportation, accommodation, and meals while working with the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.
- Cheyenne River Youth Project: Based in South Dakota, the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s volunteers teach and care for children, and take part in community development projects. Volunteers can expect to help with recreational activities, everyday youth center operations, counseling, fundraising, light construction and gardening, and other projects that keep the Cheyenne River Youth Project successful and sustainable. Programs last six weeks to two years and volunteers are housed in community buildings.
The volunteer work needed here heavily focuses on environmental conservation, trail building, and wildlife research and protection. With sandy beaches to the south and mountains and redwood forests to the north, volunteers can find all types of environmental projects to fit their interests, physical fitness, and skill levels.
Also, if you're specifically interested in volunteering on a ranch, states like Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, and Texas (not all of which are west coast) are good spots to look into.
What can you do?
- Catalina Island Conservancy: Volunteers with the Catalina Island Conservancy work with environmental conservation and research projects, including beach cleanup, trail building, and invasive plant removal at a native plant nursery. Projects are ongoing depending on the volunteer’s availability—though one-week volunteer vacation options also are offered—and accommodations are provided in a cabin or private house.
- Pacific Crest Trail Association: This organization works to maintain and improve the 2,600-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail. Volunteers help with trail maintenance, invasive plant removal, washout repair, and more. Programs are ongoing depending on the volunteer’s availability, though one-week or longer projects also are offered in partnership with other organizations, such as the Student Conservation Association.
- Marine Mammal Center: Based in California, the Marine Mammal Center welcomes volunteers interested in wildlife conservation and research, as well as environmental awareness and education. Volunteers can expect to rehabilitate sick and injured animals, transport animals to and from the project site, and work as docents at the community education center. Programs here are ongoing depending on the volunteer’s availability.
Planning Your Trip
Short-Term & Summer Volunteer Opportunities in the USA
As seen from the different volunteer programs offered across the nation, many programs provide short-term volunteer opportunities in the USA. Although short, a week or two can have a meaningful impact if planned well with a trustworthy organization. The key is to look for volunteer programs that operate ethically and transparently, including accountability for money spent. It's also important to take part in sharing skills you already have and with programs that don't use short-term volunteers for projects that actually need long-term commitments (such as teaching or casework).
Volunteering over the summer, especially for college students in the U.S., is a great option. Although this can also be short-term, it can be a chance to volunteer for several months in between school years to gain new skills, widen your world view, and see another part of the country. The summer is also a good time for international students and U.S. students to volunteer together and take part in cultural exchange.
However, if you want to stay at home but still share your skills, taking part in a virtual volunteer program is another option.
Costs of Volunteering in the United States of America
Volunteering costs in the U.S. vary based on the program provider. Most volunteer projects include training, activities, housing, and even meals. Learn more about where the money goes when you volunteer. Having everything included in the program fee makes it easy for the participant to pay one price so they can focus on doing good work. Volunteer programs in the U.S. tend to run between $2,000 - $3,000 for a few weeks program duration.
In addition to program fees, you'll have to consider other costs associated with volunteering in America such as flights, visas, vaccinations, or medications. These costs will vary depending on whether you're a domestic volunteer or an international volunteer.
Visas for Volunteer Work
Domestic volunteers will generally only need a driver's license or passport to drive or fly to their volunteer project. International visitors from certain countries can volunteer in the U.S.A. with a B-1 or B-2 visa. Usually, the organization you'll be volunteering with will help you get the right visa for your stay. Also, note that it takes about two to four weeks to be approved for your visa, so apply ahead of time.
Health & Safety
While volunteering in the U.S., you'll need some kind of health or travel insurance to cover your medical expenses in case of an emergency. Some volunteer programs include this in your program fee, so make sure to double-check before purchasing your own.
Contributed by Sarah Palmer
Do I need a visa to volunteer in the U.S.A.?
Yes, all international visitors need a visa to enter the U.S. If you are interested in volunteering during your time in America, a B1 or B2 visa should generally cover your reasons for travel.
Can a non-U.S. Citizen volunteer in America?
Yes! If you are a foreign citizen, you can volunteer in the U.S.A as long as you get an appropriate visa.
How do I find a place to volunteer?
If you want to volunteer locally or internationally, determine your skill-set and decide which location you would like to volunteer in. Then, start looking for volunteer opportunities online. For example, you can view Go Overseas listing of almost 50 volunteer programs in the U.S.A., complete with reviews and interviews to help you find the perfect program!
What is the most common form of volunteering?
We've found that there are five types of programs most volunteer experiences fall into: short-term, long-term, conservation, recruitment, and relief/emergency programs.